A Far From Perfect Understanding (1933)

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In 1929, after a successful career in silent film and at the height of her popularity, Gloria Swanson was preparing for her transition to “talkies,” the earliest, raw experiments in bringing sound to motion pictures. Her sound debut was in the 1929 drama written and directed by Edmund Goulding, The Trespasser. Swanson earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance, the second of her career. Her first nomination was for Sadie Thompson (1928), one of her most popular films, and her third and final nod was for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), losing out to Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday (1950). (Swanson’s loss was a shock to many in Hollywood, and especially the actress herself, creating quite the controversy, and is still a hotly debated topic among fans of classic film almost seventy years later.) Despite her popularity during the 1920s, and like so many of her silent film contemporaries, Swanson’s career didn’t weather the transition to sound. After a handful of films in the early 1930s, including What a Widow! (1930); 1931’s Indiscreet (not to be confused with Stanley Donen’s 1958 film Indiscreet starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman); and Tonight or Never (1931) with Melvyn Douglas, Swanson’s career was floundering. In 1933, Swanson turned to Britain’s Ealing Studios, serving as producer on the romantic dramedy, Perfect Understanding.

Directed by Cyril Gardner and also starring a young, devastatingly handsome Laurence Olivier in one of his earliest roles, along with supporting performances by John Halliday and the delightful Genevieve Tobin, Perfect Understanding chronicles the passionate courtship of two young lovers, Judy Rogers and Nicholas Randall (Swanson and Olivier). Judy and Nicholas soon marry, and, in true pre-code fashion, the couple agrees to a very continentally modern, semi-open marriage. With their rather naïve “cake and eat it too” attitude about their marital commitment, including a romantic “contract” promising to never act as husband and wife, but rather as “lover and mistress,” it’s not long before the newlyweds are on shaky ground.

On the heels of a lavish European honeymoon, Judy travels back home ahead of Nicholas. While staying with friends, Nicholas has a drunken affair with a former lover, but immediately feels regret. In an effort to maintain their honesty and “perfect understanding” Nicholas confesses his infidelity to Judy. Heartbroken, Judy is willing to forgive Nicholas, but not after serious reflection and a visit with friend Ivan Ronnson (Halliday), who professes his love, asking Judy to spend the night with him, leading to a perfect misunderstanding.

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Despite its cast, Perfect Understanding isn’t a very good film. It feels familiar in a bad way, like a Corky St. Clair production starring his Blaine Community Players in an adaptation of The Divorcee (1930), complete with bad singing. (No offense to dear Mr. St. Clair and his acting troupe.) Matter of fact, while watching, I said to my husband, “I’ve seen this movie before; it’s called The Divorcee.” It suffers from dry, stilted dialogue, awkward and misplaced musical cues and an overdone plot. Although Swanson is a dynamic presence in front of the camera, her body language and gestures, more in the style of acting in silent film and live theater performance, are overly dramatic and distracting. Constantly upstaged by Swanson, Olivier offers very little to his role, other than being absolutely gorgeous eye candy for adoring fans. The modern married couple and infidelity-as-relationship-test trope is popular in film, particularly in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s. Although frequently used, there are many unique takes on the theme. In addition to The Divorcee, films such as Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) starring Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March, and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, provide heartfelt, and oftentimes hilarious circumstances for its couples to fall in—and out—of love…and eventually back in again.

While Perfect Understanding is no masterpiece, it is an important film at a crucial point in Swanson’s career. Her role as producer on the film is noteworthy and commendable as she was attempting to take control of her career. Unfortunately, the material just wasn’t good enough to favorably restore her star image amongst fickle audiences. But fortunately for Swanson, she had one more chance to preserve her image as the faded, crazed starlet Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a staple cinematic icon. She couldn’t have asked for a better way to be remembered.

Jill Blake

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