Thursday, March 10, 2011

Private Lives (1931)

I'm just going to go ahead and say it: Noel Coward inadvertently created the genre of screwball comedy. When his stage play, Private Lives was being made into a film, he advised director, Sidney Franklin, to keep things moving along. In response Franklin turned in a comedy so blisteringly fast that its rapid fire dialog to competes with the infamous His Girl Friday. I had to watch many sections of this film twice to make sure I caught all the quips. I'm sure that, like Friday, it will reward multiple viewings. Not only is Private Lives fast, it's loud, shrill, and full of pratfalls and impossibly mixed-up situations. All it's missing is an escaped fugitive in a roll-top desk.

Until I watched Private Lives, I thought Noel Coward was all about cocktails in the drawing room and biting sarcasm. He is, but, apparently he's also about full body tackles and insulting one's mother-in-law with a viciousness that would make Walter Burns blush. Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer play Elliot and Amanda, an English couple who have divorced after a series of violent rows. They both remarry and end up honeymooning in the same hotel in the South of France. Their adjacent rooms share a veranda, so it is inevitable that an awkward confrontation and, eventually, a reconciliation will follow. All of the action is compressed into three days, so Coward can be forgiven for packing a decade's worth of arguments into an hour and a half. Elliot and Amanda are loathsome characters, selfish and obnoxious, but they are also a lot of fun. I don't think I could take much more than 90 minutes of their carrying on, though.

Coward's outlook on love is bleak; if Private Lives weren't so dang funny, it would be depressing. In his worldview, passion is a miserable roller coaster of blissful kisses and socks to the jaw. This drunken slugfest can be difficult to watch. Take out the jokes and you'd have a Lifetime movie, or a TMZ expose on Madonna and Guy Ritchie.

The acting is uniformly excellent. The new spouses are played by sadly forgotten Pre-Code bombshell, Una Merkel and stalwart, supporting actor Reginald Denny. And the leads, though miscast as English, are wonderful. Montgomery looks completely at ease as an unchivalrous cad and his role in Private Lives reminds me of my favorite Montgomery performance in Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Speaking of which Norma Shearer seems to have gone to the Carole Lombard School of Meltdowns. Yeah, I had to mute her a few times, but even Lombard, the unquestionable queen of the spoiled rich female temper tantrum, could occasionally cross that line. I'm sure I never let the remote out of my hand while watching Twentieth Century.

Shearer is an able comedian and she brings star quality to the table as well. When Elliot declares that Amanda is the most thrilling, fascinating woman every born, you can't help but think the same applies to the actress playing her. If nothing else there is her habit of forgetting to wear a bra which is in evidence in a couple of scenes in Private Lives. I predict that Shearer will gain a whole new following if her filmography is ever transferred to Blu-Ray.

Thanks to Classic Movie Favorites for the stills.