Norma Shearer made “The Divorcee” in 1930, a movie that explores what happens when men and women live by the same rules. Shearer plays Jerry, a rich socialite who falls madly in love with Ted Martin (Chester Morris) and marries him — despite the obvious disappointment of a rival suitor named Don (Conrad Nagel). Three years into the marriage, Jerry discovers that Ted cavorts with a mistress, which pains her so much she sleeps with Don (Robert Montgomery). Ted learns of this and gets his divorce, but a sorrowful Jerry yearns to win him back.
Although the film deals with a scandalous topic, it never gets very specific. We see Shearer dancing, reveling and reclining languorously post-divorce with several men, but she seems unattainable. Ted tries to drink himself into oblivion in Paris, but the film doesn’t dwell on any lascivious behavior on his part. Instead, he becomes a dedicated sourpuss with a prideful feeling of betrayal. Shearer finally decides to marry Don, but comes to her senses when she encounters Don’s jilted wife.
Other pre-code films involving sex and infidelity go further than this one in exploring the seedier side of the wild prohibition years, but The Divorcee concentrates on Jerry’s one sexual mistake — an alcohol fueled night of regret. Shearer won an Oscar for her performance, in competition with herself. She received a nomination in that Oscar contest for “Their Own Desire,” from 1929, which also featured Robert Montgomery.