Cast & Crew
Previously married to each other, but now divorced and re-married, Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase unintentionally honeymoon with their new spouses at the same European hotel. While Elyot, who is now married to Sybil, is annoyed by his new wife's frequent inquiries about his ex-wife, Amanda insists that Victor, her new husband, stop mentioning Elyot so that they can enjoy their honeymoon. Elyot and Victor meet outside their rooms on the common terrace, but do not discover their relationship to each other. When Elyot meets Amanda on the terrace, however, he becomes so upset at their coincidental reunion that he insists on fleeing to Paris with Sybil. At the same time, Amanda pleads with Victor to take her to Paris. Amanda and Elyot quarrel bitterly with their spouses, and, as a result, are both left alone. Following their spats, Amanda and Elyot return to the terrace, where they recall the days when they were in love. Though Elyot tells Amanda that they are no longer in love, Amanda insists that they are, and they soon rekindle a new romance with a kiss. After mutually agreeing that they should find a way to prevent future quarrels, they make a pact to halt their bickering when either one utters the words "Solomon Isaacs." The two then decide to flee from their spouses by sneaking out of the hotel. They go to St. Moritz, Switzerland, where they resume their romance and go on a rock climbing expedition. Later, in their Swiss chalet room, Elyot and Amanda engage in another petty quarrel, which leads to a fight over a phonograph record. Amanda breaks the record over Elyot's head, and the two end up slapping each other and destroying the room. Amanda runs out of the room screaming and encounters Victor and Sybil, who have been looking for their respective spouses. Victor and Sybil become embroiled in Amanda and Elyot's dispute, and Victor intervenes on Amanda's behalf after Elyot calls her a slattern. Victor then announces that he came to get a divorce, but Sybil and Elyot, now reunited, announce that they plan no divorce. Both couples sit down to an amicable breakfast the next day, which soon turns hostile when Victor and Sybil quarrel. Amanda and Elyot slip out during the spat, and the two leave on a train.
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
I was brought up to believe it was beyond the pale for a man to strike a woman.- Amanda
A very poor tradition. Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.- Elyot
You don't hold any mystery for me darling; do you mind? There isn't a part of you I don't know, remember, and want.- Elyot Chase
'Montgomery, Robert' was accidentally knocked unconscious during the fight scene with Norma Shearer.
Glacier Bay Park in Montana doubled for the Swiss Alps in the film's mountain climbing scene.
According to a Hollywood Reporter pre-release news item, the road company stage version of Private Lives, which opened in New York on January 27, 1931, was "raced through the U.S. to beat M-G-M's picture into key cities." Another pre-release Hollywood Reporter news item noted that a large portion of the film's budget was attributable to the time it took the director and the cast to frequently consult Sidney Franklin's film footage of the New York stage performance of Private Lives, which starred Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence; whenever a question arose about how a particular scene should be done, Franklin, the cameraman and the entire cast would stop filming, view Franklin's film of the stage play, and then return to the set and resume production.
According to a contemporary New York Times article, this picture was filmed at Glacier National Park, Montana, and at Franklyn Canyon, Los Angeles. The article also notes that problems with the Montana location arose when echoes disturbed the sound recording of the film; a studio technician reportedly solved the problem by placing sound reflecting boards at proper distances. At the Franklin Canyon location, a replica of an old French provincial water ferry was built and floated on a lake. According to a biography of Norma Shearer, playwright Noël Coward expressed his reservations about the assignment of Shearer and Montgomery to the leads in the film because he was unsure about their ability to master the physical comedy in the story. Shearer's biography claims that the actress herself selected Sidney Franklin to direct the picture and Montgomery to co-star. Also noted in the biography is Robert Montgomery's recollection of the filming of the fight scene, which became so physical and real that Montgomery was accidentally knocked unconscious. Another film adaptation of Private Lives was a 1936 French film Les Amants terribles, directed by Marc Allegret and starring Annette Founier. According to a 1961 Los Angeles Examiner news item, Brigitte Bardot was set to star in another film version of Private Lives that was to be directed by Roger Vadim, but it was never made. A stage production of Private Lives, directed by Arvin Brown and starring Simon Jones and Joan Collins, opened at the Wilshire Theater in Los Angeles on December 17, 1991.