Amanda Prynne (Norma Shearer) and Elyot Chase (Robert Montgomery) were once married, but are now divorced and have both recently remarried. Elyot’s new gal is Sybil (Una Merkel), who frequently questions him about his ex-wife. Amanda has found romance with Victor (Reginald Denny), but he spends much of his time talking about Elyot, promising Amanda that he’ll never treat her the way Elyot did.
As it just so happens, Amanda and Elyot are honeymooning at the same time… at the same European hotel… in neighboring suites!
At first, all parties are completely unaware of the fact that the exes are inhabiting the same hotel, but when Elyot runs into Amanda on the terrace, things get complicated.
Sidney Franklin directs 1931’s Private Lives. This was the fourth of five films to co-star Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer, according to TCM’s introduction to the film when it aired in August. Private Lives is based on a play by Noel Coward.
Swiftly paced, with charm and wit to spare, Private Lives is a wonderful watch. It’s full of shrieking, arguments, and touches of physical comedy, so it isn’t exactly a low-key watch, but it’s incredibly entertaining.
Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery are just excellent in this film, and such a delight to watch as a pair. Their chemistry is strong, and their banter is great — thanks equally to the script, and their delivery.
Additionally, both stars absolutely nail the physical aspects of the film’s comedy. One sequence has them engaging in a drawn-out fight which involves yelling, tackling each other, breaking lamps, tossing tables, and Shearer throwing a toddler-style fit while balled up in fetal position on the couch. Such dysfunction! And these two put the “fun” in it.
Though Private Lives is very much a Shearer/Montgomery show through and through, Una Merkel and Reginald Denny are great supports (if slightly under-utilized). There’s the small fact that Sybil and Victor each seem to talk about absolutely nothing but their spouses’ respective exes — not exactly an attractive quality for either party. Who would marry a person who spends every waking moment bringing up their own ex-spouse and failed marriage? Somehow, both Amanda and Elyot did so, which requires mild suspension of disbelief. But it’s very comical to watch, giving the film’s early scenes a humorous-but-tense energy.
Exciting to watch from beginning to end, Private Lives is a film I would definitely recommend. Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery shine, bringing plenty of laughs to the screen through the love-hate connection of their characters. It’s pre-code screwball comedy at its finest!