(Contains spoilers) Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton are a married couple from the small town of Zenith somewhere in the Midwest. He has a big car manufacturing company. They each have a lot of money. He retires, and she wants to see the world. He doesn’t, but he is used to catering to her. They leave on the Queen Mary and already the trouble begins. David Niven begins making love to her (back when that meant courting her). Later she acquires an Italian swain, and after that a young German baron. She gets so caught up in her mad social swirl that she can’t even be bothered to return to Zenith to see her newborn grandson. That would make her feel … old, you see. Walter puts up with it for a long time, but eventually she tells him she wants a divorce and she intends to marry ze Nazi. Okay, he’s not really a Nazi, but he has a mother, ze Baroness, who could give Hitler a run for his money when it comes to implacable hostility. She vill not allow her lieber junge to marry a voman zo old, because she cannot give him kinder. She is crushed, and tries to weasel her way back into Walter’s affections, just as he has found a woman he loves, Mary Astor. He almost goes back to Ruth, but comes to his senses at the last moment.
From our perspective it doesn’t really seem like much, other than that it is very well written and acted. It was nominated for Best Picture. However, you have to remember the horrible Hayes Code to appreciate what a breakthrough it was. This was the first movie—the very first one!—to come out of Hollywood where a man divorces his wife and does not suffer any bad consequences. Back then, any illegal, immoral, or just plain distasteful behavior had to be punished somehow in the last reel. Before this, he would either have had to come back to her, awful as she was, to show his tragic longsuffering loyalty, or left her and be hit by a train in the last scene. It was a small step—they still always slept in separate beds, as all married screen couples did back then—but it was a step in the right direction.