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Case Number 26676: Small Claims Court

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Private Number (1936)

Fox // 1936 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // December 12th, 2013

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All Rise...

Judge Daryl Loomis was recently sued by a great dane.

The Charge

This is a marriage of class inequality.

The Case

There was a strange idea in film production in the first couple of decades of sound in which the studio would have a film title and assign a writer to create a story around it. That method didn't always work out well, of course, but sometimes, such as in the case of Cat People, it inspired some incredible creativity. I don't know if Private Number was a result of this kind of production, but given the complete lack of relevance of the title to the plot and the creative use of a very standard storyline, I suspect that is was. Regardless of how it was conceived, though, the movie is completely charming and a lot of fun.

Ellen Neal (Loretta Young, Platinum Blonde) is a jobless young girl who goes to the Winfield household looking to work as a maid in their mansion. Despite her lack of references, her lovely appearance charms Wroxton (Basil Rathbone, Captain Blood), the hard driving butler of the house, and he hires her. He's pretty obvious about his intentions with her and gives her the privileges to match, though she wants nothing to do with him. Instead, she's interested in Richard Winfield (Robert Taylor, Quo Vadis), the young lord of the house, who is charmed by her in turn. When Wroxton discovers their love, he takes it upon himself to ruin her life because if he can't have Ellen, nobody can.

The success of Private Number hinges far more on the performances than the story. The screenplay by Gene Markey and William Conselman is standard issue comic material about a poor girl falling in love above her station. When she reveals to the house that she and Richard were secretly married and that she is pregnant with his child, she is mistaken for a social climber and cast away, forced to raise the child on her own while proving that her love for Richard is true.

Nothing about that is surprising or even particularly interesting, but the way it's executed makes all the difference. Really, the movie isn't about the relationship between Ellen and Richard, it's about that between Ellen and Wroxton, which is a far more diabolical scenario and one that makes Private Number a winner. Loretta Young is, as always, very charming in her role, but Basil Rathbone is really the one to watch. At no point does he come across as anything but evil. He skims money off the staff, keeps them all down, and everybody hates him, but his true colors don't show until Ellen shows up. At that point, he tries to force her into some kind of weird Svengali relationship, except she gets nothing out of the deal. When he finds out about the marriage and pregnancy, he doesn't wait for the truth to come out on its own. Instead, he weaves a web of lies designed to trick the family into believing the wrong thing about her. And he does it all with a disgusting smirk that makes you want to punch him. Don't worry, though, Robert Taylor takes care of that for you.

Director Roy Del Ruth (The Chocolate Soldier) puts in a very straightforward effort that makes Private Number move along nicely, but doesn't add anything in terms of style to the production. It looks fine and there's nothing bad about how the film moves, it's just standard and completely non-descript. He doesn't intrude, let's the actors do their work, and the results are very fine.

Private Number comes to DVD via the Fox Cinema Archives on-demand service in a release that is right on line with the rest of the collection. The 1.33:1 image isn't too bad for having nothing done to improve it, but it's far from perfect. There is a fair bit of dirt and dust on the print, though no significant damage to speak of outside of a few lines that flash across the screen. Contrast is a little weak, with murkier black levels and dirtier whites than you'd like to see, but it looks acceptable for its age. The mono sound mix fares similarly; it's a simple track with minimal dynamic range, but the dialog sounds fine and there isn't much background noise to distract. As usual, no extras on the disc.

There's nothing about Private Number that screams a great film, but it's a charming good time with fine performances and a decent, if unremarkable story. Even if no part of the movie is going to wow anybody, there is more than enough to enjoy for the disc to warrant a good recommendation.

The Verdict

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Drama
• Romance

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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