The Divorcee (1930). 84 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring Norma Shearer (as Jerry Martin), Chester Morris (as Ted Martin), Conrad Nagel (as Paul), Robert Montgomery (as Don), Helen Johnson (as Dorothy), Florence Eldridge (as Helen Baldwin), Helene Millard (as Mary), Robert Elliott (as Bill Baldwin), Mary Doran (as Janice Meredith), Tyler Brooke (as Hank), and George Irving (as Dr. Bernard).
The Divorcee is a pre-Code drama that explores betrayal, revenge, and sexual double standards. In particular, it focuses on one woman’s efforts to overturn those standards in an attempt to wound her cheating ex-husband. The movie shows us a fair amount of wild living and is rather frank about its characters’ sex lives while they are single, married, and divorced, making it one of the most provocative of the pre-Code films. Nevertheless, it takes pains to demonstrate how unsatisfying the protagonist’s quest to hurt her ex is. The overall effect is that while the movie allows its female protagonist to pursue divorce, embrace promiscuity, and embark on a flagrant quest for sex-tinged vengeance, it nevertheless has a significant moral center that makes its ending seem weirdly like one of the more ethical and wholesome movies of the pre-Code period.
The movie begins with the main characters on holiday in the country. Ted proposes to Jerry, which upsets Paul, who loves her. Paul proceeds to become drunk, and when driving home, he wrecks his car, physically scarring his friend Dorothy for life. As Ted marries Jerry in a big church ceremony, Paul takes pity on Dorothy as she recovers from the accident and marries her in her hospital room. We fast-forward three years to Ted and Jerry’s anniversary party, when Jerry learns that Ted has had an affair with their guest Janice. Later that night while Ted is away on business, Jerry sleeps with their friend Don. When Ted returns home, Jerry tells him that she has had an affair but does not name her lover. She proceeds to divorce Ted.
Ted begins to drink heavily. Jerry becomes a party girl and is wined and dined by wealthy Europeans who lavish her with drinks and gifts. On a train trip she encounters Paul who confesses that he still loves her, and she acknowledges that she is miserable. The two embark on an affair, and Paul says that he will persuade Dorothy to divorce him, but Dorothy is too attached to him, and Jerry ends her relationship with Paul. She tracks down Ted in Paris on New Year’s Eve and asks him to rekindle their relationship. He happily embraces her as the clock tolls midnight.
A common theme that runs throughout The Divorcee is the idea of the meaningless sexual encounter. The men in this movie insist to Jerry that their romantic relationships do not mean anything when they become inconvenient or unadvantageous. In the case of Ted’s affair with Janice, this seems to be a case of his avoiding responsibility for what is, to Jerry, an intensely hurtful act. How misguided and insensitive his insistence on the meaninglessness of his affair is becomes clear when he learns of Jerry’s affair, which ironically angers and humiliates him; we hear him expatiate on the shame that he will experience among other men as a result of it. For Ted, both his subjective experience and the wider male community that he is a part of should be the determiners of which relationships carry import and which do not, a claim that he makes implicitly and that deeply undermines any sense that Jerry and Ted are equal partners. They thus remind me of the characters Mary and Steven in a later movie also starring Norma Shearer, The Women (1939), who similarly divorce due to infidelity. In The Divorcee as in The Women, it soon becomes apparent that although the married female is initially under the impression that she is one half of an equal partnership, that equality is an illusion.
Paul also insists that his relationship to his wife is meaningless when it gets in the way of his marrying Jerry. But whereas Ted’s insistence that his affair is insignificant seems like a predictably caddish thing for someone to do who has just been caught having an affair, Paul’s attempt to convince Jerry that extracting himself from his marriage to his disfigured wife Dorothy is the right and easy solution to their love seems excessively callous. This becomes especially true when we learn from a veiled Dorothy in a pathetic scene that the marriage is in fact remarkably significant to her. We cannot even look at Dorothy directly because her face is concealed from us behind the veil, and yet her emotional urgency and desperation are palpable in her quavering voice and modest pleas. When we hear Paul trying to insist to Dorothy in front of Jerry that really their married relationship is irrelevant and they both know it, when it is clear that Dorothy feels differently, the effect is chilling. Although Paul is tender and sweet to Jerry, his care for her comes to seem especially creepy given his desire to abandon his vulnerable wife, whom he is responsible for disabling, and in the end he emerges as the most reprehensible character in the film.
