Mental illness wasn’t exactly the kind of subject matter that had audiences flocking to darkened theaters during Hollywood’s golden age. It was on rare occasions that a studio would delve into the complicated world of psychosis but when it did, it was usually interesting and respected if not extremely popular. The Snake Pit, produced by 20th Century-Fox in 1948, was one of the best-known and finest examples of the sensitive subject matter on celluloid. Thirteen years earlier, however, Paramount had made Private Worlds, which starred Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea and examined the administrative aspect of a mental hospital with romantic elements thrown in to add spice.
Drs. Jane Everest and Alex MacGregor (Colbert and McCrea) are psychiatrists; colleagues who work very closely together at the Brentwood clinic, a facility for those with mental illness. Although they are close, there is no hanky-panky between the two professionals, just mutual respect and camaraderie. Alex is married to Sally (Joan Bennett), an innocent, young woman who loves her husband deeply and is emotionally dependent on him. Jane has no romantic entanglements, instead carrying a burning torch for her love, lost years ago during World War I. When a new superintendent arrives at Brentwood, he finds bitterness and animosity from MacGregor, who had hoped to gain the position himself. The new head honcho, Dr. Charles Monet (Charles Boyer), is of the belief that women should not hold such lofty positions in the medical field, as Dr. Jane has for some time, and reassigns her to lesser responsibilities at the hospital.
The problems really begin when Monet’s flighty and flirtatious sister, who has a shady past, sets her sights on the handsome MacGregor. While the young doctor begins to see this piece of work “socially,” his emotionally fragile wife slowly begins to sink into a mental decline. Jane also finds drama when she begins to be drawn to Monet and vice versa.
Joan Bennett and Claudette Colbert
Claudette Colbert was riding a career high in the mid-Thirties. While filming Private Worlds, Colbert won an Academy Award for the famed screwball comedy It Happened One Night, released the previous year. 1934 also saw her star turns in the original version of Imitation of Life and the exotic lead in Cecil B. De Mille’s Cleopatra. Fresh off this win she was nominated for her work in Private Worlds. As Dr. Monet, Charles Boyer gives an interesting performance, though not definitive. New to Hollywood, Boyer had a heavy, very distinctive French accent, which would be an extreme liability for most actors but for Boyer it became his trademark (the same could be said of fellow Frenchman Maurice Chevalier) and would be imitated by celebrity impersonators often.
Private Worlds was based on a novel by authoress Phyllis Bottom, who had a number of her books translated to the screen, the most famous being The Mortal Storm at MGM in 1940. According to Joan Bennett, her future husband Walter Wanger, who produced the movie, was offered the film rights to the Phyllis Bottom book, after he had read it, while in England. Although initially refusing, the producer changed his mind when he realized the book was a bestseller. When Paramount obtained the rights to Bottom’s story, Gregory La Cava was chosen to direct what was basically uncharted film territory. La Cava got his start in the early days of motion pictures in charge of an animation unit for newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and creating animated shorts with famed cartoonist Walter Lantz. When he made Private Worlds, his best-known films, My Man Godfrey and Stage Door, had yet to be made.
In her supporting role, Joan Bennett was able to stretch her acting wings more than she ever had before, bringing in one of her most dramatic parts to that date. In her memoir, The Bennett Playbill, the actress called her part as Sally “the first really challenging and the most dramatic role I’d played up to that time.” She named Private Worlds as one of six films out of her entire career of seventy movies that she felt was “acceptable.”
As part of the MCA/Universal library, which houses the Paramount collection of movies from this era, Private Worlds is a rarity for modern classic movie lovers. It is, however, worth the view if ever you get the chance to catch it.