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A few months back the Cohen Film Collection gave us a marvelous Blu-ray of Douglas Fairbanks' silent The Thief of Bagdad, and now they have followed it up with a true rarity from 1933. Long sought as a missing-in-action title, Perfect Understanding is a light romance starring and produced by Gloria Swanson just as her early career was coming to a close. Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. promoted the notion that Ms. Swanson was some kind of fossil from a by-gone age, even though at the time she played Norma Desmond she was only fifty years old. Perfect Understanding has another big must-see angle for star-crazy film fans: Swanson's romantic partner in the film is none other than Laurence Olivier. Casual American viewers probably haven't seen many Olivier films prior to Wuthering Heights but the much-admired actor had been grinding away before the cameras since 1931. Olivier has gone on record as wishing his career prior to the William Wyler classic could be wiped away -- he judged his early film acting to be awful, unwatchable.
Story credit here goes to the prolific writer Miles Malleson, who was better known as an eccentric character actor. American socialite Judy Rogers (Gloria Swanson) and local lad Nicholas Randall (Laurence Olivier) are favored guests in a smart set of wealthy Englanders. They're deeply in love but Judy frets over the commitment represented by marriage. Their wedded friends George and Kitty Drayton (Michael Farmer & Genevieve Tobin) aren't always happy, and Lady Stephanie and Sir John Fitzmaurice (Nora Swinburne & Charles Collum) don't get along at all. Judy and Nick draft a handwritten contract requiring them both to remain 'individuals' even after marriage. Their continental honeymoon is a delight, but jealousy and suspicion soon cause problems. The straying Stephanie seduces Nick at Cannes, and Nick becomes convinced that Judy has spent the night with their personal friend Ivan Ronnson (John Halliday). When Judy becomes pregnant Nick leaps to false conclusions. What was supposed to be the perfect marriage of two beautiful people ends up in divorce court.
A desire to observe legends Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier at opposite career ends is an aid to enjoying Perfect Understanding, as the movie itself is a taxing trifle, a much-ado-about-nothing tale of love and marriage among people so indolent, they have to invent new problems for themselves. The marriage crisis is the same one examined in the Hollywood pictures Illicit, its remake Ex-Lady and Noël Coward & Ernst Lubitch's Design for Living. All deal with 'modern sophisticates' that distrust conventional marriage vows and yearn instead for a more flexible way of managing a long-term relationship. Only the Lubitsch picture really thinks that its lovers Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper and Fredrick March could have a permanent three-way living relationship, and it's a more than slightly daffy comedy.
Perfect Understanding takes itself absolutely seriously. No real conflict develops between the lovers, only a series of misunderstandings. Fancy social gatherings exist to allow people to sneak out to the garden together, so that innocent conversations can be misconstrued as forbidden lovemaking. The foolish Nick apparently sleeps with Stephanie, who wants to ditch her noble husband and shack up with the young rake. Her feelings are understandable because every other Englishman in the show is a dunderheaded grump (her husband), a mindless glad-hander (Kitty's husband George) or a brooding predator (Ivan Ronnson).
This being the glorious age of the double standard, Nick can disassociate himself from his one-nighter with Stephanie just by saying he's sorry. Judy doesn't get off nearly so easy. When Ivan presses his attentions too strongly, she leaves his house and wanders around the neon district all night, unsure of her own feelings. Based on the evidence of her car still parked outside Ivan's, Nick assumes that Judy and Ivan spent the night doing the deed, and curdles into bitter resentment. So much for their loving marriage contract, with its talk about total freedom and 'no questions asked'.
The dramatics involved are fairly forgettable. In the first scene, a romantic conflict in the servant quarters ends up with a maid stabbed in the garden, reminding the refined guests that jealous passion affects everyone. There's no follow-up on the incident, however, presumably because what happens to the hired help isn't important. The society folk routinely assume the worst and take gossip at face value; nobody bothers to ask a simple question or check a fact or two. The final act's unrewarding narrative twist proposes that for Nick to foil an unwanted divorce decree, it must be made to look as if Judy was unfaithful as well. Swanson and Olivier seem excited to get back together again, but the ending is more than a little inelegant.
