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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At the time PRIVATE LIVES was performed on stage, Norma Shearer was at
the top of her game and able to get the best of the picks MGM had to
offer her. So when the offer came for her to star in it, I can see her
jumping at the chance to tackle a role which was as white-hot as, for
example, Julia Roberts would do today with her meaty role in CLOSER, a
film also based on an acclaimed stage play that while markedly
different in style and pacing, bares a distant resemblance to this, its
much more prim predecessor.
Two couples marry, and chance has it that they stay at a lodge in adjoining rooms. The neat little twist is that two of the spouses were married before and still find that they have a lot in common. Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery play these ex-spouses Elyot and Amanda and their scenes together which are plenty lengthy and filled with rapid-fire dialog which at times overlaps or is spoken simultaneously just burns with cracking wit and comic timing. However, neither of the two stars let the dialog rule the scenes, their physicality and approach to their roles flows with Noel Coward's words, which as always with talky scripts, is tricky stuff to pull off. I also liked watching Reginald Denny's take on Victor Paynne -- what an annoying man, and what an even more annoying Sibyl, played well by Una Merkel. It's no wonder the latter two are meant for each other; they're essentially also the same.
PRIVATE LIVES may seem too stiff for today's tastes mainly due to its stars Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery who retired in the 40s, and in 1931, both actors still had much of the mannerisms from the 20s too present in their performing: posing, over speaking their lines at times, over-emoting; it's all there, but it doesn't ever bog down the viewing. Completely dated, there is no way it could be filmed today: its plot device is by today's standards implausible and values would change these characters fantastically. Hence why I see shades of it in CLOSER, a film which has an alternating foursome at its center tackling much more explicit material and in a restrained drama instead of a comedy of manners. A little creaky here and there but enjoyable all the way.
British wit Noel Coward (1899-1973) is best remembered for his wickedly
funny comedies. Many, myself included, consider PRIVATE LIVES his
single finest work. Opening in 1930 London co-starring Coward and the
legendary Gertrude Lawrence, the play not only received tremendous
critical acclaim, it also ran more than one hundred
performances--something largely unheard of at the time. Moving quickly,
MGM snapped up the film rights long before the original run ended and
released a film version in 1931.
In the "Pre-Code" era censorship was not a significant issue, and the story follows the original stage play to the letter. After divorcing each other, Elyot and Amanda find themselves honeymooning with new spouses in adjoining hotel suites--and suddenly dessert their new spouses to resume their torrid love. Unfortunately, they both remain as eccentrically combative as ever, and it isn't long before the fur begins to fly.
The great failure of the film, however, is in the dialogue. As noted, censorship was not really an issue--but MGM advisers felt the script was too British for the American market and fiddled with the lines to make them "less English" in tone. But where a Noel Coward play is concerned, it isn't so much what you say as exactly how you say it, and in altering bits of wording the screenwriters significantly blunted the razor-like quality that made the original such a great success.
Even so, the 1931 film version of PRIVATE LIVES does a credible job of capturing the Noel Coward theatrical fire in a bottle, and the thing that makes the film work is Norma Shearer. One of the few silent stars to make a full transition to sound stardom, Shearer was among the most critically acclaimed and popular stars of her era. Although most widely acclaimed as a dramatic actress, modern viewers usually find her dramatic performances highly mannered--but what now seems mannered in drama works very, very well in comedy, and PRIVATE LIVES may be her single most accessible film for modern audiences. She is excellent throughout.
The remaining cast is a mixed bag. Robert Montgomery has the look but is essentially miscast as Elyot; still, he acquits himself well by avoiding the obvious missteps, and when he and Shearer click the whole thing goes off with a bang. Reginald Denny is quite expert as the stuffy Victor, and while Una Merkle seems as miscast as Robert Young she too renders a solid performance. Like most MGM films of the 1930s, the production values are top of the line from start to finish, slick, glossy, and attractive, and director Sidney Franklin (noted for his skill with actresses) keeps the film moving at a smart pace.
PRIVATE LIVES has had numerous revivals on stage with stars that range from Tallulah Bankhead to a memorable teaming of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and it remains a staple of world theatre; perhaps in the future there will be yet another film version that bests this one. But even so, this 1931 film will more than do until that wished-for-one comes along. Presently available to the home market via VHS only. Recommended.
Gary F. Taylor, GFT, Amazon Reviewer
In MGM's rendering or Noel Coward's classic "comedy of bad manners,"
PRIVATE LIVES, about a couple who can't live without each other but
can't live WITH each other either, the best of Coward's famous lines
are preserved by a generally superior cast and the film is close to
brilliant for it.
It's our loss however, that Noel Coward didn't have the clout or the concern that Bernard Shaw had in the 30's to demand that he himself provide his own screenplays when his stage plays were translated to the screen. When Hans Kraly, Richard Shayer and (the uncredited) Claudine West insist on earning their "scenario by" credit, the leaden insertions stick out like proverbial sore thumbs.
