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Noel Coward's scintillating play Private Lives is the story of a divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda, who run into each other when they're both on their honeymoons with new spouses, and find that their passion for each other is as strong as ever. The comedy had been a huge hit in London and New York, directed by and starring Coward opposite Gertrude Lawrence. MGM head of production Irving Thalberg quickly acquired the film rights for his wife, Norma Shearer.
By 1931, Shearer was one of MGM's top stars, in equal parts because of her own drive and ambition, and because of her advantageous marriage to Thalberg. She and Thalberg had chosen her vehicles carefully, and she had won an Academy Award for her performance in The Divorcee (1930). It was one of a series of romantic melodramas starring Shearer that dealt frankly with sexuality in the days before the rigid enforcement of the Production Code, and delighted her female fans. But Coward expressed his concerns to friends about whether Shearer could handle his kind of sophisticated comedy. When word of Coward's doubts filtered back to Shearer, she dismissed them. "I don't care what he thinks - he thinks in theater terms - I think in film terms. It doesn't seem to occur to Mr. Coward that we both may turn out to be right!" Shearer herself chose a co-star and director with whom she was comfortable. Robert Montgomery had appeared in three films with Shearer, and excelled at comedy. Sidney Franklin had directed one of Shearer's most charming silent comedies, The Actress (1928), and her early talkie The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929), based on Frederick Lonsdale's theatrical comedy of manners.
Thalberg went to great lengths to ensure that the film version of Private Lives (1931) was faithful to Coward's original. MGM filmed a performance of the play with Coward and Lawrence, which Thalberg showed to the film's cast and director. Not only did the stars carefully imitate the performances, the director followed the play's pace and timing, including pauses for laugh lines. According to Shearer biographer Gavin Lambert, Franklin, whose direction usually tended to be stodgy and slow, took his cues from Coward's direction of the play: "Franklin picked up more speed than usual and kept his actors at high levels of energy."
According to Montgomery's recollections, the energy got out of hand in the fight scene. "Norma could pack a mean left, and she got so carried away in her enthusiasm...that she knocked me into a screen and I landed flat on my derriere and went out cold." Shearer's escalating hysteria in the scene is one of the high points of the film.
The critics were duly impressed. "A wild farce idea made snappy by sparkling and at times questionable dialogue," wrote the Photoplay critic, calling the performances "excellent." But most reviews noted that Private Lives wouldn't appeal to everyone. "Stars are a big asset to this parlour comedy which will amuse the women more than the men," according to Variety. And the British magazine Cinema was even more specific, calling the film "attractive entertainment for better-class audiences, with box-office pull on title and stars." Those "better-class audiences" turned a modest profit for Private Lives, and MGM was satisfied with the film's succes d'estime.
Coward could be scathing about bad productions of his work, and it's been said that he didn't like the film version of Private Lives. Not true, according to a Coward biography by his longtime assistant, Cole Lesley. Coward first saw the film at a private screening at MGM, seated between the two stars. Just before the film started, Montgomery gave Coward a gift, an expensive watch, saying "This is to prevent you from saying what you really think about my performance." Lesley writes, "It didn't, however, because Noel thought both stars' performances were perfectly charming." Coward was also delighted by the film's success, because it enabled him to sell the film rights to several others of his plays. A decade later, Shearer tried to revive her faltering career with another film version of a Coward play, We Were Dancing (1942). The film flopped, and Shearer retired soon afterward.
Director: Sidney Franklin
Producer: Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Screenplay: Hans Kraly, Richard Schayer, Claudine West, based on the play by Noel Coward
Cinematography: Ray Binger
Editor: Conrad A. Nervig
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: song, "Someday I'll Find You," by Noel Coward
Principal Cast: Norma Shearer (Amanda), Robert Montgomery (Elyot), Reginald Denny (Victor), Una Merkel (Sybil), Jean Hersholt (Oscar), George Davis (Bellboy).
by Margarita Landazuri