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The Loretta Young Birthday Blogathon: "Private Number" (1936)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Private Number (1936) tells the story of Ellen Neal (Loretta Young), a beautiful and upstanding girl who is hired as a maid in the house of the affluent Winfield family by their demonically creepy butler, Thomas Wroxton (Basil Rathbone). Wroxton is immediately smitten with her, but she rebuffs his every advance, much to his irritation. When the Winfields' son Richard (Robert Taylor) arrives home from college, he quickly falls in love with Ellen, despite her lower social status. Although she initially refuses to go out with him on the grounds that they are not social equals, Ellen becomes romantically involved with Dick during the family's vacation in Maine. On her 18th birthday, Dick and Ellen secretly marry and she falls pregnant by him shortly before he returns to college.

After his plans to marry Ellen himself fall through, Wroxton informs her in-laws, Perry and Maggie Winfield (Paul Harvey and Majorie Gateson), that she is pregnant. The Winfields confront Ellen, who admits that she is in fact expecting a child, but also that she is married. When she refuses to divulge the name of her husband, Mr. Winfield threatens to fire her, prompting her friend and fellow maid Gracie (Patsy Kelly) to reveal to the family that Ellen is married to Dick. The vengeful Wroxton then tells the Winfields that Ellen married Dick only to blackmail them and, to prove his charge, reveals that the girl has been arrested in a raid on a gambling house, where she was innocently taken to by a crook named Coakley (Monroe Owsley). Deciding that she is an unfit wife for their son, the Winfields offer Ellen a cash settlement, which she refuses in disgust, before leaving the house. Months later, after her baby is born, Ellen is dragged to court by the Winfields, who want to annul the marriage on the grounds of fraud. A lenghtly trial follows, but Wroxton's evil machinations leave Ellen with little chance to win her case. Luckily, Dick discovers the truth and gives the courtoom a moving speech in which he requests that the case be dismissed. After Ellen's name is cleared, Dick finds her at the farmhouse where she has been staying with their child and the two finally reconcile.

Richard Winfield: They're trying to break up a marriage which they say is based on social inequality. It is based on social inequality. Your Honor, I'm not worthy of being Ellen Neal's husband.

The social drama Private Number originated as a Broadway play by Cleves Kinkead called Common Clay, which was initially copyrighted in 1914 under the title Hush Money. Starring Jane Cowl and Orme Caldara, the play was only mildly received by critics upon its opening at the Republic Theatre on August 26, 1915, but it "packed the theatre for nearly a year," eventually becoming the biggest hit of Kinkead's career. In the wake of the Broadway success, Common Clay was published as a novel of the same name in 1916. Three years later, Pathé Exchange released a screen adaptation with Fannie Ward and W. E. Lawrence in the lead roles. Directed by George Fitzmaurice, Common Clay (1919) was well reviewed by critics, with The New York Times commenting that "the story is worked out more plausibly on the screen than it on the stage [...] the amazing adventures of 'that common clay girl' are still amazing, and Miss Ward and her company first wring and then cheer the hearts of their spectators."

With the advent of the "talkies," Fox Film Corporation purchased the rights to Kinkead's play and assigned Victor Fleming to direct a second film version of Common Clay, though the story was shrewdly updated so that it might appeal to Depression audiences. Starring Constance Bennett and Lew Ayres in his third film role, Common Clay (1930) was one of the biggest moneymakers of the year, establishing "the blueprint for a new screen genre, the 'confession' picture." The deprivation that Americans had experienced even this early in the Great Depression made audiences female audiences in particular responsive to a film heroine like Ellen Neal: a social outcast whose grit and integrity eventually lead her to redemption and a happy ending. The success of Common Clay turned the 26-year-old Bennett into "the first Hollywood-bred actress to become a major star in the sound era."

Young and Taylor in a publicity still
Both Fitzmaurice and Fleming's versions of Common Clay stuck close to the original story of an underpriviliged, attractive young girl, Ellen, who decides to change her life after being arrested in a raid on a speakeasy. She takes up a job as a maid in a wealthy family and falls in love with her employers' son, Hugh Fullerton. When she becomes pregnant, Hugh refuses to marry her, so the case goes to court. At it turns out, the judge presiding at the trial is actually her father he had impregnated an actress in his youth, who committed suicide after her baby was born. Father and daughter are reconciled and with this sudden social advancement, Ellen becomes wife material after all.

When Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at the newly formed 20th Century Fox, hired Gene Markey and William M. Conselman to write a third screen adaptation of Kinkead's play, the Production Code had been fully enforced for two years. Consequently, the entire illegitimacy storyline, as well as Ellen's biological father, Judge Filson (played by John Barrows in 1919 and Hale Hamilton in 1930), had to be eliminated. To appease the Breen Office, Zanuck and co-producer Raymond Griffith invented a secret marriage between Ellen and the hero, Richard Winfield, as he was now called, which makes their child legitimate. Inexplicably renamed Private Number, the film also introduced characters and storylines that were completely new. One of these was the comic subplot of Ellen's fellow maid and confidante Gracie and her boyfriend Smiley Watson. In addition, the role of the "sexually simmering butler," whose named was changed from plain Edwards to the more aristocratic-sounding Thomas Wroxton, was enlarged to the extent that he, rather than Ellen's father-in-law, becomes her chief antagonist throughout the film.