Meanwhile, we can't help but notice that the entire cast lives in an impenetrable bubble of luxury and privilege. The outside world doesn't exist. The most trying problem is deciding who will join whom in the Alps or at Cannes for vacation. Disharmonious marriages are just (sigh) something that happens. Lady Stephanie says that she got married too young, that she's now decided that Nick's the man for her, and her happiness is just as important as Judy's. Other folk bumble about while the slightly nefarious Ivan waits for Judy's moment of emotional weakness so he can proposition her. He wears one unexplained black glove at all times and is identified as an explorer. An inadvertently hilarious moment has Ivan giving Judy a choice: stay with him, or he'll leave the next morning on yet another expedition! At least Ivan has some kind of day job, as nobody else seems occupied with anything but pleasure.
Laurence Olivier is satisfactory as Nick, mainly because he's asked to do little more than look dashing and refined and coo a few lines of love talk. He overdoes the jealousy a bit, going beyond dark brooding into a gloomy intensity too strong for the film's tone. Our reaction is to think, 'snap out of it, dummy'. Then in her early '30s Gloria Swanson is definitely beautiful, with silent-movie facial features that seem almost too emphatic. When she smiles, she looks radiant, as opposed to the "grinning Dracula" effect Billy Wilder achieved with her in Sunset Blvd.. Swanson's line readings aren't all that consistent either. The clichéd script is again the problem. Judy can express her feelings perfectly well, but at the first sign of confrontation she freezes into a silent martyr act, doing nothing to keep Nick from assuming the worst. We can't say that the actors generate much chemistry together but as individuals they're always interesting. Overcoming our preconceptions isn't easy... the two stars were born just ten years apart, yet something tells us that they shouldn't co-exist in the same cinematic space.
As a production Perfect Understanding is glossy but undistinguished. The women never wear the same fashions twice and a big piece of the show is an extended European travelogue. It looks as if scenes in Paris, Germany and Cannes are all filmed with doubles matched to cutaways of the actors back on London sound stages. But we do see some home movie-like shots of Swanson and Olivier at the Eiffel Tower, etc.. Henry Sullivan's music covers montages of rich folk enjoying fun, sport and travel all over the continent. It's all pretty generic, showing all the glitz and glamour the ordinary movie patrons never got to share. The movie is described as lighthearted and hilarious, but it doesn't really play as a comedy.
MIles Malleson and Garrett Graham are the writers credited on screen, and an un-credited Michael Powell has since been identified as an additional contributor to the script. We can understand why he might not mind being passed over. Miles Malleson appears in a small part as well, as a master of ceremonies over a boat race-combo-drinking contest at Cannes. He looks very young, very thin and still very weird. The spoiled playboys start with a few drinks, and then roar off in their speedboats to a number of relay points, where they're given more drinks. It's irresponsible & decadent and annoyingly credible: no wonder there's a smashup on the sprint back to the finish line. I don't think I'd get away with using such an accident as an excuse for adultery, as does Nick. "You see, I was dinged up and stinking drunk and Stephanie was there when they hauled me out of the bay. So what else could I do but have sex with her?" No, Olivier doesn't actually say anything like that.
The Cohen Film Collection's Blu-ray of Perfect Understanding is an okay encoding of a very rare movie, reportedly sourced from Gloria Swanson's one remaining print. The main titles are designed in an Art Deco style, and superimposed over live action scenes. Swanson sings the movie's rather awkward theme tune, I Love You So Much That I Hate You in a little boat in the first scene, and over the end titles. Her voice is very pleasant.
Clearly taken from an optical track, the audio is boomy, with the relatively loud music underscore not helping us understand all of what's being said. Subtitles really would have helped (and should be standard on all discs).
For extras the CFC gives us two Mack Sennett short subject talkies, the connection to Gloria Swanson possibly being her own apprenticeship at the Sennett Studio years before. Each short's main title has been replaced with a later TV syndication card. Both are vehicles for 'Top Banana' comedian Walter Catlett. In Dream Stuff (director: William Beaudine) one of the suitors for Joyce Compton's hand is Franklin Pangborn, who proves that he can handle slapstick comedy with the best of them. In Husband's Reunion (director: George Marshall) the somewhat obnoxious Catlett keeps showing up to spoil the new marriage of his ex-wife, Nora Lane. What makes it work is the silly new hubby, the eternally clueless Grady Sutton.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Perfect Understanding Blu-ray rates:
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