Shearer is Jerry, a carefree young woman in the New York upper-crust. All the young eligible bachelors in New York society want her, including Ted (Morris), Paul (Nagel), and Don (Montgomery). The film opens with Ted having already won the competition for Jerry's heart, much to the disappointment of the other men, but to the pleasure of Dorothy, another pretty young rich girl who has her eyes set on Paul. Paul is so upset when Jerry and Ted announce their engagement that he goes off driving drunk, surviving the crash but causing Dorothy, one of his passengers, to suffer ghastly disfiguring scars. Jerry and Ted get married in a lavish ceremony while Paul and Dorothy get married in a much grimmer one.
Three years pass as Jerry and Ted enjoy a happy married life. Their happiness comes to a sudden halt when Jerry finds out that Ted cheated on her. It was a drunken one-night-stand but Jerry can't take it. She goes out and has a one-night stand of her own with Don, then tells Ted, who flies into a rage and declares their marriage over. A vengeful Jerry then tells Ted that she's going to fill her new single life by having sex with every man in the world except for him.
The Divorcee is an example from The Pre-Code Era of how adultery, and especially female sexuality, could be examined far more frankly than was possible in the years after the imposition of The Hays Code. It won Shearer an Academy Award for Best Actress.
- Chick Flick: Let's watch a movie with a female protagonist that has to deal with a stable of handsome male admirers! One where she cries a lot! (In the studio era, many more films were made centered around women, as the studios had to find roles for the actresses they had under contract.)
- Driving a Desk: Done unusually badly even for the standards of the era, in the scene where Paul is driving drunk and the background behind him teeters 45 degrees in each direction.
- Ethical Slut: Jerry's attitude towards sex, after having saved herself for Ted, only for their marriage to break up. She likes sex, she wants some, and she's going to get a lot.
- Have a Gay Old Time: "I'd like to make love to you 'til you scream for help."
- Hypocrite: Ted begs Jerry's forgiveness over his adultery, then flips his lid and storms out after finding out about hers. Of course, hers was premeditated.
- Love Dodecahedron: There's Jerry, the three men who all carry a torch for her, the woman that Ted sleeps with, and the woman that Paul marries.
- Match Cut: From Jerry and Ted's clasped hands at their lovely wedding ceremony to Paul and Dorothy's at their sad hospital bedside wedding.
- Montage: A sequence that consists of nothing but Jerry's bejeweled hand clasping the hands of various male lovers, to demonstrate how much sex she's having.
- My Girl Is Not a Slut: Ted feels very strongly about this, which enrages Jerry.Jerry: Loose women—great, but not in the home, eh Ted?
- New Year Has Come: Ted stalks out of a New Year's party after seeing Jerry with another man. The ending is another New Year's party, in which Jerry and Ted meet in Paris, getting back together as the balloons drop at midnight.
- Raging Stiffie: The camera shows a tight closeup of hands and arms that makes clear Jerry's lover is embracing her from behind. He says something to her in French, and she parries with "I don't understand French, but I know the symptoms of high blood pressure in any language."
- Sexy Discretion Shot: Don and Jerry are canoodling on the way home. There's a shot of a window, with a light going out. Then a shot of Jerry walking out the front door in last night's clothes, with an open window and a paper in front of the door to make the audience understand it's morning.
- Shout-Out: A drunk, bitter Ted quotes "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll."'I weep for you,' the Walrus cries, 'I deeply sympathize.'"
- Tempting Fate: "Ted and I are going to be married and stay married, aren't we, darling?"
- Tomboyish Name: "Jerry." One might suppose that it's short for Geraldine but the film never actually says so. Thematically appropriate in this instance, since Jerry isn't a traditional 1930s wife (she has a job, although we never find out what it is), and because of her liberated attitude towards sex.