Loretta Young and Basil Rathbone
By 1936, the Production Code Administration was also devoting more attention to set design, performance and what Joseph Breen called "tone." To Breen, "low tone alone may render a whole production unacceptable. The location of scenes and the conduct, the demeanor, the attitude of the players enter very much into the question of the flavor of the appeal of the right or wrong presented." In Private Number, Ellen's fall is precipitated by a man, Coakley, who takes her to what the script calls a "gambling house," where she is consequently arrested on a morals charge. This house is never referred to as a house of prostitution, but Breen objected: "The house is operated by Grandma Gammon, a lady suggestive of an elderly madam. There is the trim colored maid who looks through a peephole before opening the door, Cokely's winking at the maid, the drinking of champaign in a private parlor and the painting of a voluptuous lady in a harem. All tend, in our judgement, to give this house the color and flavor of a house of ill fame." Thus, even though  the word "prostitution" is not mentioned, Breen made sure that the representation of this idea would be blocked at the level of performance and decor. 

To play Ellen Neal in Private Number, Zanuck selected Loretta Young, one of Fox's brightest young stars. Young had begun her professional career at the age of five, when she and her four siblings were employed by the Famous Players-Lasky Studio, soon to be Paramount, as extras in silent films. In 1927, director Mervyn LeRoy gave her first real chance at the movies by casting in a small role opposite Colleen Moore in Naughty But Nice (1927). Moore was so enchanted with the 14-year-old actress that she convinced First National Pictures to put Young under contract. By the early 1930s, she was already a film star in her own right. In 1933, after Zanuck left Warner Bros. to found Twentieth Century Pictures, Young was one of the first stars he brought to the studio. As a sign of his trust in her, Young was one of the only two actresses (the other was Constance Bennett) that Zanuck took with him when Twentieth Century merged with Fox Film Corporation to form 20th Century Fox in mid-1935. 

Patsy Kelly and Robert Taylor
For the role of Richard Winfield, Zanuck borrowed the dashing Robert Taylor from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Like Tyrone Power, Young's co-star in five successful pictures, Taylor "had a masculine beauty that complemented Loretta's shimmering feminity." Although he was an MGM contract player, Taylor had actually made his screen debut on loan-out to Fox Film Corporation in the Will Rogers vehicle Handy Andy (1934). By the time he was cast in Private Number, the 25-year-old Taylor was already an international star, mostly due to the massive success of John M. Stahl's Magnificent Obsession (1935).

Playing the ruthless butler Thomas Wroxton was the South-African born English actor Basil Rathbone, who was also under contract to MGM. Beginning his Hollywood film career in 1925, Rathbone was known at the time for his portayals of suave villains in costume dramas and swashbucklers, including David Copperfield (1935) and Captain Blood (1935). Another memorable role in Private Number was that of the wisecracking maid Gracie, played by the "Queen of Wisecracks" herself, Patsy Kelly. A vaudeville performer since the age of twelve, Kelly had achieved widespread notoriety when producer Hal Roach hired her to appear as Thelma Todd's brash sidekick in a series of short-subject comedies in the early 1930s.

Making his screen debut in Private Number was Joe E. Lewis, a comedian and singer from New York's Lower East Side who had been a popular nightclub performer in Prohibition-era Chicago. By the late 1920s, he had become a fixture at the Green Mill, a notorious speakeasy partly-owned by "Machine Gun" Jack MGurn, a lieutenant in Al Capone's Chicago Outfit. When Lewis accepted an offer from a rival speakeasy in August 1927, McGurn promised he would "never live to open." Despite constant threats from the Capone syndicate, Lewis lived to open at the New Rendezvous on November 2. A week later, however, he was assaulted by McGurn and his men in his room at the Commonwealth Hotel. Unconscious from a blow to the head, Lewis was then mutilated by McGurn, who cut his throat and part of his tongue, leaving him for dead. Miraculously, Lewis recovered from this brutal attack and, acquiring the sobriquet "The Man the Mob Couldn't Kill," became "one of the most extraordinary sights of Chicago." He resumed his career, though his voice never regained its lush sound.

Young and Taylor in a publicity still
Under the director of Roy Del Ruth, Private Number was filmed in a month starting March 26, 1936 on the Fox studio lot, with long shots and plates being captured by a second unit at Lake Arrowhead, California. Del Ruth had begun his Hollywood career as a writer for the renowned comedy director Mark Sennett in 1915. In the early 1920s, he made he transition to directing and achieved great success at the end of the decade with Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), the second two-strip Technicolor all-taking feature released by Warner Bros. Having successfully segued into the sound era, Del Ruth became the second highest paid director in Hollywood between 1932 and 1941. He had previously worked with Loretta Young in Taxi! (1932) and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934) and with Robert Taylor in the MGM hit musical Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935). The following year, Del Ruth would direct Taylor again in Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937).

