“To the devil with love!.”
Private Lives is one of my favorite comedies from the 1930s. I was cracking up from the moment Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery looked at each other.
Elyot Chase (Montgomery) has just gotten married in a large ceremony to Sibyl (Una Merkel). Amanda (Shearer) has just gotten married to Victor Prynne (Reginald Denny) at a justice of the peace in France. Both couples go to beach side hotel and have rooms next to each others.
Amanda and Elyot do not seem to be really in love their new spouses. Each had been previously married and they are thinking about the other. Victor and Silbyl ask them about their other spouses. Amanda says her ex-husband was violent towards her:
Victor: He struck you once
Amanda: More than once
Amanda: Several places
Victor: What a cad
Amanda: I struck him too. Once I broke four gramophone records over his head it was very satisfying.
Sibyl keeps asking Elyot if he is still in love with his ex-wife. You can see that he is obviously lying when he says no. He even gets defensive when Sibyl says something mean about the ex-wife.
Amanda and Elyot are both on the balconies of their rooms. Victor and Sibyl have gone separately down to the dining room after they fought with Amanda and Elyot. Elyot is sitting down behind a shrub and starts whistling. Amanda recognizes the tune and when she moves a little she sees Elyot. After being taken aback she starts singing along to the tune. Elyot shoots up. They both look at each and cannot believe what they are seeing: Amanda and Elyot used to be married to each other! Just when they thought they were rid of each other!
After the initial shock they sit down for drinks. They each ask if the other is happy and although they say they are it is clear they are not. They start talking about when they were married and how happy they were. They want each other desperately, they kiss, and Elyot proposes they runaway together. The only problem is that they bicker too much. He comes up with a code word for when the bickering gets out of control and they have to be quiet for two minutes.
As soon as they get on the train Elyot and Amanda start bickering. This is the start of several hysterical fights over the stupidest things. They are nice to each other for like five minutes and then immediately start bickering. Towards the end of the film they get into an all out brawl!! (more on that in a bit).
Victor and Sibyl eventually find Amanda and Elyot… they walk in right at the end of the brawl! The next morning Victor talks to Amanda. He tells her the only practical thing is for them to divorce. She deludes herself saying they should not that she does love him. Elyot and Sibyl also talk but off camera and in his room. When they come out Sibyl says they are staying together.
The two couples have a very awkward breakfast together. They are all trying to civil with each other and the conversations are short and about the oddest things. All the sudden Sibyl and Victor start arguing and going back and forth saying things about Elyot and Amanda. Elyot and Amanda do not even care what is being said about them because everything about them is true. They just sit there starring at the other two fighting and they start laughing towards the end. Eventually Amanda and Elyot sneak out and runaway together yet again.
I love Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery together. They were perfect. As I have mentioned in another post I have yet to see Montgomery in a bad role he is just so smooth and so funny and incredibly well dressed and put together. Now Norma Shearer was hysterical I loved the way she let go but after while her phony voice got on my nerves. I think their characters were supposed to be stuffy British people with a lot of money and that was what Shearer was trying to pull off but it did not really work for her. But other than her voice Shearer was fabulous.
I always feels bad for Reginald Denny when I see him in a film because he is usually the man who marries or likes the leading leady but he is too grown-up, shall we say, for her. He was younger and much handsome here than I am used to seeing him and he had some good scenes. Una Merkel was a pain in the ass but that comes down to her character. Her voice got on my nerves as well.
Alright now onto that brawl between Amanda and Elyot… well I do not think my or any explanation could do it justice so here’s a video:
From the moment Elyot starts yelling at Amanda to turn the record player off I was laughing and could not stop as soon as they started hitting each other. Shearer was hysterical how she ran on the couch hiding her face and kicking her feet like a little kid. The brawl is one of the scenes that completely makes this film.
There are plenty of other hysterical scenes in the film besides the brawl. My other favorite scene other than the brawl is at the end when Sibyl and Victor start arguing and Elyot and Amanda just sit and watch them and laugh. I died when they are drinking their coffee and just looking wide eyed at the other two, you would have to see it but trust me their faces are so funny.
Private Lives is such a great 1930s screwball comedy that is definitely not given enough credit. The story is not dated at all if it was not for the clothes it looks like a modern movie. Besides the fact that Norma Shearer is in the film you know that this is a 1930s MGM production just from the quality of filmmaking, the sets, the clothes (by Adrian the only designer who dressed Shearer at the studio), and the story. Private Lives is one of the many films that makes me love classic Hollywood more and more.
Private Lives is currently available on DVD (which I highly recommend just buying if you love classic Hollywood) and youtube.