Only the charming, brief coda on a train added to the film after the play script ends is a satisfying addition, but it is a nice way to finish a delightful 84 minutes.
SOME of the ham handed alterations are not the fault of the Screenwriter's Guild contract or the Studio's concern that the film "not be TOO British." The time wasting substitution of a hiker's hostel (and, later, a private chalet) in the alps and a German speaking guide (played with a twinkle but no actual laughs by Jean Hersholt) for Coward's borrowed Paris flat and hilarious French speaking maid was clearly a bid for the then thriving pre-war German film market. It doesn't seriously hurt the film, but it doesn't help it an iota either.
Top billed Norma Shearer is quite fine as Amanda (Chase) Prynne who runs away from her honeymoon with Victor with her first husband, Elyot. She even sounds remarkably like the original stage Gertrude Lawrence, when she sings. Reginald Denny is everything one could wish in the role of the dimly proper Victor Prynne that gave Laurence Olivier his start on the stage, and Una Merkel is equally fine as the air headed Sybil Chase (famously asked not to "quibble"), the new wife abandoned by Robert Montgomery's Elyot Chase.
If there is a weakness in the film's acting, it is in the merely solid performance from Robert Montgomery - playing totally American and closer to Robert Young than Noel Coward (who wrote the part for himself and originated it in the London and Broadway stages). Nevertheless, to date, PRIVATE LIVES has been on Broadway at least seven times, and with the exception of Coward's original and Brian Bedford's dazzling work opposite the Tony winning Tammy Grimes in David Merrick's 1969-70 production, Montgomery may be the best of the major Elyots. The role's insecure flippancy makes it a close to impossible one to pull off as well as it is written, and Montgomery comes very close indeed.
Coward's other immortal comedy, BLITHE SPIRIT, which kept audiences on both sides of the Atlantic laughing through most of World War II, was filmed in England (and in color) just after the war, with a cast and script even closer to the spirit of the original, but the cinematic style has not aged nearly as well as this generally excellent PRIVATE LIVES. Still, BOTH of them should be near the top of the "must see" list for any lover of classic literate comedy.
I happen to adore this movie; it's my favorite classic comedy. Surely Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence did a better job than Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery, but Norma is my favorite actress, and Robert is my favorite of her many co-stars. The dialog is marvelous, and the plot is fun. I like the idea of the two exes who spend their honeymoons in adjacent suites. The fight between Norma and Robert could very well be one of the best ever filmed. This is such a fun movie, but is sadly a little forgotten. I hear that the MGM video release isn't being made anymore, so if you don't want to watch this gem on a grainy, used video, hurry to your local store and watch the clerk look at you funny when you sigh with relief over having gotten the last copy.
I just saw this movie this morning on TCM. I absolutely loved it! So funny! Norma was great and so was Robert Montgomery. I enjoyed their bickering, and after a bit, could TELL when it was coming just by a remark made. It was actually very modern in it's depiction of a marriage, as that really doesn't change. I found this movie to be very delightful, and full of wit. Their fight scene is the best! When Amanda shrieks and screams and cries, it is priceless! I recommend it highly. I have recently discovered Norma Shearers' movies, and she is so good it is a joy to watch her. I saw "The Women" and "Marie Antionette" as a child, but it is wonderful to be able to watch movies like "Private Lives" now. It is hard to believe it was made in '31, it is not dated at all.
Noel Coward dialogue. What can be bad? Norma Shearer does a star turn and is *very* funny. Her clothes are wonderful. She is obviously "meant for" Robert Montgomery, and they leave the partners they are engaged to and escape with each other on an around-the-world trip. Their physical fights are hilarious.
Noel Coward wrote and acted in this stage play in 1930 and this movie
preserves the behaviour and colloquialisms of the original play in a
contemporary manner - a fact we may overlook with our 20-21st century
liberal mind-set. I believe there is film somewhere in the UK TV
archives of Coward in the part but it is either just clips or not
available on general release.
I really liked this well-paced production - even with the alterations for the North American audience (typical of studios in those days) - both Shearer and Montgomery take their parts well. I am familiar with the play but have never seen it on the stage. I thought the physical humour by Shearer very funny and could not imagine Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as the protagonists (while wonderful with their period lethargic mannerisms) doing anything similar.
This film brings the characters brightly to life in a very warm way and it's a shame not to be able to get it on DVD.
I had the pleasure several years ago of seeing Lindsay Duncan and Alan
Rickman on Broadway in Noel Coward's durable comedy, "Private Lives,"
and they were magnificent. I admit I had low expectations for a film
version. I was pleasantly surprised that, though scenes were added and
changed, the film keeps the tone of the play.
