The 1933 romantic comedy Perfect Understanding, newly released on Blu Ray by the Cohen Film Collection, might best be described as a vanity project. Gloria Swanson performed double duty as actress and producer with this luxurious British production, resulting in an enjoyable yet quirky experiment.
Swanson had a lot riding on Perfect Understanding. Like many silent stars, she found her popularity waning with the arrival of sound. She was in a better position than many of her contemporaries to remedy the situation, however. 1929's The Tresspasser marked a successful first foray into talkies for the actress. After the her next few projects failed to bring in the crowds, the financing for her vehicles increasingly derived from the woman's own bankroll (long gone were the days when she relied on political patriarch Joe Kennedy to finance her vehicles). For Perfect Understanding, she set up her own production company in England to make a star vehicle about a newly married couple who are willing to try a modern approach to their union. The resulting film has several elements that indicate a vanity production (like having Swanson's character sing, for no apparent reason); otherwise it's a pretty typical soapy melodrama of the day, with elegant characters emoting away in plush surroundings.
Perfect Understanding revolves around the newly minted marriage of two society swells, Nicholas Randal (Laurence Olivier) and his American bride, Judy (Swanson). The pair agreed to marry on the condition that both adhere to a "perfect understanding" that grants each person total freedom as long as they don't allow either party to get jealous of their other half. While honeymooning across Europe, Judy decides to return to England while Nicholas goes on to Cannes to have fun with the couple's friends. During one drunken night, Nicholas winds up sleeping with a married old flame of his, Lady Stephanie Fitzmaurice (Nora Swinburne). Back home, Nicholas confesses his affair to Judy, who forgives him. The news makes Judy distraught, however, and she ends up seeking comfort with the couple's explorer friend, Ivan (John Halliday). Ivan admits that he's in love with Judy, prompting her to write down her feelings in a letter eventually discovered by Nicholas. Believing that his wife is carrying on an affair with Ivan, Nicholas files divorce proceedings against the now-pregnant Judy - the ultimate test for their "perfect understanding."
Perfect Understanding fits squarely alongside other handsomely produced "rich people have problems, too" melodramas of the period, albeit with some notable differences. The striking, lovely opening and closing credits, made by the British designer E. McKnight Kauffer, appear to be better suited for an avant garde Luis BuÃ±el/Salvador Dali collaboration. The film opens on a weird little interlude with Swanson serenading Olivier with her Jeanette MacDonald-like singing. Although it sets the viewer up for light musical comedy, the muted domestic drama that unfolds winds up being very different. The drama isn't necessarily bad - there's some nice, subtle work from Swanson and Olivier - it's just overly burdened with the melancholy, searching behavior of its main couple. The screenplay got some uncredited help from Michael Powell, which is interesting, since Nicholas and Judy's introspection mirror the people who populated the films Powell later did with Emeric Pressburger.
Perfect Understanding holds some interest for Gloria Swanson fans, even those who gravitate towards famous actors' odd vanity projects. It never comes together into a satisfying whole, however, winding up the victim of erratic direction. According to Swanson's autobiography, the production was crippled by the inexperience and skittish behavior of that director, Cyril Gardner (who was paralyzed by distressing news from a fortune teller!). She also blamed the film's failure on Depression-era audiences resisting a film about wealthy, beautiful people. That point comes across as disingenuous, since there were plenty of better-crafted films about the upper classes back then which were also hugely successful (see Dinner at Eight, etc,). Although Swanson's then-husband Michael Farmer made a bland non-impression in a supporting role, British actress Genevieve Tobin adds some much needed pep to the proceedings as Swanson's perky confidant.
The Blu Ray:
Cohen Film Collection's edition of Perfect Understanding comes in a standard Blu Ray keep case which is clear rather than the usual blue color. It also comes with an eight page booklet containing mostly blown-up stills from the film.
For this release of Perfect Understanding, Cohen has secured a print which contains some damage but is generally agreeable. Film grain is intensified by the sharpening of the 4:3 image, otherwise it's a fine transfer which highlights the film's nice cinematography.
Unfortunately, the mono audio mix on this disc is sub-standard, owing to limitations in the source print. Perhaps the British sound equipment is to blame, but there are several segments in the film where the dialogue becomes murky and indistinct. Muddy sounding passages aside, the disc sports decent levels between music and dialogue.
Cohen has supplied two rarely seen and worthwhile Mack Sennett comedy shorts as bonuses for Perfect Understanding. The two 20-minute films, Dream Stuff and Husbands' Reunion, don't share much in common with the feature film aside from their 1933 release date - and the vague connection that Gloria Swanson got her start as a bathing beauty in Sennett's Keystone Kops series. The shorts both star Walter Catlett, playing his usual brusque types in stories that rely heavily on visual gags and high-energy slapstick. In Dream Stuff, Catlett's character coaches his socially inept cousin (Emerson Treacy) on how to propose to his pretty girlfriend (personal fave Joyce Compton). Franklin Pangborn also appears as the romantic rival for the girl's affections. The frenetic Husbands' Reunion has Catlett suing a wealthy dolt (Grady Sutton) after getting shot in the butt during a weekend retreat (there's a lot of butt gags in these Sennett shorts). Flashbacks reveal the sordid story behind the altercation, in which Catlett finds that Sutton, the guardian to the fiancee of Catlett's son, has married his own ex-wife (Nora Lane). These fun shorts are actually an improvement over the imperfect feature film.
Silent screen legend Gloria sunk a good chunk of her own personal fortune into the opulent 1933 British soaper Perfect Understanding, with mixed results (nuanced acting from Swanson and a young Laurence Olivier certainly help). The film counts as more of an interesting curio than a keeper, but the presence of two riotous Mack Sennett comedy shorts as extras nudge the disc into the mildly recommended realm.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and dilettante-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's seen are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.