Fresh from the tails of the 1930’s Hays code which regulated just about everything in Classic Hollywood, came movies with spunk, wit and lots and lots of humorous divorces. These films were nothing like the divorce films prior to the Hays code regulations. The Divorcee with Norma Shearer is a prime example of how divorces were handled prior The Women, The Gay Divorcee, The Awful Truth and many other ‘happy’ and empowering post Hays divorce films.
The Divorcee offers a straightforward look at infidelity and obligation. Shearer’s ‘Jerry’ and Chester Morris’ ‘Ted’, being in love, get married. Of even temperment and marital obligation their bond is stronger than some. When Ted is caught cheating on her, Jerry backlashes and in turn cheats on him.
Here we see a time when it was absolutely okay to cheat if you are the husband, but not if you are the wife. Divorce happens. Shearer pulls off Jerry beautifully, as a woman scorned,
with more sadness than guilt. She doesn’t feel guilty for her actions, just as Ted doesn’t feel guilty for his. In fact Jerry takes it to the next level and happily bounces from man to man, trying to fill the lost piece of her heart she had when she was with Ted. Ted respectfully sinks into alcoholism. Jerry, while taking in her partying ways, runs into an old friend who had always been in love with her, but who married someone else out of pity. When ‘Paul’ Conrad Nagel offers to divorce his wife for Jerry, she begins to see a little clearer the impact that others make on a persons life, for good or bad. She’s made all the wrong choices, and is stuck with a reputation now. But she can’t stop loving Ted. And when she runs into Ted at a New Years Eve Party, Jerry faces her demons in herself and in Ted, and decisions must be made about what you are and are not willing to sacrifice for real love.
Its easy to see in this film how human emotion takes a life of its own. And there are always clearer lines to be drawn in abusive relationships, but when it comes to infidelity and a lack of trust that line becomes blurred. When both parties are regretful about what they’ve done there’s usually something more to be found there. This, as mentioned, is Pre-Hays code stuff, banned for a reason. It doesn’t make light of divorce or infidelity or promiscuity. But its an excellent film, and in honor of february and all that love floating around, we salute divorce films who sometimes tell it like it reallly is, and the ones that are sometimes just fluff.