Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Now Playing: "Private Lives" (1931)

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
Norma was indeed cast and was joined by Robert Montgomery in the lead roles. Shearer and Montgomery had first appeared together in 1929's Their Own Desire. While the film didn't set the world on fire (although it did score Shearer an Academy Award nomination; she lost to herself in The Divorcee), the studio liked the pairing well enough to cast both in The Divorcee and Strangers May Kiss.  Although Montgomery played a supporting role to Shearer in both films, they projected a strong and undeniable chemistry.

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
First and foremost is that both Amanda (Shearer) and Elyot (Montgomery), upon meeting each other at the hotel, exchange a few barbs before realizing the flame is still there.  They go in for a passionate kiss and then elect to run off together, abandoning their new marriages.  They also choose not to inform their new spouses.  And run off they do. Although we do see them sharing a room and bed with others, it's not long before Amanda and Elyot are on their own and shacked up in a room with Elyot saying "You know you adore being made love to," to Amanda.  Racy stuff for the time, especially given that both Amanda are Elyot are married to others.

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 
It's crystal clear that they have a severely dysfunctional and abusive relationship.  Where's a good therapist when you need one?  As expected, they get into it once they are alone together - - Amanda breaks a record over Elyot's head and he slaps her, leading her to scream like mad and throw herself into the sofa and kick her feet. They call each other a "pig," a "bully," a "cad," a "slattern," a "fishwife."  Like I said, after the summer of 1934, you would never see the likes of Private Lives.  Amanda runs off to the bedroom, screaming like a banshee, and Elyot ends up sleeping in a chair.  When morning breaks, we see the damage done to the room - - dawn isn't the only thing that's broken. Romeo and Juliet, these two aren't.

Then it's destruction
My first viewing of Private Lives, I thoroughly disliked the film.  I found both Amanda and Elyot unlikable, a realization that pained me greatly because I adore Shearer and Montgomery.  This is a different role for Shearer; she must have been given a lot of space by director Sidney Franklin because she goes for the scenery like a rabid dog in some scenes. She is normally more subtle and less hammy; if you don't believe me, watch the scene in the hotel room she and Elyot are in, just prior to their fight, when she applies her lipstick.

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.


  1. I greatly enjoyed your post -- Private Lives is one of my favorite and most-watched films. I distinctly remember the first time I saw it - I was addressing invitations for my wedding, and I instantly fell in love with it. Even now, 25 years later, it still makes me laugh. I've read reviews which stated that certain characters were miscast (particularly Sibyl), but I thought they all were perfect. I'm glad you gave this one another try!

    1. Hi Karen,
      I'm glad I gave this film another try as well. I think on my first viewing I was surprised because Amanda was basically out of Shearer's usual wheelhouse but if you view it in context of the time (early 1930s) and as a screwball comedy, it's really a lot of fun. How wonderful to have such a pleasant memory to associate the film with.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for reading and commenting!