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A young couple decide to marry under the condition that they agree never to disagree. That agreement is soon put to the test when the husband finds himself attracted to a beautiful young woman.
For more about Perfect Understanding and the Perfect Understanding Blu-ray release, see Perfect Understanding Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on May 23, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Starring: Gloria Swanson, Laurence Olivier, John Halliday, Genevieve Tobin, Nora Swinburne
Director: Cyril Gardner
» See full cast & crew
Perfect Understanding Blu-ray Review
A curio from Cohen.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, May 23, 2013
"Do I have news for you". Any married man out there knows when his wife bursts through the door with that particular phrase there are only a limited number of options on the table. Perhaps there's a new baby on the way (which in my marriage's particular case might be akin to the shocking revelation given to Abraham and Sarah). Or more likely the husband has done something dunderheaded which the wife has just discovered. Or just maybe there's some really juicy gossip the wife can't wait to share with her husband. The latter was the case a few days ago when my wife entered our home fairly bristling with excitement and shared that she had just found out an acquaintance of hers was attempting to have a so-called "open marriage", leaving both partners open to having other relationships. In this particular case, only the wife was engaging in this gambit, leaving the hapless husband to figure out where he stood in all the ensuing chaos, and my wife was rather shocked by it all. Perhaps this couple's marriage counselor (and, yes, they evidently are in counseling) might want to have them watch the little seen 1933 film Perfect Understanding, an early attempt to help matriculate Gloria Swanson into the talkies which is perhaps just as notable for the "featured" actor playing her husband—one Laurence Olivier (long before that "Sir" started prefixing his name). One assumes that this offering is meant to be a lighter than air soufflé, but when a film has two newly married people either betraying their marriage vows or at the very least seeming to, and with an hour and a half or so of resultant discord and threats of divorce, there's fairly little to laugh at. Perfect Understanding is probably best viewed today as an occasionally interesting relic from the filmographies of two iconic performers as well as a very notable future auteur.
Perfect Understanding would be an odd enough film as it is, but a cursory glance at the credits makes it even more peculiar when its co-scenarist is brought into focus. Michael Powell of course became one of the legendary figures in film due to his collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, a pairing which resulted in a number of iconic films, including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (as well as a host of other offerings which haven't made their way to Blu-ray). Powell's career came to a rather sudden halt in 1960 when Peeping Tom was released, shocking audiences and making Powell persona non grata in the British film industry (you can read a little about the film in my Psycho Blu-ray review). Perfect Understanding came fairly early in Powell's long and (mostly) illustrious career, and it finds the future auteur plying what might be termed Noel Coward territory, an exposé of the interrelationships between (mostly) upper crust people who can't quite seem to get their amorous acts together. There is also a nod or two to the lower classes scattered throughout the film, and while it never attains the same level of greatness, parts of Perfect Understanding's multifaceted approach to the vagaries of love are quite reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's lovely Smiles of a Summer Night.
Gloria Swanson is of course largely remembered today for her epochal turn as Norma Desmond in the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard, but younger audiences at least may not be aware that the actress' career actually spanned back to the early days of the silents, an era where Swanson was one of the undisputed queens of the genre. Not traditionally beautiful by any stretch of the imagination, Swanson still managed to craft a rather successful career, and she was one of the first major stars to realize that the power often lay behind the camera, and so she turned to producing as early as the 1920s. Swanson's not particularly melodious voice made her transition to the talkies pretty rough, and she never really managed to maintain her level of visibility as films moved into the sound era, and in fact it really wasn't until Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s that she burst back into mainstream acclaim. Perfect Understanding was in fact produced by Swanson and it offers the actress an unusual role, one which actually gets shunted to the sidelines for much of the film as the character played by a very young Laurence Olivier takes center stage.
The film is perhaps best summed up by the peculiar song which opens the film and which recurs throughout it in one form or another. It's a lively little ditty called "I Love You So Much I Hate You", and it is ostensibly sung by Swanson in the film's opening scene, which finds her character Judy cavorting with beau Nicholas (Olivier) in a docked boat which has a phonograph playing a record which accompanies Judy. (I personally think Swanson is lip synching, though I could be wrong. As fans of the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation of Sunset Boulevard may be aware, Swanson herself tried to get a musical version of the property on the boards decades before Webber's version became a huge hit. Swanson had a score commissioned and she recorded several songs as demos in order to attract potential investors. If you haven't heard these recordings, let's just be charitable and say Swanson was no Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley or any of the other inimitable singer-actresses who have essayed the iconic role.)
