Private Lives (1931)

  • Based on a play by Noël Coward.
  • Directed by…Sidney Franklin! (He was also the director of THE GOOD EARTH, the last movie I watched! What a charming coincidence.)
  • This movie begins with two simultaneous weddings – Elyot (Robert Montgomery) to Sibyl (Una Merkel) & Victor (Reginald Denny) to Amanda (Norma Shearer). Both appear to be happy unions.
  • Soon, however – we start to understand that Amanda (Victor calls her “Mandy”) and Elyot have each been married once before. Surprise! It was to each other.

(This is not really a surprise – clearly, this movie is meant to center around the relationship of Montgomery & Shearer.) (Their faces are on the movie poster.)

  • Little do they know, both happy (for now) couples have chosen the same hotel for their honeymoons, and are staying in adjacent rooms, which share a balcony.
  • The scene in which they (Amanda & Elyot) discover this “happy” coincidence is superbly handled. The orchestra on the level below starts playing a familiar tune (“Someday I’ll Find You,” a Noël Coward original), and Elyot, alone on his balcony, begins to hum along. Amanda, who is also outside on her balcony (a row of plants divides the two), hears the humming & for a second recognizes its source – but she seems to brush the feeling away, out of the sheer impossibility of it coming from the person she thinks it’s coming from.

Then Elyot starts to whistle. And then Amanda knows.

Shearer does a fantastic job playing her reaction – the kind of rapid back & forth blend of ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ and ‘What the hell do I do know?!’ – all of this conducted completely silently.

  • Amanda decides to sing the last verse of the song, and then the jig is up. She & Elyot briefly exchange pleasantries, then dash back into their respective rooms to tell their significant others that THEY MUST DEPART THIS HOTEL IMMEDIATELY & GO TO PARIS! (Elyot tells Sibyl he’s psychic & he feels very resolutely that something terrible – possibly an earthquake – is about to occur. Amanda tells Victor that she just remembered that her sister died in this hotel, and she can’t bear the tragic swelling of memories one minute longer.
  • Neither spouse will agree to an emergency honeymoon relocation, so Amanda & Elyot find themselves back on their patios.
  • Here, they decide they are still madly in love with each other.

Gasp! How grand!

  • “What shall we do?” says Shearer. “Escape!” says Montgomery.
  • And that’s exactly what they do – much to our (my?) delight.
  • Before they embark on their escapement, though – several important things occur. First, they decide they need a code word or code phrase to say when they begin to fight, so they’ll be forced to stop fighting immediately & spend the next two minutes in non-squabbling silence. They choose “Solomon Isaacs.”

Ha. I love it.

Second, Robert Montgomery says this to Norma Shearer: “There isn’t a particle of you that I don’t know, remember – and want.”

Swoon.

  • So off the new/old lovebirds go to Amanda’s isolated chalet, spending half their time fighting, and half their time making out. The need for “Solomon Isaacs”continues to arise – and they shorten it to “Sollochs” (a local train stop) for the sake of convenience.
  • Montgomery & Shearer play off each other extremely well, and they do a pretty great job matching their characters’ levels of eccentricity & volatility as they go along. The scene at the chalet in which Amanda & Elyot begin physically brawling with each other (Amanda smashes a record over Elyot’s head, Elyot slaps her in the face, etc., etc.) is marvelously hysterical – and gets even better when Victor & Sibyl walk in, and are completely ignored, because Amanda & Elyot are too busy smashing furniture & screaming (50% of the screaming is done at each other, 50% is just for the sake of screaming). Ha!
  • “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” — Elyot
  •  The next morning’s breakfast scene is similarly fantastic. They each try wayyy too hard to make comments about how delightful various things (the weather, France, coffee) are.

“MY FRIEND HAS A HOUSE.” says Victor.

Hahahaha.

But yeah – it’s great…and gets even greater when Sibyl & Victor start quarreling. The fast but gradual (it makes sense, I promise) reconnection of Amanda & Elyot while this is occurring is again, expertly played.

  • Amanda & Elyot again escape, and the movie finishes with them aboard a train together, cuddling & fighting, as per usual.

“Sollochs! Sollochs – two minutes!” says the passing train attendant.

Brilliant.

  • Highly enjoyable film to watch. I love Robert Montgomery in anything (everyone knows this), and I’m a fan of Shearer’s too – so this was heaps of fun to take in.
  • New phrase I’ve picked up & plan to use in the future, at the opportune moment, thanks to this movie:

“Don’t quibble, Sibyl!”

Baha! I love it.

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