As a Noel Coward fan I have wanted to see this film for quite a while. It is an MGM production of 1931, the year after the play took both the West End and Broadway by storm with Coward himself and Gertrude Lawrence as the leads (thus creating theatrical legend). But I was also quite apprehensive. "Private Lives" is a delightful play (you can read my comments on a recent production here) but is incredibly stage bound - there are only two sets, there's hardly any action after the first act and it lives or dies on the charisma of its leads and their ability to carry the witty dialogue. So, the casting of Norma Shearer worried me slightly. Full of mannerisms from the silent era and a sense of self importance, she's usually not my cup of tea.
Surprisingly, I was worried needlessly. She is a delightful Amanda, full of life, energy, sexiness, all the requirements to make her come truly alive. Only once did I see one of her exaggerated expressions, and most of time her face revealed the truth of her character's feeling under the witty façade - the best example are the early scenes with Victor, building up to the famous balcony scene. Or a brilliant moment where she was trying not to laugh at Sybil and Victor arguing. True, the adaptation is fairly close to Coward's text which probably didn't do any harm - they opened the action and replaced a flat in Paris for a chalet in Switzerland, but I recognised most of the dialogue. But credit where credit is due and Norma has managed to impress me for the second time - I am now quite curious to see her in another pre-code "Strangers May Kiss", but who knows when that may be.
As for the rest of the cast, well, no one will ever remember the actors who play Sybil and Victor, which are among the most ungrateful parts I know of. Robert Montgomery as Elyot is also very good, but not comparable to Norma. In fact it is very clear that this was HER vehicle and he was there to support HER. But I'm ok with it - although I am not sure if he was.