Past eras are frequently characterized as “a more innocent time”, but the annals of film prove otherwise. To wit, before there was Friends with Benefits, there was Perfect Understanding.
A comic melodrama from 1933, Perfect Understanding was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD by Cohen Media Group. The film stands the test of time due to its thematic content; it probes questions about relationships that still befuddle people today. Its content may surprise you, but it probably won’t surprise your grandmother (even if she doesn’t let on).
Perfect Understanding centers on the relationship between Judy (Gloria Swanson) and Nick (Laurence Olivier, early in his film career). The couple are passionately in love and are pondering marriage, but they find themselves surrounded by negative examples of married life. Citing jealousy as a source of marital strife, the two sign a contract — the eponymous “perfect understanding” — that prohibits any jealousy when they marry.
Given its hubristic overtones, the plan inevitably goes awry. After an intensely sexual honeymoon (on which more later), Judy returns to London while Nick goes to Cannes where he has a tryst with a former love interest. Wracked with guilt, Nick confesses his transgression to Judy, launching a spiral of emotional chaos.
Thematically, Perfect Understanding treads similar ground as 2011’s Friends with Benefits — wherein Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis play a couple who question the emotional strings attached to sex and relationships — it just has to be a bit more coy about it.
Perfect Understanding also seems to presage Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). As reported in The Independent, Four Weddings writer Richard Curtis revealed a potential title for the film was “Toffs on Heat”, and this title could just as easily apply to Perfect Understanding. Judy and Nick are indeed members of the upper class; the film opens at a country manor, complete with servants and overseen by Judy’s stout uncle, Lord Portleigh (hahaha). Following their nuptials, Judy and Nick depart — with no apparent concern about jobs or other responsibilities — on an ostensibly months-long honeymoon.
Ah yes, the honeymoon. This lengthy montage provides one of Perfect Understanding’s visual treats: Director Cyril Gardner assembles a rich sequence of scenic views of France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Germany… it’s a delightful a collection of postcards of pre-war Europe.
The tourist reels are intercut with the sex scenes — but these are not ‘sex scenes’ as we understand them today. Filmmakers in the ’30s had to be more inventive, more tongue in cheek. Instead of seeing Nick and Judy in bed, we see a frustrated room-service waiter stymied by a “Do Not Disturb” card hung on a door. Later, we see toast burning at a neglected breakfast table. Still later on, an ignored tea kettle whistles relentlessly — before a jump cut to a train racing into a tunnel. You can almost feel Gardner’s elbow nudging you in the ribs.
There are other confections modern audiences will enjoy. There’s a boat race involving cocktails that, if attempted today, would violate countless maritime laws, likely resulting in significant prison sentences. And in addition to the proto-Four Weddings vibe, there’s an intrigue involving the servants at Lord Portleigh’s manor that feels a bit proto-Downton Abbey — made all the more delightful given Perfect Understanding was shot at London’s Ealing Studios, where Downton Abbey’s “downstairs” sequences are filmed today.
It’s worth noting that Perfect Understanding is 80 years old, and like most octogenarians, it can’t help showing its age here and there. Continuity editing was still in its early years in 1933, so some of the cuts feel a bit abrupt by today’s standards. There are also plenty of moments when Perfect Understanding feels less like a film and more like a filmed stage play; accordingly, some of the emotions come across as overwrought on screen. The soundtrack, despite the noble restoration work by Crawford Media Services, gets a bit muddy sometimes, and the musical score’s audio levels feel largely disproportionate (i.e., much, much louder) than the levels for the dialogue.
The Blu-ray disc includes two Mack Sennett comedy shorts from 1933, “Husband’s Reunion” and “Dream Stuff”, worth watching if only for the witty similes (“You’re cold as a penguin’s hips”) and anachronistic euphemisms (“By … carbonate of soda!”).
Is Perfect Understanding a masterpiece? No. But it’s certainly an entertaining 85 minutes, and it lends insight into the provenance of today’s rom-coms.