I actually saw part of this movie when I was about nine years old. James Card of the George Eastman House introduced it on a weekly old film program. To a nine-year-old, it seemed very foreign, given its age. Strangely, I have always remembered the line, "We're married in the eyes of heaven" - from that TV showing! And sure enough, my memory was correct - that either says something about Montgomery's line reading, or that I had no understanding of what the line meant, or I have a weird memory. Not sure.
I thought the two stars, Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer, portrayed the couple excellently. Shearer is so often criticized for her acting, but I'm sorry, I've seen her in some very good performances, although I grant you, she was a movie star first and foremost. The couple also has great chemistry.
I understand the apartment in Paris was changed to attract the German market, which eliminated the great part of the maid.
In the end, the film is very enjoyable and the play, of course, set the stage for many ripoffs. I agree with another of the comments, it would have been fabulous to have Coward and Lawrence preserved on film.
Noel Coward created at least four comic plays that have staying power:
"Private Lives", "Design For Living", "Hay Fever", and "Blythe Spirit".
Three of them were turned into films, but the results are mixed.
"Design For Living" was seriously bowdlerized by Hollywood, with a
"bi-sexual" element eliminated. "Blythe Spirit" (which has a funny
twist on how marriages always seem to sour as individuality is smashed)
was done better, but it lacks a resolution that showed how the
"so-called" tragedy of the plot actually benefits the hero, Charles
Condimine. And "Private Lives", while having a degree of elegance from
it's stars, is not brittle enough.
Coward was a master of developing attitude through his dialog. He seems to have modeled his handling of his characters on William S. Gilbert (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame). Gilbert had always insisted when directing his own plays that the characters retained the seriousness of their own characters and points of view. This worked in the Savoy Operas quite well, and Coward (who wrote musicals as well as comedies) picked up on it. When Elyot and Amanda flow from their sexual cosiness into their inane arguments, both of them are firmly sure that they are in the right. But being in the right is not enough: they have to be above it all by their social snobbery in the same dialog. If you don't insist on this in producing "Private Lives" the play may remain amusing but it's snap is lost.
Amanda: "I heard you went to Asia"
Amanda: "How was China?"
Elyot: "Very large."
Amanda: "How was Japan?"
Elyot: "Very small."
Brittle and short and to the point - and it does give an impression of what Elyot noticed (very little really) of two major Asiatic cultures. It is also quite dismissive - the teaming millions of Asia are reduced to four meaningless words. This dialog appears in the film version of PRIVATE LIVES, but the sharpness required for "Very large" and "Very small" is not quite there. So the effect of the dialog is diminished.
Robert Montgomery usually played in MGM films at this time as weaklings (like in "The Big House") or as upper crust cads (like in "The Divorcée"). He demonstrated an agreeably sophisticated cynicism in his films, and was slowly building up an acting ability that would turn into strong dramatic performances in "Night Must Fall" and films like "They Were Espendable" later on.
Montgomery came from a wealthy family, so his polished elegance was real. But he was an American, and Elyot's brittle snobbery is more likely to be found in English acting. The role of Elyot was played by Noel Coward originally. MGM either never thought of asking him to play the role, or could not get him for some reason.
Norma Shearer was a better than average actress, and she had played upper class Americans (like her betrayed wife in "The Women"), but she too is not English (she was Canadian). She too can't quite match the flash of snobbishness in Amanda's role that was brought to it by the original player, Gertrude Lawrence. As Lawrence and Coward were close friends in real life, they brought even more to the roles than Montgomery and Shearer could have brought.
The result is that the film is very amusing - otherwise I would not give it an "8". But it could not reach the divine heights that Coward and Lawrence brought to it.
As for the supporting couple, Reginald Denny and Una Merkle, they are adequate for their hapless roles as the newlywed partners of Elyot and Amanda. But Una Merkle as Sybil is too middle American a personality, and only is able to hint at Sybil's "fade - in - the - shade" fate when compared to spitfire Amanda. Denny was a workmanlike Victor, and (as the only English person in the cast's leads) a touch of reality to the film. But Victor's smoldering anger is barely touched on in his performance (he's too much of a gentleman). Oddly enough, MGM never thought of using the actor who originated Victor's character on stage - another friend of Noel. His name was Laurence Olivier.
I've lost count of the number of times I have seen this first-rate movie, and it makes me laugh every time. The plot and dialog are outstanding, and Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery are excellent. Reginald Denny and Una Merkel are a delight as well. In one of the film's many excellent scenes, Shearer shows off the acting skills she honed during her silent screen days -- hearing the musical strains of a song once dear to her and her ex-husband in happier days, her expression goes from recognition to fond remembrance to regret to resignation, all in the span of a few seconds. Although she is best known for her dramatic gifts, Norma is top-notch throughout this film, displaying an excellent flair for comedy. I've often read her performance being unfavorably compared to that of Gertrude Lawrence, but I thought Shearer was a wonder. It's hard for me to conceive that this movie was released 80 years ago -- it is still fresh, funny, and worth every moment of your time.
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