THE DVD SHELF: "Perfect Understanding," Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last!," Political Thriller "House of Cards" and "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"

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30 Jun 2013

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This month's column looks at the obscure talkie "Perfect Understanding," with Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier; Harold Lloyd's silent classic "Safety Last!"; Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards" and a complete box set of the early '60s sitcom, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."


Among the stellar names on the list of silent screen stars who saw their careers collapse, with the arrival of talking pictures, is Gloria Swanson. Her first talkie, "The Trespasser" (1929), was a success; this was initially made as a silent, and quickly refilmed in a sound version. She tried a second talkie in 1930 and another in 1931, and both were failures. Swanson, her fame nevertheless undiminished, went to England in 1933 to star in — and produce — "Perfect Understanding" [Cohen]. This one quickly disappeared, and after one more attempt in 1934 the star drifted into celluloid oblivion. Swanson never quite disappeared, but her screen stardom was long past when in 1950 she was unexpectedly "ready for her close-up" in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard."

The all-but-unseen "Perfect Understanding" now surprisingly turns up from the new Cohen Film Collection. It is at once interesting, watchable and not very good. Here we have one of those "sophisticated marital" comedies, only it is not very sophisticated. Woman and man, not wishing to become like their unhappily married friends, promise each other that their marriage will be based on a "perfect understanding" of trust and honesty. She leaves him alone in Cannes during their extended honeymoon — she trusts him so much, you see — which leaves him unable to resist the advances of an ex-mistress. Back in London, he confesses. She goes off with another man (although not actually); but he thinks the worst — especially when she turns out to be pregnant. They file for divorce, but during the trial he discovers the truth. They kiss, make up, and, while the lawyers are fighting it out, tip-toe away like Elyot and Amanda in Noël Coward's 1930 comedy Private Lives.

The Private Lives connection is real, as it happens; Swanson's husband was played by stage star but screen newcomer Laurence Olivier, who had been featured in the original London and New York productions of the Coward play. Swanson and Olivier make a strange couple of "young" lovers; he was a more or less suitable 26, but she was 34 — and had been a celebrity since he was 14. (While their roles are equivalent and they share star billing on the DVD release, Swanson gets sole star billing on the film itself. Olivier, in fact, isn't even billed; his name appears only on the cast list.) The script was written by Michael Powell, long before he got around to those "Red Shoes."


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