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Movie Review - The Divorcee (1930 - United States)

Updated on March 11, 2012

The Divorcee is perhaps the most often-cited pre-code film whenever the discussion turns to the types of plots, character attitudes and points of view that disappeared from American film for decades after the Hayes code began being enforced in earnest in 1934.

In this film, released in 1930, we watch as Norma Shearer visibly struggles with her role, and we are reminded that that isn’t because she wasn’t a talented actress (she was), but instead because the kind of woman she plays was something utterly new — she's making her character, Jerry, up as she goes, with very little history to fall back upon.

Here's a great deal about Norma Shearer:

“Groundbreaking” doesn’t even begin to cover how innovative a concept it was, in 1930, that a woman could be divorced (the ex was a cad; she dumps him) and fiercely happy about it. And yet in spite of the fact that The Divorcee is considered a pioneering movie, the best part of the film is a four shot silent montage in its center, a loving look back over the shoulder at the visual language of silent era pictures, and perhaps the last time actors and film makers who worked during that period would smile and nod at the wonder of silence. Watch closely as Robert Montgomery invents modern film acting during his turn on center stage. He goes from the over-the-top pantomime of silent era acting to the more subtle nuances of the modern era, all within the space of a few minutes. It’s a marvelous bit, and possibly the actor’s best work ever on camera.

The ode-to-silence-scene is made even more poignant due to the limitations of sound recording when this movie was made – and it is one of the earliest American talkies. Shearer regrettably sounds horribly shrill throughout and — again – this is no fault of the actress, it’s due to the poor quality of early sound recording technique, all of which, from microphone to theatre playback, was being invented on the fly, just like Shearer’s independent female: invented by her on film, and at the same instant being invented by real women all over the world.

Norma Shearer in 1932

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Well, the code put a stop to that, as it did — a for decades – to the possibility of a love triangle ending up, as the one in The Divorcee does, in a contented ménage a trios.

Highly recommended and in fact a must-see for any film buff.

Copyright © Roberta Lee 2012. All rights reserved.

(I am an artist and the author of the Suburban Sprawl series of novels as well as two nonfiction books. Find out more about my work at

Genre: Drama, Classics

Rated: Unrated

Running Time: 1 hr. 23 min.

In Theaters: Apr 19, 1930

Directed By: Clarence Brown , Robert Z. Leonard

Written By: Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, John Meehan


Norma Shearer - Jerry Martin

Chester Morris - Theodore 'Ted' Martin

Conrad Nagel - Paul

Robert Montgomery - Don

Florence Eldridge - Helen Baldwin

Helene Millard - Mary, Dot's sister

Robert Elliott - Bill Baldwin

Mary Doran - Janice Meredith


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    • DIYmyOmy profile image

      DIYmyOmy 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      I'm considering writing an article about pre-code Hollywood; is that a subject you find interesting?