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The Divorcee (1930) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

ted jerry paul wife

Principal social theme: divorce

MGM. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Robert Montgomery, Conrad Nagel, Florence Eldridge, Helene Millard, Robert Elliott, Mary Doran, Tyler Brooke, Zelda Sears, George Irving, Helen Johnson, Carl Stockdale, Theodore von Eltz. Written by John Meehan, Nick Grinde, and Zelda Sears based on the novel Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott. Cinematography by Norbert Brodine. Edited by Hugh Winn. Produced by Robert Z. Leonard and Irving J. Thalberg (executive). Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. B&W. 83 minutes.


Considered one of the most daring films of the early talkie era, the plot hinges on the concept of complete sexual equality in marriage. A husband, having a brief affair, asks his wife for forgiveness. Later, however, he refuses to forgive her for a similar transgression. The Divorcee is considered a prime example of cinema before the enforcement of the production code, which was basically a form of self-censorship by the film industry. Norma Shearer won the Academy Award as Best Actress for her role in The Divorcee .


The Divorcee opens at a raunchy party in upstate New York with a handful of the social elite. Jerry Bernard (Norma Shearer), informal leader of the group, surprises them by announcing her engagement to newsman Ted Martin (Chester Morris). This deflates Paul (Conrad Nagel), who is in love with Jerry himself. He gets drunk and on the way home to New York City, gets into an automobile accident that disfigures Dorothy (Helen Johnson), a passenger in the car. Remorseful, Paul decides to marry her in a hospital bedside ceremony on the same day Jerry and Ted have their lavish wedding. Several years pass happily for the Martins. On their third anniversary, Ted is called out of town to a meeting in Chicago. Their friends gather to celebrate and take them out to a party. They bring along Janice Meredith (Mary Doran), which upsets Ted. The woman corners him in the kitchen, and we learn that she had a brief affair with Ted a short time earlier. Jerry enters the kitchen to find Janice’s arms around her husband. Before leaving on his trip, Ted admits the affair to his wife. He dismisses it, saying he had been drunk and that it was just an unfortunate incident. After he leaves for Chicago, Jerry becomes depressed, and Ted’s best friend, Don (Robert Montgomery), takes her out to cheer her up. Don flirts with her and Jerry responds. A week later, Ted returns, filled with remorse. He begs Jerry’s forgiveness, saying the affair meant nothing and should be overlooked. They appear on the verge of reconciliation when Jerry admits that she “had balanced their accounts” during his absence. She likewise admitted her fling meant nothing to her. Ted, however, is shocked and demands to know the man’s name. She refuses to betray Don, who warned her not to confess their dalliance to Ted. Jerry feels she should be honest, however, and is outraged when Ted becomes unreasonable and refuses to forgive her. After arguing, they decide to divorce. Angrily, Jerry proclaims that her bedroom door will be open to every man, except for Ted. Apart, they regret the breakup, but both are too stubborn to reconcile. Jerry has a series of affairs, but is serious about none of them. Years pass. Embittered and not wanting to be in the same city with his former wife, Ted loves his job and moves to Paris. Paul, traveling by train, encounters Jerry in the company of Ivan, a continental gigolo. Paul knocks him out when he insults Jerry. Wanting to marry Jerry, Paul decides to dump his wife. The disfigured Dorothy visits Jerry to plead with her so she could save her marriage. Jerry renounces Paul and heads to Paris, hoping to find Ted. She visits various nightclubs on New Year’s Eve, finally locating Ted and “accidentally” bumping into him. Stunned at first, he thinks she is on her honeymoon with Paul, but she says that he is her only real husband. They reconcile just as the New Year begins.


Attitudes have changed greatly since The Divorcee first appeared. Some of the film seems antiquated, displaying the frivolousness of the flapper era, in which everyone is affluent, without any hint of the Great Depression. In spite of this, much of the dialogue between Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) still seem relevant. Jerry is a more modern woman, and at one point Ted says he admires her because she reasons like a man. In the central scene of the film, when Ted returns from his Chicago trip, he is contrite as he seeks his wife’s forgiveness. He presents logical reasons about how a spouse might have an unintended sexual encounter that has no bearing on his love for his wife. It is nothing but a foolish mistake. He did not expect his wife’s reasoning when she admits that she made the same mistake. His male ego is unable to deal with the same situation in reverse. The idea of sexual equality is beyond him. At this point in the film, Jerry expects to have a grand reconciliation, since she actually has reaffirmed her love for Ted, but his mind is on a completely different track, unable to provide the forgiveness he had been seeking moments earlier. To the modern viewer, Ted is obviously in the wrong, but to the audience in 1930, it is Jerry’s actions that are more reprehensible. By the end of the film, Jerry also tends to blame herself; after seeing Dorothy fight for her marriage, she realizes she did not fight for hers. Her tactical retreat leads to the film’s traditional happy ending. The Divorcee is still able to provide ample grounds for discussion.

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