“Common Clay,” a play by Cleves Kincaid, opened in August of 1915 on
Broadway. The play is about class differences exemplified by a penniless young woman and her wealthy employers. It was successful and ran for 316 performances.
In 1919 a silent film of the stage play was released starring Fannie Ward
as Ellen and W. E. Lawrence as Hugh. “Common Clay” was filmed again as
a talkie in 1930, starring Constance Bennett and Lew Ayres. Both films
were well reviewed with the New York Times commenting on the 1919 film
as “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.” (March 3, 1919).
The 1930 version of the film was pre-code and had a number of racy
elements. The 1936 version, retitled “Private Number,” was cleaned up,
slimmed down and simplified. Some of the character names were changed.
(The new title is a complete mystery since telephones don’t enter into
the story at all.) Although Robert Taylor received top billing, the
film actually belongs to Loretta Young. Ms. Young portrays a young
girl, down on her luck and penniless who becomes a maid for a wealthy
family. Basil Rathbone is delightfully slimy as the lecherous and
crooked butler for whom Ms. Young works.
Promotional photographs. Robert Taylor is with Marjorie Gateson in the third photo.
Of course, Ms. Young (Ellen) and Mr. Taylor (Dick, the Winfield’s son)
fall in love. The progress of their romance at the family’s summer
house in Maine is photographed beautifully. Ms. Young looks gorgeous in
a bathing suit, a long gown and her maid’s outfit. Mr. Taylor, wearing
far too much makeup as he did in those days, is nonetheless affecting
as the love-struck college boy. Both stars combine physical beauty with
polished performances. Patsy Kelly is always good and she is very good
here as Ms. Young’s fellow maid and friend. Marjorie Gateson and Paul
Harvey are stuffy but sympathetic as Mr. and Mrs. Winfield, Dick’s
parents. Prince, a Great Dane, is excellent as Hamlet, a Great Dane.
These promotional photos bring out the chemistry between Mr. Taylor and Loretta Young.
In the earlier versions, Hugh, now Dick, loves Ellen and leaves her
high and dry (and pregnant) when he goes back to college. In “Private
Number” they marry and she makes him go back to finish his degree.
Although the acting continues to be first rate, as is the direction and
cinematography, the script creaks along from one implausibility to
another. Probably the worst one is when Ellen is thrown out of the
Winfield’s home and fetches up immediately in a lovely farmhouse that
someone (never specified) has lent her.
Mr. Taylor looks incredibly young.
It all comes to a climax in a totally unbelievable but nonetheless
absorbing trial where evildoers are unmasked and justice triumphs. At
the end of the film Ms. Young forgives Mr. Taylor for not trusting her
and they go into a final clinch.
Patsy Kelly is in the second photo.