Her Private Affair is a 1929 drama film directed by Paul L. Stein and starring Ann Harding. It was produced and distributed by the Pathé Exchange company. A silent film with sound effects and talking sequences.
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The refined Lady Isabel Carlisle, after leaving her family and enduring nearly a decade of hardships, learns that her son has fallen ill. Despite being nearly blinded as the result of an explosion, she returns home to see her son again.
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Josef von Sternberg
Gustav von Seyffertitz
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William K. Howard
Johnny Mack Brown
the art of rendering controversial subjects harmless
The rediscovered Paris Bound is, as other reviewers have pointed out, something of a disappointment. It might be considered the quintessential talkie in that the characters talk and talk and talk and talk and, frankly, not to much purpose. Philip Barry had a certain reputation as playwright and Paris Bound had a certain success on the stage because it treated a subject that was still regarded as extremely risqué in the US but it is an absolutely dire piece of work. Passages quoted in other reviews give a good idea how "precious" and artificial the dialogue is and comments in other reviews also reveal how ambiguous the treatment is. The fault again lies largely in US society which required such controversial subjects to be couched in fatuous double-talk and to be presented in a totally misleading fashion.
So the controversial nature of the play/film is all a matter of trompe l'oeil. The "liberal" couple are not very liberal at all (even at the outset) but quite extraordinarily uxorious, so that, in a play/film supposedly about adultery, we have in fact an abundance of passionate husband-wife kissing and precious little adultery (talk figures strongly there too) and the conclusion is of course deeply conservative. Adultery, it would seem, is just an illusion; blink twice and it just goes away. The husband's divorced parents (arguably the genuine liberals) are treated rather as aberrant monsters.
Barry shows essentially the same ambiguity in The Philadelphia Story which similarly toys with ideas of divorce and adultery, to end with a predictably conservative conclusion. Divorce, like adultery, is also apparently an illusion. Laugh twice and that goes away too. The Philadelphia Story is also extremely talkative but has the distinct advantage of being funny which Paris Bound is most certainly not.
Virtually the only "American" film-makers who manged to break through this "no sex please, this is the USA" barrier, were Erich von Stroheim and Ernest Lubitsch. Stroheim capitalised on his established wartime reputation as a "German villain" to get away with things(possible because they were heavily marked "villain") which no other director in the US could get away with. Lubitsch, after long years of producing light comedy and musicals to establish a huge if slightly bogus reputation, and by dint of a good deal of skillful mise en scène and a certain low cunning,was able to produce a remarkable film like Design for Living and make light of adultery in A Certain Feeling or To Be or Not To Be. But these remained the exceptions that proved the rule.
The Stroheim logic was peculiar to his own situation and rather ingenious. When a character has been shown, with official approval, raping a nurse and defenestrating a baby in a propaganda film, it is a bit difficult to find grounds on which to then censor the deviant behaviour of a succession of rather similar characters played by the selfsame actor in his fiction films (Blind Husbands or Foolish Wives or Blind Husbands)
But even so Stroheim had to fight hard to maintain his independence and had plenty of problems with censorship, particularly on the part of the snip-happy producers who would eventually succeed in destroying his directing career completely. He was after all at the time only the best director that the US had ever produced (by quite a margin). Who needs such people? Gloria Swanson was probably right in thinking that even Stroheim would not have got away with Queen Kelly as originally filmed
the later scenes, cut from the version eventually shown, are still
quite troubling to watch even today. She is wrong in blaming (as she later did) the Hays Code, which did not then exist but, contrary to popular belief, there was plenty of pre-code censorship and the Hays Code merely "codified" rules that very largely already existed.
The difference between "pre-code" and "post-code" is for the most part just wishful thinking. Most censorship, before and afterwards, was in any case, as with Queen Kelly, self-censorship by the producers, constantly terrified of any kind of controversy, which, in those days, still had the power to ruin careers and conceivably even institutions. The Hays Code (in any case their own creation) simply gave producers a convenient alibi. So it is not really the case that the Code prevented directors from doing this, that or the other (particularly the other) but rather that it gave carte blanche to the producers and their henchmen (the so-called "editors", but sometimes more accurately described, even in credits, as "cutters") to chop the films about so as to render them "harmless" in the way they were so fond of doing.
The "Lubitsch touch" was, in the end, a more sustainable method of getting round the rules than "the man you love to hate" method, especially as it was a myth originally created by the production companies themselves. Lubitsch simply broadened the definition.
To return to this film, Fredric March is adequate (the least talkative character, he doesn't really have much to do but kiss) and Ann Harding is, as ever, dazzling, but her two other films made in the year, Her Private Affair - attacked, ironically, by reviewers at that address as being based on a "failed" play - and Condemned are both better films than Paris Bound although this was the film that made Harding a star because of the rather spurious reputation achieved by the play.
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