Private Scandal, A (1931)

US / 69 minutes / bw / Headline Dir & Pr: Charles Hutchison Scr: John Francis Natteford Cine: Ernest Miller, B.B. Ray Cast: Marian Nixon, Lloyd Hughes, Walter Hiers, Theodore von Eltz, Lucille Powers, Fletcher Norton, Eddie Phillips, Burr McIntosh, George Wells, “Snowflake” (i.e., Fred Toones), Ben Hall.

Somewhere in New England, a gang of New York City-based jewel thieves targets a posh house party to which one of their number, Count Raymond d’Alencourt (Norton, sporting a Franche accong of which Inspecteur Clouseau would be, ‘ow you say, ‘umbly proud), has been invited. The snatch goes wrong; the gang’s leader and mastermind, Daniel “Danny” Treve (Hughes), and his sidekicks escape with the loot but d’Alencourt is seized and in due course convicted.

Danny and right-hand man Honest John (Hiers) reach a small town and, on the principle that the cops would never think of looking for crooks at the courthouse, go there. They find a trial in progress where various civil dignitaries are trying to force orphan Mary Gale (Nixon) to marry her loathed and loathsome fosterbrother (Hall). In a moment of moral generosity, Danny claims to be Mary’s fiancé come to take her away; to the alarm of both of them, the judge (McIntosh) insists on marrying them on the spot.

Private Scandal 1931 - 2 Honest John

“Honest” John (Walter Hiers).

Honest John wants Danny simply to flee as soon as he can, but Danny realizes that, by putting the stolen stones in the innocent Mary’s small suitcase, he can ensure they get to New York even if the cops try to intercept John and himself. He fixes Mary up with a boarding house in the city and, when she discovers the diamonds, makes an excuse on the grounds that he’s really a jeweler. He tells her to get their marriage annulled and then, as he thinks, exits her life forever.

Private Scandal 1931 - 3 Danny and Mary briefly kiss before he tries to walk ot of her life

Danny (Lloyd Hughes) and Mary (Marian Nixon) briefly kiss before he tries to walk out of her life.

And it’s here that we find one of the two or three moments that raise this movie above its quite clearly humdrum ambitions. Danny is doing the honorable thing. He’s not taking advantage of the situation to bed the girl, and it’s clear he’s backing off for the most creditable of reasons: he’s a crook and she deserves better than him. After he leaves we stay with Mary and watch as she slowly pulls off the ring he gave her; in her eyes we see that, however tawdry the setup might have been, this orphan had briefly entertained the hope that her loneliness was over.

Nixon’s not the finest of actors overall (she was a product of the silents), but she’s very good at drawing our sympathies and thereby evoking some considerable poignancy. Much later in the movie, after some years have passed and at last it looks like her marriage might be consummated, Danny tells her he’s just popping out for a moment; in fact, he’s immediately nabbed by the cops. She prepares herself quite audaciously for a presumed innocent, putting on the ring Danny gave her three years ago and then forgot about, yet gradually the realization sinks in that he’s not coming back. Only the hardest of hearted could fail to feel a pang as her actions become slower and slower and more futile.

By this time Mary has been working for three years for District Attorney Matthew Gray (von Eltz, here looking to the modern viewer very reminiscent of John Astin as Gomez in the 1964–6 TV series The Addams Family), and he has become very fond of her. He has also paid her well, we deduce, because she’s left the boarding house far behind her and is now living in a swanky apartment. His political bosses want him to run for State Governor, but feel he’d have a better chance if he were married. It’s the final impetus to make him propose to Mary . . .

. . . which in turn makes her track down Danny. She finds him at the gang’s NYC hideout, along with Honest John and gang members Eddie (Phillips), George (Wells) and Snowflake (Toones). The couple almost have that consummatory night together at her apartment but, as noted, he steps out for a moment and is picked up by the cops. The next day Matthew tells Mary the cops have made a capture that will be the making of his campaign, and that this notorious, long-sought jewel thief is coming to the house to make his confession; Mary is to act as stenographer. It’s only when Danny’s led in that she makes the connection, learning that her “jeweler” husband is really a crook.

Private Scandal 1931 - 1 Eddie impresses Snowflake into the gang

Eddie (Eddie Phillips, right) impresses Snowflake (John Toones) into the gang.

Of course, Danny uses the opportunity of the interview to make it evident to us all what a man of integrity he is, despite his earlier profession; these past few years he’s been going straight in hopes of making himself “good enough” for Mary—in fact, much of the confession is really a clandestine love letter to the “stenographer.” Yet again, the wrought, frantically scribbling Mary inspires our sympathy.

There’s plenty more plot to follow before the tale cruises to its really quite immoral end: Mary attempts to extort Matthew on the grounds that his beloved sister Rita (Powers) has secretly married Danny’s gang member Count Raymond d’Alencourt, Matthew as Governor pardons Danny early, etc. Of course the entire tale is a piece of stuff and nonsense: Are we really to be expected to believe that the members of a successful gang of jewel thieves are all actually very fine fellows? Would the DA’s secretary, no matter how valued, really earn enough to own an apartment in which it appears her interior-design consultant was Louis Quinze? For that matter, would the DA, later Governor, really behave in such an outrageously corrupt manner knowing that, if his political opponents ever learned even the half of it, he’d be doomed? Okay, I retract that last cavil: Matthew was just being ahead of his time.

Private Scandal 1931 - 4 An oddly passionate sibloing kiss btwn Matthew & Rita Gray

An oddly passionate sibling kiss between DA Matthew Gray (Theodore von Eltz) and his sister Rita (Lucille Powers).

I went into this movie with low expectations, and in a way I was right—production standards are pretty mediocre, some of the acting (especially in the court scene) ranks somewhere between poor and bloody awful, and the story seems almost not to bother asking us to suspend our disbelief. There’s also the matter of the era’s typically ghastly racial stereotyping of Snowflake’s part; even though my objections were to an extent tempered by the fact that obviously to the other cast members he was a friend and colleague, it still rankled. And yet I came away from the piece liking it quite a lot. There’s a fair amount of love in the movie, somehow—and I don’t just mean the unabashed bedroom eyes Mary and Danny share over breakfast after finally, finally they share that nuptial night.

Private Scandal 1931 - 5 Mary puts the screws on Matthew

Mary (Marian Nixon), in unusually ruthless vein, puts the screws on Matthew (Theodore von Eltz).

John Toones—”Snowflake”—is an interesting player whose career I want to explore in greater depth at some stage. He apparently acted in over two hundred movies, in many of them uncredited and in dozens of them as the character Snowflake. Like Mantan Moreland, whose screen career started just a little later, Toones exploited the need of ghastly, halfwitted Southern cinema managers to have black actors portray only comic, subservient maroons in order to earn himself a decent living. He had the last laugh on the racists, of course; how many of those cinema managers are remembered today?

Private Scandal 1931 - closer


8 thoughts on “Private Scandal, A (1931)

  1. Um….not really very noir, though, by sound of it. No-one locked up for crimes they didn’t commit and hardly anyone dead.

    • Yes, I know. A primary aim of this site (see mission statement to the right) is to cover movies that weren’t noirish enough to get into my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir but nevertheless have some tangential/associational interest in a film noir context.

  2. Well, here’s a pre-coder I have never heard of, much less actually seen. Your fabulously-written assessment makes a good enough case to give this a whirl. I continue to be amazed at the number of off-the-radar films you have unearthed at this place over the last year. Remarkable.

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