Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Her Private Affair

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Her Private Affair (Pathe Exchange, 1929) – Director: Paul L. Stein, Writers: Herman Bernstein (Adaptation & translation), Francis Edward Faragoh (dialogue & s/p), Leo Urvantzov (play). Stars: Ann Harding, Harry Bannister, John Loder, Kay Hammond, Arthur Hoyt, William Orlamond, Lawford Davidson, Elmer Ballard & Frank Reicher. B&W, 72 minutes.

Ann Harding made the jump from Broadway star to film idol immediately with her first picture, Paris Bound in 1929. Immediately following its success at the box office Harding was rushed into production of her second feature, Her Private Affair. Her icy blonde beauty and patrician manner made her attractive to audiences in search of new movie stars. 

Seen today, Her Private Affair is a film that not only creaks technologically, but also in terms of its plot. The old chestnut of the “fallen woman” was already played out by 1929 and this film offers nothing new. Unlike Harding’s first film, which was based on solid material – a play by noted Broadway writer Philip Barry – her material for the follow-up was not so pedigreed, being based on a failed play by Russian author Leo Urvantzov, The Right to Kill. Adapted for American audiences by Herman Bernstein it opened at the Garrick Theatre in New York City, where it lasted for 16 performances before closing. It was placed in the hands of Viennese director Paul L. Stein, who added nothing to it and simply directed the actors through their motions. In exact terms, it is nothing more than a filmed play, stage-bound and talky.

As the film opens we are in Vienna. Vera Kessler (Harding) is wife of respected Viennese judge Richard Kessler (Bannister). Everything seems fine at home until Vera gets a phone call. Immediately after she begins acting in a distracted manner. She tells her husband she is going to the opera, then asks him for money, using a weak excuse. 

At the opera (Carmen, perfect for a fallen woman) she sits alone in her box until the curtain rises and the music begins. She then leaves and catches a cab. Her destination is the apartment of Arnold Hartmann (Davidson). The reason for her visit is that she’s being blackmailed. Hartmann is a professional blackmailer who keeps himself in luxury through the “contributions” of the many worried women with whom he has had affairs. 

Vera is his latest addition to his blackmail list. He met Vera while as he was in Italy, taking a vacation from her marriage. Although it seems that their relationship never got beyond some heavy flirting, she did write him some rather indiscreet letters. Hartmann has those letters, and if she wants them back, she had better pay up, otherwise they will be delivered to Judge Kessler. 

We are given a glimpse into how despicable a character Hartmann is by the way he treats his butler, Grimm (Ballard), who appears to have been his batman during the Great War. There are hints of a homosexual relationship between the two men, but it may also be said that it’s one of a sadist and a reluctant masochist, Hartmann berates his butler to such an extent that Grimm grabs a pistol from Hartmann’s desk and threatens to shoot him. But then he lacks the will to go through with it and places the gun on the desk. 

Vera has brought money, but it wasn’t the amount agreed upon. She tells Hartmann that her husband didn’t have the full amount she asked for, but if Hartmann is patient, he will get the rest in due time.

Hartmann isn’t buying her excuse, and the confrontation grows uglier. “Well, do I get the letters,” Vera asks, “or must I pay cash on delivery?” Hartmann acts like the wounded victim: “You needn’t make me out quite the blackmailer.” He suggests that rest of what she owes him can be taken out in trade as he begins to force himself upon her. Seeing he has blocked her path to the door she reaches around and finds the pistol on his desk. He tells her she doesn’t have the nerve to fire and makes a grab for her. As they struggle the gun goes off and kills Hartmann.

Fearing a scandal, Vera flees the scene undetected, only to learn later that Grimm has been arrested and charged with the murder. When Vera learns of his arrest, she is distraught with guilt. She pleads with her husband’s friend, noted criminal lawyer Carl Weild (Loder), to represent Grimm in court. Weild agrees and gets Grimm acquitted of all charges.

Still, the guilt is so great that Vera leaves the judge. On a New Year’s Eve out at a restaurant with friends, she meets Grimm, who works there as a waiter. Grimm talks about the night of his employer’s death and confides to her that, despite his acquittal, his only chance of vindication – and escaping a creeping insanity – is to be assured that he did not commit the crime of which he was accused. Vera by this time is so guilt ridden that she confesses to Grimm that it was she who shot the blackmailer, and she is paying for it with the loss of her marriage. 

But by sheer chance, Judge Kessler happens to be in the restaurant that evening and is behind a curtain, listening in  on Vera’s conversation. He comes over to her, tells her that he has heard everything, and forgives her. The film ends as they fall into each other’s arms.


Knowing the material was weak, the producers gave the co-starring role of Judge Kessler to Harding’s real-life husband, Harry Bannister. However, Harding is the one to watch here.

As mentioned above, the film is a static affair, with very little movement as the actors huddle around the microphone, hidden in a stage prop. In addition, the dialogue is filled with pauses for emphasis, which makes the actors come across amateurish at times. Blame this, however, on the director and the technology. The pauses are used to make certain the audience hears and understands the line. 

But despite all these problems, Harding manages to come through with flying colors. Mordaunt Hall, reviewing the film for The New York Times, praises Harding as “a sensitive performer (who) possesses a complete and sympathetic understanding of her rôle. Her voice has a vibrant, dramatic quality.” 

That praise can’t be claimed for the rest of the cast, who come off rather badly. Watching the first act, I was actually entertained by its unintentional absurdity and wondering if it could get any worse. However, due to the strength of Harding’s performance the ending comes off well, as everything is satisfactorily resolved.

Harding’s best, if most bizarre, moment comes at a restaurant shortly after the murder. Having learned that Grimm was arrested for the murder, she hears a rumor that a society woman actually did the deed, as Hartmann was known throughout the city as a lowlife extortionist. Her friends down bottles of champagne as they try to guess the identity of the murderer. Having had more than her fill of the bubbly, Vera begins to break down, exclaiming, “Just think! That woman may be anywhere. Anywhere at all. Why, she may even be here!” Her friends, taken aback, look at her incredulously. “Vera, you’re acting so strangely!” On the verge of hysterics, Vera answers “Well, why not? If, as you say, she is a woman of prominence in society, then what could be more natural than that she should the here, tonight? I can almost see her. People come up to her. They greet her. Why, at this very moment she may be discussing the murder!” Harding delivers this is a wonderfully over-the-top manner that gives the scene the impetus to capture the audience right at the moment when the film seems to sinking to a morass of torpor.

From the movie’s solid success at the box office it is obvious that the audience was also satisfied with the resolution. Harding’s cool beauty is emphasized right from the beginning, as we see her reflected in an ornate mirror as she prepares for her night at the opera, and the close-ups she receives later serve to reinforce our first impression. As Hall notes in his review, Harding’s charm enables the audience to ignore the fact that “happenings in the more crucial moments smack too much of improbable coincidence.” 

Harding later signed with Warner Bros. to make The Girl of the Golden West (First National, 1930). She requested Bannister as her co-star, which was readily accommodated by the studio. However, Bannister’s habit of telling directors what to do soured his relationship with both the studio and his wife. The couple divorced in 1932.


The earliest documented telecasts of Her Private Affair made it to television in 1948. WLW (Channel 4) in Cincinnati aired it August 7, 1948. In Los Angeles station KFI (Channel 9) aired it February 10, 1949, and in New York City it was featured June 10, 1950, on Night Owl Theatre, WPIX (Channel 11).

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