Major disconnect. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Private Number, the 1936 romantic drama from Fox, directed by Roy Del Ruth, and starring Robert Taylor, Loretta Young, Basil Rathbone, Patsy Kelly Joe E. Lewis, Marjorie Gateson, Paul Harvey, Jane Darwell, Billy Bevan, and Monroe Owsley. Based on a hit Broadway play and subsequent pre-Code 1930 movie smash, Common Clay, this Private Number remake eliminates almost all of the grit from the original storyline(s), leaving behind a good-looking corpse of romantic misunderstandings and tasteful social bigotry. Pretty and blah...or rather, pretty blah. No extras for this fairly good black and white transfer.
In the tony rural enclaves far outside New York City, castle-like Winfield Manor stands as if transported from 19th century British aristocratic splendor...right down to its haughty, imperious major domo, head butler Wroxton (Basil Rathbone). Taking sadistic delight in upbraiding his large staff (...as well as taking a 15% cut of their pay to ensure their continued employment), Wroxton is mesmerized when broke 17-year-old beauty Ellen Neal (Loretta Young) shows up for an interview, an interview facilitated by kindly wiseacre maid Gracie (Patsy Kelly), who takes pity on the poor kid who don't have but two nickels to rub together, see. Immediately hired, Ellen immediately realizes that bewitched Wroxton wants more than just the silver and brass knockers er, um...polished, so she forms a quick friendship with b-breaking c-blocker Gracie, even going so far as to double-date with her and her fella, Smiley Watson (Joe E. Lewis). That date, however, soon leads to disaster when the trusting Ellen is hoodwinked into taking a ride home from weasel-eyed sharpie Coakley (Monroe Owsley), who gets Ellen raided at a gambling house/speakeasy/whorehouse. Bailed out by Wroxton, who knows a good opportunity for sexual blackmail when he sees it, Ellen can guess what's coming next when Wroxton dismisses the entire staff for a few months--except Ellen--when the Winfields plan on leaving for a summer vacation. Luckily, happily rich Mrs. Winfield (Marjorie Gateson), taking a shine to the little nobody who ironed her party dress so nicely, saves the day by ordering Ellen and Gracie to come along, too, for a summer of drudgery and dogsbody debasement in beautiful Maine. Once there, if Ellen is lucky, she can dance again with handsome college man Richard Winfield (Robert Taylor), scion to the Winfield millions, who doesn't care a whit if gorgeous Ellen has been brought forth from lowly scum. With all that carefree speed boating, and dinner dances on the shore, and surreptitious grab-ass out in the moonlight--inbetween a daily ten hours of grueling scullery work, of course--what girl could resist Richard's million-dollar
Apparently, what came before Private Number--one of those silly poll-generated, generically-titillating titles the studios would select by committee back in the 30s--was far more interesting than what Taylor and Young enacted for no doubt large, weepy female audiences back in 1936. Playwright Cleves Kinkead hit paydirt with Common Clay, the 1915 Broadway smash (originally published in 1914 as Hush Money) that would eventually be adapted four times for the big screen (...not counting countless imitations and rip-off variations on the plotline). The story of a servant girl ruined by a wealthy family that shuns her when she dares reveal the family's young heir apparent has impregnated her, Common Clay would be adapted into a 1919 silent of the same name, starring Fannie Ward, where the story involved the young heroine discovering she's the illegitimate daughter of the judge deciding her court case against the wealthy family (her ashamed mother committed suicide, orphaning the child). In 1930, the play was adapted again, this time by Fox Films, and again entitled Common Clay, starring Constance Bennett and Lew Ayres. Directed by Victor Fleming, this version of the story had the same twists of illegitimacy and suicide, but Bennett's newly discovered father was the wealthy family's lawyer, and the son character deliberately seduced Bennett strictly for the sex, dumping her when the baby is announced, with his family actively trying to destroy her reputation as retribution against this breakdown in the social order (a Spanish language version, Del mismo barro, was shot simultaneously). It was a smash hit, and catapulted the beautiful Bennett to the top ranks of Hollywood stars.
1936's Private Number, however, coming out two years after the Production Code was finally and rigorously adhered-to by the studios, jettisoned anything that would bring the censors to fits, while smoothing over into bland (and rather nonsensical) histrionics the far juicier melodramatic aspects of the original storyline. Gone was the girl's illegitimacy, her mother's suicide, and the predatory, selfish nature of the rich heir's seduction. Instead, Loretta Young arrives at the Winfield Manor door looking like the most ravishing creature who ever starved on a bread line, with her "legitimacy" or otherwise, never mentioned. Her romance with swell egg Robert Taylor is just that: a chaste romance--not dirty, sweaty carnality (on his part), but the stuff of hearts and flowers, shot in dewy and expensive picture postcard-lyricism by expert Fox cinematographer, J. Peverell Marley. Young's pregnancy by Taylor is preceded by marriage this time around (I wonder how Young felt shooting this, so soon after her own similar situation with Gable?), with Taylor desperate to get Young back despite numerous attempts by his family (aided by jealous sneak Rathbone) to poison the waters. Indeed, the only thing even remotely resembling a sticky moral complication the audience is made to ponder here, since the movie refuses to comment on any other potential landmines, like the cavalier, patronizing treatment of the staff; specifically Ellen-as-pet, by her "betters"--the shunning of Young by Taylor's parents after they learn she's pregnant with their grandchild--is completely ameliorated at the end during Taylor's supposed mea culpa when he exonerates his parents' actions as sensible, expected actions from concerned, loving parents. All's well that end's well is Private Number's motto...with all the dirty spots well scrubbed out prior to offense.
I suppose one could still manage, at a more basic level, to enjoy certain aspects of Private Number (since the more base level has been censored): appreciation for the ultra-smooth, glossy production and the generally good level of acting here. Now largely ignored director Roy Del Ruth, one of the most dependable, successful studio helmers of the 1930s, knew a thing or two about guiding pre-Code titillation (Blonde Crazy, The Maltese Falcon). Here, with the sensationalistic elements removed from his story, Del Ruth concentrates on the big, expensive interior sets and dressings, his invisible camera direction, and the performances. Headliner Taylor, borrowed from M-G-M, doesn't have to do much except look handsome and ingratiating; it's the kind of inconsequential role he'd eventually leave behind as his stardom began to really rocket. Young executes her specialty--suffering prettily--flawlessly, while the rest of the cast does well, particularly Patsy Kelly (whose unvarnished tone is probably most relevant today, compared to Young's and Taylor's vintage thesping). Basil Rathbone, though, walks off with the picture, playing his calculating, controlling butler as if he's a sinister vampire in a Universal horror flick (aided by Marley frequently shooting him in half-shadow), a martinet monster who goes all soft and quite mad whenever he beholds the beautiful Young (Rathbone's close-ups are wonderfully expressive of his combined lust, longing, and psychosis). Too bad Private Number couldn't have been a "horror" movie focused on just Rathbone and his sick pursuit of Young, rather than this utterly safe, predictable romance, masquerading as a "social drama."
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.