By 1936, audiences had become somewhat tired of the so-called "class distinction film" either rich boy/poor girl or vice-versa a plot template that was common to both serious drama and screwball comedy earlier in the decade. Perhaps because of that, Private Number received generally negative reviews from critics upon its premiere at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on June 5, 1936, though it did turn in a small profit at the box-office. The New York Times described it as "a sermon on a social problem that may conceivably have disturbed some of the upper 5 per cent of our population and a few amorous members of the lower classes before the advent of that great leveler, the depression." Despite the "creaking" plot, he considered that "the picture is well-acted throughout. Mr. Rathbone is as hateful as Miss Young is charming, and Mr. Taylor is manly to a fault. Worthy of special notice are Patsy Kelly, as another maid, and her steady fellow, Joe Lewis, who supply much needed comic interludes." 

Young and Taylor in a publicity still
Although Private Number does not occupy a noteworthy place in Loretta Young's shining career, the film proved to be a special one to make, as it allowed her to take on a role that she could not yet portray in real life: a mother. In early 1935, Young had enjoyed a love affair with the then-married Clark Gable while the two were working on William A. Wellman's The Call of the Wild (1935). Young soon became pregnant, but due to the "morality clause" that gave Hollywood studios the power to annul an actor's contract in the event of social scandal, she had to conceal her condition in order to avoid damaging her career (as well as Gable's). 

As her pregnancy began to show, Young informed Zanuck that she and her mother Gladys were going to take a "European holiday." Upon their return to America, Young retired to a small house that she and Gladys owned in Venice, California, where she could stay secluded and under the care of the family doctor. Finally, on November 6, 1935, Young gave birth to a blonde, blue-eyed daughter that she named Judith. Young returned to work in January 1936, leaving Judy at the house in Venice under the care of a nurse. A few months later, Young placed her daughter in St. Elizabeth's Infant Hospital, an orphanage and home for unwed mothers run by the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in San Francisco. In June 1937, when Judy was 19 months old, Gladys picked up her from St. Elizabeth's and Young subsequently announced to gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she had adopted the girl. Few in Hollywood were fooled by the story, however; Judy's striking resemblance to Gable revealed her true parentage right away. 

Private Number was released a month before Judy's removal to St. Elizabeth's. Insiders must have exchanged smiles when they heard Patsy Kelly describe Robert Taylor as being "as handsome as Clark Gable." Young laughed knowingly, but innocently, and replied, "I'll say so." The one scene Young has with her newborn baby in the film is executed with "uncommon tenderness." Judy was about five months old when Private Number started production, so in a way Young transferred the affection that she could not yet lavish on her own daughter to the infant in the picture. According to Bernard K. Dick, "In that one scene, Loretta displays the kind of maternalism that transcends mere acting."

Private Number is hardly the greatest film ever made. The plot is somewhat outdated, even for 1936, and like the Times critic remarked, there seems to be no "connection between the cryptic title and the tale itself." Still, I count it as one of my personal favorites, mostly because it was the film that made me a Loretta Young fan. I had seen about two or three films of hers prior to watching Private Number, but for some strange reason I could not bring myself to like her. (Robert Taylor was actually the only reason why I decided to watch it in the first place.) For the first half of the picture, I barely paid any attention to Loretta, but when that demon Wroxton brought the whole world down on her, I started to get really angry at all the people that were doing her wrong. During the trial scene, I even found myself shouting "Objection!" whenever the prosecuting attorney went over the line. I saw the film for the first time over a year ago and I still have not been able to figure out why I reacted to it so strongly, but I did, so there you go. Despite whatever flaws it might have, Private Number is an excellent film. Loretta Young and Robert Taylor are beautifully matched and Basil Rathbone is the perfect villain. If you happen to have 80 minutes to spare, give Private Number a try. I think you will love it.

This post is my contribution to The Loretta Young Birthday Blogathon hosted by Cinema Dilettante, Now Voyaging and The Young Sisters Appreciation Group. To view all entries, click HERE.

American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1914-1930 by Gerald Bordman (1995) | Capone: The Man and the Era by Laurence Bergreen (1994) | Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (2002) | Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era edited and with an introduction by Matthew Bernstein (2000) | Hollywood Madonna: Loretta Young by Bernard K. Dick (2011) | Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids: Twenty-Five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood by Axel Nissen (2012) | The Bennetts: An Acting Family by Brian Kellow (2004) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review for Common Clay (1919) | The New York Times review for Private Number


  1. I downloaded this off youtube. I'll read your post after I watch it :)


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