All three leads suffer romantically, smother their emotions, and act out destructively. When Jerry announces to Ted that she has slept with someone else, she merely says that the accounts have been balanced. This implies that Mary is seeking to establish a momentary equilibrium in their relationship. But for the most part, equilibrium, balance, and measured living is something that all three characters avoid. This is a movie about people who try to sublimate their sorrows through excess. All of the characters drink constantly: Jerry uses cocktails to lubricate her post-divorce encounters, and alcohol leads to her extra-marital affair; Paul copes with his divorce through drinking and is shown hung over; and Ted drinks and drives with near-criminal consequences.
Jerry, of course, experiences a sexual version of excess as well. She has a string of meaningless relationships with wealthy men who spoil her with flashy gifts. The fact that most of Jerry’s relationships are figured through a sequence where we see only hands—Jerry’s hand being grasped by a man’s hand accompanied by a European voice, a gift of a ring exchanged from one hand to the other, and a cocktail nearby—depersonalizes her activity and renders the many men in her life faceless, nameless personas. The effect is both to underscore how many people she is with, as if there is no time to go into detail about most of them, and also to emphasize how little she is truly connecting with them. While both Ted and Paul claim to have meaningless sexual relationships, it is as if Jerry has challenged their rhetoric by truly embracing meaningless sex, which the movie reinforces by anonymizing her lovers.
But as Jerry moves from faceless man to faceless man, the bandaged and later veiled face of Dorothy emerges as a meaningful counterpoint. Dorothy hardly appears in the film after the accident sequence early on, but we are aware that she exists on the fringes of the story, off camera, for most of it. She is like a specter, reminding the audience of the consequences of excessive living, of not dealing with emotions head on. The Divorcee draws attention to her face beginning at the scene of the car accident early in the movie. At the site of the wreck, we see the back of Dorothy’s head and can only detect a large smear of blood running down the side of her cheek, but her sister sees more, is horrified, and screams. From there, Dorothy’s face will remain elusive and enigmatic. Later we see Dorothy wrapped up in bandages in the hospital and subsequently concealed behind a veil; we never see her face unobscured again. But in a movie in which characters battle over what is meaningful and not meaningful, it is significant that Dorothy’s unviewable face, existing in the movie amongst all of the many unviewable faces that Jerry interacts with during her sexual campaign, comes to hold the most meaning. It suggests that the characters’ actions have an effect on those around them that is serious and profound.
Some aspects of the film might not endear it to modern viewers. Danny Reid at Pre-Code.com points out that The Divorcee, as an early talkie, struggles to use its technology clearly and forcefully at times. The volume of the dialogue is not always sufficiently loud, and there is often competing noise from the background, especially in club scenes and particularly during the New Year’s Eve parties. The sound technology is admittedly limited, but it is worth putting up with for the movie’s other transforming qualities, primarily its cutting-edge depiction of sexual mores. A modern audience will likely be amused by the pains The Divorcee takes to show us Jerry enjoying sex, whether she is single or married. And although Jerry ultimately feels the weight of what is basically the revenge sex she initiates after she is separated from Ted, the movie shows us that she for the most part takes pleasure in being wooed. That is to say, although the movie allows that there are consequences to her actions, those consequences are not of the sort that would manifest themselves under the Production Code era: Jerry is not obviously punished for enjoying sex, either while married or while dating, and we do not get the sense that she is burdened with deep regret for having been with so many men. Rather, she reveals that she hurts because of what has happened to her in her relationship with Ted, a relationship that she cannot live down.
Although the ending with its reconciliation of Ted and Jerry is not ideal—as Ted, although still in love with Jerry, does not seem to deserve her—nevertheless it offers us hope that as the characters have attempted to live it up and destroy themselves in an effort to suppress their feelings, they may finally have come to a point where they can begin to be more honest about what they want and need. The fact that the film relies on the reestablishment of their original relationship to accomplish this feels fundamentally conservative, with the result being that while The Divorcee has to be one of the most sexually progressive films of its time, it nevertheless finds an antique way to resolve its plot. In this regard, it both is simultaneously one of the most impressive statements of pre-Code mores and a roundabout anticipation of the Code-era ethics to come.