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Private Lives
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by Natasha Theobald

"Wicked in just the right way."
4 stars

I'm not certain what classifies a movie as Pre-Code, but my suspicion is that this is a movie made before the morality police made it impossible to create a story with such complexity and an eye to the murky, gray areas of life. This movie confronts issues of adultery and marital squabbling and sexuality in a way that may not have been acceptable later in the 30s. So, if you want proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same, this might be your pudding.

Apparently, this film is a fairly faithful adaptation of the Noel Coward play, which was being performed on Broadway with Coward in the lead role at the time. According to the guy who introduces films on TCM, Norma Shearer was selected for the role of Amanda, and it was she who chose co-star Robert Montgomery for the role of Elyot, as well as director Sidney Franklin. The guy also said a tape was made of the Broadway production for the ensemble to use in making the film, capturing the biting repartee and the physicality of a fight scene, in particular.

The story finds a divorced couple reunited on their honeymoons with new spouses. In fact, their hotel rooms share a balcony. Both ask their respective others to leave, and both spouses refuse, leaving them to reckon with one another. It quickly becomes clear that more than a little spark remains between the two. By the time Elyot is saying, "There isn't a particle of you that I don't know, remember, and want," the two are plotting to leave their new loves to run off together.

Their renewed passion is marked, though, by the bad memories which accompany the good. As time goes on, old wounds regarding suspicions of infidelities and less than compassionate dealings with one another come to light. The disagreement escalates, as in times past, to an almost brawl. Their new spouses find them in a hotel room, which has been destroyed by their scuffle, seeking to take their respective spouses back with them. During a conversation among the four, however, it becomes clear that life has many twists and turns, that sparks can fly where you least expect them, and that sometimes you can't help but love the one who drives you nuts.

The new spouses, played by Reginald Denny and Una Merkel, are written to be whiny and irritating, it seems, so the audience won't be too distressed at the actions of the leads to leave them. The laughs are still sharp, for the most part, and, even if you don't guffaw, you can certainly appreciate the cleverness in the back and forth. There are truly romantic moments, as well, which cut through the sophisticated exteriors and capture the truth of the irresistible appeal of a love which can't be quenched, by time or by effort. The shame, though, is that some of the dialogue, the cornerstone of the film's greatness, is tough to hear. You will get the bulk of it, though, and it will be well worth the trouble.

If you want to see how our grandparents had the same types of problems with relationships that we do, this is a good place to start. Come for the wit; stay for the romance.

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originally posted: 01/05/04 13:00:01
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User Comments

6/29/04 josephine wood a funny classic not too mushy told a good and realistic story 4 stars
1/14/04 Richard Slapsys The Guy On TCM is Robert Osbourne 4 stars
1/05/04 Ed Parry A surprisingly good film. Shearer and Montgomery are entertaining, but Merkel shines! 4 stars
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  12-Dec-1931 (NR)
  DVD: 22-Jun-2009



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