Friday, August 21, 2015

William Joins the Bar

Lawyer Man (1933) stars William Powell as Anton "Tony" Adam, a Lower East Side lawyer who demonstrates a skill in oratory that lands him a partnership with a highbrow, uptown law firm.  His secretary, Olga Michaels (Joan Blondell), accompanies him on his journey to the top, only to discover that Tony, who had professed love for her in the past, is now far more intrigued with his partner's sister, Barbara Bentley (Helen Vinson).  He's also very interested in publicity and big payouts.  As a result, he accepts the breach of promise case of Virginia St. John (Claire Dodd) - against the advise of his partner Granville Bentley (Alan Dinehart) and Olga.   Then, Virginia's lover Dr. Gresham (Kenneth Thompson) uses his reconciliation with her to have Tony tried for unethical behavior, with significant repercussions to Tony's personal and professional life. 

This is a fast-paced film, sometimes too fast, as the transitions from each stage of Tony's life can feel rushed.  Another problem with the film is that, though it is a film about the law, there are no courtroom sequences, something that was commented on in this Variety review and by fellow blogger, Immortal Ephemera.  We keep being told what a superb lawyer Tony is, but we never get to see him in action.  Perhaps because of the pace of the film, Tony feels like two different people - first he is the noble lawyer of the poor, madly in love with his secretary (though with an eye for the ladies), then he is the avaricious social climber, far more interested in a wealthy, upper-class matron.  However, it also seems that, despite his desires for fame and fortune, Tony never loses his belief in the law - evidenced by the statue of blind justice that accompanies him from office to office.
William Powell was not, it seems, the first choice for the role of Tony.  According to this TCM article, a news item in Film Daily noted that Edward G. Robinson was once considered for the lead. Powell is, as always, very good as the womanizing Tony.  Perhaps the hardest thing he has to do is make us believe that he can pass up Joan Blondell for Helen Vinson (I mean, really - is there even a contest?), but Powell gives Tony just enough naivety that you can see him being captivated by the power and class that Barbara represents.  

We've already discussed several of the 60 films that feature Claire Dodd: Our Blushing Brides (as a Mannequin - her first screen part), This is the Night (as the real Chou-Chou), Ex-Lady (as Iris Van Hugh, the "other" woman), and Ann Carver's Profession (as Carole Rogers, the drunken singer). Her role in Lawyer Man is quite short - she really has only a few scenes, but she is memorable as the vengeful Virginia St. John.  Ms. Dodd worked from 1930 til 1942 in a variety of parts.  Perhaps her most famous turn was as Della Street in two Perry Mason films - The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) and The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936).  In the latter film, she has the didistinction of being the only Della Street to actually MARRY Perry Mason!  When she remarried in 1942 (she was 40) she retired from film.  She already had one child from her first marriage - in the next 7 years, she had four more with her second husband.  Claire and her husband remained together until her death from cancer in 1973.

Though her part is relatively small, Joan Blondell is perfect as Olga.  Deeply in love with Tony, she refuses to play second fiddle to his fly-by-night attitude towards women.  It's clear that Olga will stick with him as a secretary, but her sassy attitude reminds him (and us) that she will not be second in his love-life.  It's hard to image anyone but Blondell in this part.  She has the vivacity, the beauty, but above all, the strength to make Olga credible. 

While as a whole our group did not rate this movie particularly highly, my fellow blogger at  Pre-code.com  and Mordaunt Hall at the New York Times gave it much more praise. I suggest you take a look at their opinions for more insight into this film. Pre-code.com also supplies some interesting perceptions into why Lawyer Man is definitely a Pre-code film (with photos!).

We close with the film's trailer. Next time, another pre-code gem: