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  • Getting a little ahead of myself, but the movie is about two couples on their honeymoon, so there’s that. And it leads to some naughty moments, including Norma Shearer showing off:

Private Lives Norma Shearer lingerie

  • The next twist of the plot is that one member of each couple were married before. They compare notes on their new marriages at their hotel:

Amanda: “I’m on my honeymoon.”
Elliot: “How is it?”
Amanda: “… it hasn’t started yet.”
Elliot: “Mine hasn’t either.”

  • And then that pair decides over the course of a tumultuous reunion to run away together and copulate. What follows is a lengthy lark about the problems of jealousy, adultery and spousal abuse.
  • But I promise it’s some of the funniest spousal abuse you’ll ever see. You’ll see this in Pre-Code, where the woman and the man smack each other a bit and seem to enjoy it; here, it’s more to the level of a particularly impressive Three Stooges sequence. Some choice dialogue:

Victor: “He struck you once, didn’t he?!”
Amanda: “Ohhh, more than once.” 🙂
Victor: “Where?”
Amanda: “Oh, several places.” 😀
Victor: “That cad.”
Amanda: “Oh… I struck him too.” 😉

The Particulars of the Picture

Private Lives Norma Shearer Private Lives Robert Montgomery Private Lives Una Merkel
Amanda …
Norma Shearer
Elliot …
Robert Montgomery
Sybil …
Una Merkel
Private Lives Reginald Denny Private Lives Jean Hersholt
Victor …
Reginald Denny
Oscar …
Jean Hersholt
Directed by
Sydney Franklin

Private Lives: The loudest silence you’ll ever hear

[On their first marriage]
“It was lovely. At the beginning.”
“You have an immoral memory, Amanda.”

There’s a danger in box art. I mean like, you know, DVD box art or VHS box art. Sometimes these works are things of beauty, but, every once in a while, we end up with a dullard. Case in point:

Let’s Smile Awkwardly: The Motion Picture

So, unless you equate a pair of people smiling at each other with ‘laugh riot’, it’s not the most encouraging poster to set your eyes on.

Which is also why Private Livescaught me so delightfully off guard: it’s a screwball masterpiece hiding under a bland poster. Starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery as a pair of lovers whose divorce ended acrimoniously, the first act finds them on separate honeymoons with new beaus– but located in suites adjoined by a balcony that looks over the ocean.

You can tell the way Amanda and Elliot talk to their new partners that danger is in the air simply in the way they avoid saying, ‘I love you’ on their wedding nights. Both recall their old days with a overpowering sense of nostalgia which turns intoxicating when they find themselves on the shared balcony.

From a hotel design standpoint, this seems like a poor choice.

The relationship had gone south years prior for a host of reasons– infidelity, threats of infidelity, implied infidelity, and a couple of rousing fistfights that would bring the house down. They’re wrong for each other and that makes them crazy for each other.

It’s madcap, and their chemistry instantly leads them to bad decisions making. They decide to ditch their honeymoons and run off and renew their love all over again. They go mountain climbing (not a good activity for a couple who is always on the verge of a nasty fistfight) and ride the train. They soon find each other maddening again, and every attempted reconciliation is undercut by bickering and mistrust.

They’re two people who love each other so much that they’re convinced that there’s no way that the other person loves them nearly as much. Ergo, paranoia and jealousy rule all.


In fact, one of the fun things about Private Lives is that while it’s a fast-talking, gag-laden based-on-a-Noel-Coward-play sorta thing, it still manages to capture the idiosyncratic mannerisms that populate relationships. Amanda and Elliot, as goofy as they are, retain their charm. When they go for low blows and fisticuffs, it’s remarkably funny since they’re so uppercrust that seeing them completely lose control boils into unrestrained madness.

Most of this fun wouldn’t work without its stars. Montgomery is game as always, able to widen his eyes and take a pratfall with the best of ’em.

But Norma Shearer has much more of the reputation as a dramatic actress, and here’s she let’s loose with a barely contained glee. She gets some choice moments, from several silent reactions of panic and desperation to plenty of gleeful menace as she tries to worm her way onto the top of their masochistic game.

Private Lives is a hoot and a half. Especially lovely is the film’s finale, which avoids a couple of cliches that I’d been expecting and instead delivers a lovely moment of realization. It’s a lively, fun picture that still feels modern and smart.

Definitely one of the greats of the era, and definitely worth tracking down.

I think Shearer may have one of the best looks of self satisfaction ever to grace the screen.

Some Extra Screenshots

Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click for big!

Trivia & Links

  • I won’t pretend my search abilities are exhaustive or anything, but I only found one legitimate portrait of director Sydney Franklin on the internet, and that was watermarked on eBay. I eventually found a decent one on Find a Grave, which included none other than Will Hays, the man behind (attempting to enforce) the Production Code.
  • Completely random observation, but the entrance to the hotel at the opening of Private Lives is the same entrance to the club in Night World. I know, a studio reusing sets? Crazy.
  • I mentioned picture quality above, and it should be noted that this is one of Warner Archive’s very first releases. DVDTalk goes into this and their frustration that this is very obviously a VHS transfer. In my opinion, Warner Archive has gotten a lot better, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t wish they’d go back and do this one again.

A better transfer is especially needed in shots like this, where Montgomery’s face is just a blur.

  • This review over at eFilmCritic is kind of adorable. He doesn’t understand what Pre-Code is or even Robert Osbourne’s name, but he really likes the movie.
  • I wish TCM would streamline their sites; between TCMDB, their Movie Morlocks blog, and their regular site, it’s hard to keep track of all the content they churn out. This article on the TCM site I found goes into the background details on the filming, from Shearer’s bribery of Noel Coward to Montgomery getting knocked out cold. A good read.

For a great movie.


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Danny is a writer who lives with his lovely wife, adorable children, and geriatric yet yappy dog. He blogs at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.


Judy · December 14, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I really like this film too – the original play is often staged in the UK and I think the farcical elements might possibly work better on stage, but Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer are both great in the roles and it all moves very fast, with its delectably witty dialogue. A sophisticated gem. Not available in the UK on DVD, sadly.

    Danny · December 15, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Yeah, I read that this one gets revived pretty often, with Kim Catrall doing it on Broadway a few years back. I think that would be one of the few plays I would actually bother going to the theater to see.

    Sorry about the UK DVD thing– have you considered a region free player? I don’t know how common those are over on your side of the pond, but here you can’t throw a DVD player without hitting one.

      Judy · December 16, 2012 at 12:29 am

      Thanks, Danny, it does work well on stage. Luckily I have this movie recorded from TV, but I’d like to see it get a DVD release here so that more people can discover it.I do have a region-free player, but buying films on import is more expensive, though I do sometimes succumb!

        Danny · December 17, 2012 at 12:58 pm

        I know how you feel about the expense. Luckily with Warner Archive here, I can usually wait for a good sale and splurge. They had a 3 for $25 sale last week and it was sublime.

        And, honestly, I think Private Lives deserves a better release here as well, though I suppose at least it’s on a DVD here. 🙂

shadowsandsatin · January 5, 2013 at 10:07 pm

Great review — I adore Private Lives, and have seen it more times than I can count. I thought everybody did a great job — even Una Merkel, who I’ve read in more than one place was miscast, but I disagree.

    Danny · January 6, 2013 at 1:12 am

    I can’t imagine a universe where Merkel is miscast here. She may not get to be as funny as usual, but she’s still enjoyable.

    Thanks for reading, Karen!

Mike Amoroso · December 14, 2018 at 2:18 pm

Does anyone understand the ending where they arrive at ‘Sollach?’

Have tried to determine the meaning beyond the name of certain families.

Comments are closed.