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July 22, 2013

Movie Review: Perfect Understanding (1933, Blu-ray)

Directed by Cyril Gardner
Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Too rich and too thin couple Judy (Gloria Swanson) and Nicholas Randall (26-year-old Laurence Olivier) wish to marry, but don’t want to be held down by the constraints of one-man, one-woman. They both sign a prenuptial agreement to rule out any jealousy, amounting to an “open marriage.” They marry, with so-called friend Ivan (John Halliday) burning with covetousness over the off-the-market Judy. They have a whirlwind honeymoon through Europe, which includes Germany (considering the time of this film’s release, probably wasn’t that much fun!) and France. Judy returns home to London while in the meantime, Nicholas engages in a boat race that involves downing cocktails while piloting motorboats in Cannes. In this prescient version of The Hunger Games, no one is killed but Nicholas is injured in a collision. He is nursed back to health in an intimate manner by old friend Stephanie (Nora Swinburne). Nicholas confesses the affair to Judy, who runs to the arms of Ivan in retaliation – there are the expected complications, but will true love win out in the end?

Perfect Understanding is a remarkable film on many several levels, but there exists a serious roadblock in enjoying the film today. The example of an early “soundie,” the muffled dialogue is very hard to hear over the incessant musical soundtrack. Subtitles for the hard of hearing would have been a very welcome extra. Swanson, who was losing favor with the advent of sound after enjoying silent screen icon status, produced the film herself. There is an awful lot of young, emerging talent on view. Olivier is extremely awkward in one of his first motion picture roles, but one hears he had a pretty dim view of his film work, preferring the stage. The racy for its time script is the work of 27-year-old Michael Powell, the acclaimed writer-director of The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom (1960).

Overall, the film failed to ignite Swanson’s sound career, which is a shame as she is an electrifying screen presence who speaks very well. It’s mystifying as why she didn’t catch on with the talkies, as her magnetic charm and vibrant gray eyes captivate the screen. She would have to wait until 1950 to declare in Sunset Boulevard, “We had faces then!” 

Perfect Understanding has a host of controversial subject matter – adultery, pregnancy, open relationships – that will disappear from screens with the advent of the Hays Code. The film’s critical reputation has suffered over the years, as it’s no longer considered as envelope-pushing as it was when it was released. Perfect Understanding is best appreciated as an early effort from the legendary British production company Ealing Studios from young talents who went on the long and storied careers. 

Rounding out the deal on the Cohen Media Group Blu-Ray are two Mack Sennett comedy shorts, Husband’s Reunion and Dream Stuff (both 1933). The sound recording here is very clear and the humor is more than just a tad on the naughty side. Dream Stuff features classic film sissy Franklin Pangborn in an early role – so how can you go wrong? All in all, a not bad effort from Cohen Media Group, who promises a slew of very highbrow film fare for the near future.

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