Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) have been happily married for three years; the envy of all who know them. However, one night, Jerry discovers that Ted had a one night stand while away on business, with the vampish Janice.
Jerry is distraught at the news, but instead of comforting her, Ted attempts to make light of the fling, insisting that it "didn't mean a thing", and even going so far as to laugh off her reaction. Jerry, it seems, doesn't know her husband at all.
With their marriage on uncertain grounds, Ted leaves on an essential business trip, promising to make it up to her when he returns. Upset and lonely, Jerry goes out with their best friend, Don (Robert Montgomery), and after a few drinks, sleeps with him.
When Ted returns, flowers in hand, Jerry admits her own one night fling, but instead of the score being even, Ted flies into a fit of rage. Apparently, when women enjoy a fling, it's not the same thing.
Seeing no way back, the couple split. Ted finds solace in the bottle, while Jerry loses herself in a different man every night in an endless string of parties.
Difficult to believe for modern audiences, 'The Divorcee' was ground-breaking cinema. Here was sex, openly discussed and practiced, and even used as a weapon.
Also difficult to believe is that Norma Shearer wasn't the first choice for the role. It had originally been planned as a vehicle for Joan Crawford, and while it certainly would've suited her, it wouldn't really have been anything new for her. Shearer was primarily known for her prim, ladylike roles at MGM, but seeing the depth that the role of Jerry had to offer, petitioned her husband, producer Irving G. Thalberg for the part.
He wasn't convinced, however, bluntly stating that she didn't have a sexy screen presence (brave man), but when Shearer returned with a set of specially commissioned neglige shots she'd had taken of herself, he signed her on the spot.
She's a revelation in the role, a beautifully nuanced, and at times understated performance that explodes in the second half. Yes, Joan Crawford could've played the sexually-liberated Jerry in the film's second half, but would she have been able to nail the homely, wide-eyed innocent wife type in the film's first section? Maybe...
Shearer's turn is a magnificent mark on cinema. Witness her pain in the scene following her discovery of Ted'a affair, an exquisitely underplayed scene in which she changes for dinner, applying make-up while shooting Ted long, hurt glances. She's simply breathtaking. It's no wonder she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role.
Indeed, the plot on paper is a little hokey, but its execution is flawless. A married couple turn from bright young things into tarnished pennies, a story convention as old as the hills, and yet with such skill on show, it feels devastatingly contemporary.