Perfect Understanding follows the travails of Judy and Nicholas, both members of polite society in 1930s England, after they decide to attempt a "modern" marriage based on a contract that offers them both "perfect understanding"—that is, an implied consent that dalliances will be tolerated, even grudgingly approved, and that any such minor peccadilloes will be easily overlooked. Of course the reality doesn't quite match the expectation, and when Nicholas actually strays with his former lover Lady Stephanie Fitzmaurice (Nora Swinburne) shortly after the honeymoon, all bets are off. There are an increasingly unbelievable and over convoluted series of misunderstandings that accrue, including a mistaken belief on the part of Nicholas that Judy has herself engaged in an affair as payback for his bad behavior, all of it ultimately leading to divorce court. As should perhaps already be evident, this doesn't exactly have the air of a sparkling frisson of light comedy. And in fact, Perfect Understanding just isn't very funny. It's actually kind of sad and melancholy, anchored by a rather unexpectedly moving performance by Swanson, especially in the scene where Nicholas confesses his "sin".
This is by my count the second Blu-ray released under the Cohen Film Collection imprint of Cohen Media Group, a label that overall has been releasing some really interesting titles over the past several months, films as diverse as The Thief of Bagdad (the first Cohen Film Collection Blu-ray), Tristana , The Other Son and Farewell, My Queen (just to name a few). Perfect Understanding would seem a rather odd bedfellow even with this disparate group. A little remembered film that is probably most notable for its cast and its co-writer, it's a peculiar little film that never really catches fire comedically, but which may offer enough of a curiosity value to entice at least film history buffs who might find an early Michael Powell screenplay of more than passing interest.
Perfect Understanding Blu-ray, Video Quality
Perfect Understanding is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Cohen Film Collection with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.34:1. Given reasonable expectations, most videophiles will be mostly pleased with this high definition presentation, one that has been rather well restored from elements which nonetheless have some noticeable issues. While damage is relatively minor and limited more to things like print through than any horrible scratches or blemishes, contrast is highly variable throughout this enterprise. For the bulk of the film, it's rather good, with especially lustrous blacks, but more than a time or two things look relatively washed out. There are also a couple of missing frames, though nothing so drastic as to overly distract. Some of the stock footage, notably that which establishes the Cannes sequence, is noticeably less clear than the bulk of the film, and may have been sourced from 16mm. Fine detail is adequate if not overwhelming, and despite the fact has obviously been digitally cleaned, there's still a healthy layer of grain in evidence.
Perfect Understanding Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Perfect Understanding features an LPCM Mono track delivered via LPCM 2.0. There are some prevalent issues with this track that the uncompressed presentation can't overcome and perhaps ironically exacerbate. The stems seem to have become damaged somewhere along the way, so that a long period of relatively unaffected audio will suddenly give way to a muffled, scratchy sequence where dialogue is extremely hard to make out. (This problem is further hampered by the lack of subtitles on this release, something Cohen might want to think about for future releases that may have these same issues.) The overall sound here is obviously very boxy and tinny sounding, as befits these early days of the sound era. When there's no overt damage to overcome, there still tends to be an overabundance of hiss, again to be expected, but something that tends to interfere with a clear understanding of the dialogue.
Perfect Understanding Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Two Mack Sennett shorts from 1933 are included:
Perfect Understanding Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Perfect Understanding is a rather odd outing, certainly one of the more unexpected catalog titles to have made its way to Blu-ray. Michael Powell aficionados may be the most interested in this outing, though this early screenplay bears very little relation to his later work. Swanson is surprisingly affecting in this film, but Olivier is still finding his sea legs as a film actor. Film history buffs may want to check out this peculiar release, but even they should be prepared for some problematic audio and occasionally less than pristine video.
Perfect Understanding Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Perfect Understanding Blu-ray - May 6, 2013
Cohen Media Group has announced and detailed the newly restored and fully remastered Blu-ray release of director Cyril Gardner and writer Michael Powell's Perfect Understanding, starring cinema icons Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier. The 1933 romantic comedy ...
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