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Release Date(s)1933 (June 4, 2013)
Studio(s)United Artists (eOne/Cohen Media Group)
How many married couples ever reach a perfect understanding? While such wedded bliss is possible, don’t look to the couple at the center of 1933’s Perfect Understanding. The film co-written by Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus) and directed by Cyril Gardner has recently been unearthed by the classic cinema specialists at eOne and The Cohen Media Group’s Cohen Film Collection. If it’s not exactly a lost classic, it’s the kind of curiosity worth exploring, particularly thanks to the performances of Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier, long before Sir or Lord preceded his name. It’s a very welcome release as the film is certainly one of the most unknown titles in either actor’s filmography.
Swanson, seeking to establish herself in the brave new world of “talkies,” not only starred in Perfect Understanding, but produced it independently at the famed Ealing Studios. In the film set among the upper-crust elite of British society, Swanson plays Judith Rogers, who won’t marry Nicholas Randall (Laurence Olivier) unless they reach a “perfect understanding.” After all, she explains early in the film that “I don’t think people ought to marry just because they’re in love!” She’s looking for something “much more stable” than the typical marriage, so she and the dashing Randall enter into a “Marriage Contract” reading: “Above everything else, to remain individual.” The script by Powell and Miles Malleson is actually quite progressive in its depiction of the male/female dynamic and how not every loving couple might be marriage material. While Judy and Nick agree never to disagree, old flames soon re-enter the picture and their Perfect Understanding looks as if it just might crumble.
Though billed as a romantic comedy, Perfect Understanding actually isn’t much of either. The central failing of director Gardner’s picture is its lack of a consistent tone. It veers from melodrama – accompanied by bombastic orchestral flourishes – to outright slapstick in the final scene, and aims for, and falls short of, Noel Coward-esque wit. The class system has always been a favored subject of British motion pictures and stage plays, and the foibles of the rich have always been a ripe target for skewering. But the screenplay doesn’t sparkle despite its appropriately arch dialogue. It’s just not particularly funny, satiric or witty, despite its best efforts. (Following one particularly dramatic swell of music, a shout is heard: “The cook stabbed the maid!” Trouble ensues.) There are some delightful moments, though, such as the opening of Swanson lip-synching (?) to a record of an eccentric song entitled “I Love You So Much I Hate You.”
The best part of the film is its lush photography by Curt Courant. The couple’s honeymoon takes them all over Europe, including Paris and Venice, and the glamorous, pre – World War II locales are shot appealingly. Following the honeymoon, though, Nick and Judy go their separate ways so that he can attend a boat race in Cannes and she can set up the flat in London. This, of course, leads to trouble both for the characters and the film itself. Perfect Understanding ignores Swanson’s Judy for a long stretch, preferring to focus on Nick’s exploits in Cannes. Though the footage of the boat race is visually stimulating, all of the potential romance of the picture evaporates with the central couple apart. As for the characters, Judy shouldn’t have been surprised at the possibility that Nick would stray. He’s particularly cynical from early on. When Judy eagerly awaits the first “chapter” of their marriage, he corrects her. It’s not the first chapter; it’s the first “hurdle.” And it’s a tough one to overcome when he confesses having stayed the night at his old girlfriend’s villa.
The subsequent dramatic confrontation between the couple is nicely underplayed, and Perfect Understanding could have used more of the passion and fire briefly seen in this sequence. When the camera lingers on Swanson’s piercing, steely gaze, it’s hard not to see Norma Desmond in there. When Judy admits how hurt she really is by Nick’s broach of trust, she keeps the scene from descending into full-blown melodrama. Complications and misunderstandings soon crop up, but Swanson does best when engaging in such big moments. She’s convincing as she demands to know if Nick made love to his paramour and is believable when confronting “the other woman.” Olivier, for his part, plays the rogue exceedingly well. But despite all of this drama, the film turns madcap in its final minute, following a fraught courtroom scene. The supporting cast – including John Halliday as Judy’s old friend Ivan Ronnson and Nora Swinburne as the sometime-object of Nick’s affection, Lady Stephanie Fitzmaurice – fares well in their roles.
Cohen’s 1080p, 1:34:1 transfer of the original black-and-white film is eminently watchable. The restoration should please most, with grain in evidence. There is no major damage, and blemishes are largely absent, but the print isn’t quite flawless. Images and faces are often washed out, and contrast is sometimes lacking. Frames also appear to be missing at times. Decent as the video generally is, though, the same can’t be said for the sound quality. The LPCM Mono track (via LPCM 2.0) is tinny and hissy throughout, but even worse is the fact that long dialogue sequences suddenly drop out and become muffled. It’s difficult to hear the dialogue during these moments, which makes enjoying this “wordy” film a bit tough. There are, unfortunately, no subtitles provided.
Extras are spare. Just two short comedies, both Mack Sennett productions starring Walter Catlett, are included. Husband’s Reunion and Dream Stuff both date, like Perfect Understanding, from 1933. An eight-page booklet is included with the Blu-ray. Though it contains film stills, it has no text other than credits for three leading players, the director, and producer, as well as a list of the chapter titles.
Though it's certainly an imperfect film, Perfect Understanding should hold appeal to cinephiles as an early work of Gloria Swanson, Laurence Olivier and Michael Powell. As a rare curio that might otherwise have languished in obscurity, it makes a respectable addition to the Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray library.
- Joe Marchese