As fair warning, spoilers may lay ahead!
Private Lives is one of those Pre-Code films that is often neglected and overlooked, which is a shame. It defines so much of what Pre-Codes stand for and it absolutely would never be made, at least not in its entirety, after the Hays Code went into effect.
Based on a Noel Coward play, Irving Thalberg - - the film's producer and husband of Norma Shearer - - thought a movie adaptation would be good for MGM and the lead role would suit nicely for his wife. He sent a camera crew to New York to film the first act of the play (starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence) so that the cast could see the excellent timing needed for laughs.
|Unlucky newlywed #1|
In Private Lives, they played former spouses who find themselves remarried to others and at the same Swiss hotel, with new spouses and on their respective honeymoons. So far, it sounds very much like the plot you'd find in one of the screwball comedies that would become so popular in the mid to late thirties. Private Lives veers, and veers a lot, from the screwball tract though.
|Unlucky newlywed #2|
Secondly, Amanda and Elyot both admit to being physically abusive with the other. Amanda tells her husband Victor that yes, Elyot struck her but she hit him back and broke four gramophone records over his head. Elyot admits to having struck Amanda but rather than apologizing, he simply looks sheepish; he also says that certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.
|First it's love|
|Then it's destruction|
However, TCM being what it is and my stubborn streak being what it is, I gave the film another chance and upon my second viewing (and those thereafter), I found a certain charm to the movie. The chemistry between the two leads truly sells it but looking at it as a comedy, a pre-screwball comedy before there was such a thing, shines a new and improved light on it.
Both Reginald Denny, as Amanda's jilted husband Victor and Una Merkel as Elyot's jilted wife Sibyl are perfectly cast in their parts. Sure, Sibyl's a whiny thing but she's meant to be; the polar opposite of the cool and ready to brawl Amanda, Merkel delivers.
Of course we know from the start that neither Victor and Amanda nor Elyot and Sibyl are right for one another (mainly because Shearer and Montgomery are the stars) but the indicators start at their respective weddings. Sibyl, in her formal church wedding, looks absolutely terrified. Victor, in his less formal wedding at the French justice of the peace, is annoyed that children are making a ruckus, while Amanda laughs it off. In their honeymoon suites, Victor is shocked and embarrassed to find Amanda in her lingerie at the dressing table while Sibyl needs constant kisses and reassurances that Elyot loves her. Both of them bring up their new spouse's former partner ad nauseum. Sibyl even asks Elyot if Amanda is prettier than she and Elyot tells Sibyl that Amanda is! All this is within the first fifteen or so minutes of the movie.
|Awkward . . .|
My favorite scene, however, is when all four newlyweds are sitting around the table in the hotel room Elyot and Amanda have battered, having breakfast. That scene alone, with its comedic timing, is worth watching the picture for.
Private Lives would become the seventh most popular movie in the U.S. in 1931.
Interestingly and yet not surprisingly, Noel Coward disliked this film (as he disliked all Hollywood films adapted from his plays.) Also of interest is that Robert Montgomery claimed that Norma Shearer had one heck of a left hook and knocked him out cold during the fight scene. Don't mess with Norma!
Would I recommend Private Lives to viewers? Absolutely. It's heavier on the fighting than on the romance but you'll not see another Pre-Code like it. Heck, you may not see another film like it.
Warner Archives has Private Lives available; the film shows up on occasion on TCM's rotation.