by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The first “feature” Charles and I watched last night was Lawyer Man, which came on TCM right after Central Park in their Joan Blondell tribute. It starred William Powell during his short (one-year) and unhappy (except for one great film, One-Way Passage) tenure at Warner Bros. In 1932 Jack Warner staged a major talent raid on Paramount and lured away Powell, Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis — and then lost a lot of money on their films, which discouraged him from trying to poach other studios’ talent and focused him more on developing his own.
Chatterton made a series of overstuffed, overwrought romantic melodramas for the next three years — many of them starring her real-life husband, George Brent — and while Female (which casts her as a woman who inherited an auto company from her late father and who has turned her apartment into a seduction machine aimed at her stud de jour until Brent’s character breaks her at the end) is appealingly bizarre, most of Chatterton’s Warners films aren’t much and when her contract expired, Jack Warner let her go — whereupon she got a major comeback part from Samuel Goldwyn as Walter Huston’s faithless wife in Dodsworth. Kay Francis stuck it out at Warners to the bitter end of her contract in 1939 — years later she and Bette Davis ran into each other at a film festival and Davis asked her, “Why did you take all those horrible scripts Jack Warner gave you? Why didn’t you fight him, like I did?” “Because I wanted the money,” Francis ashamedly admitted. “Balls to that!” said Davis. “I wanted the career!”
As for William Powell, he slogged his way through assignments like this and lasted a year before Jack Warner dropped him, and at first the only nibble he could get was from Columbia — but his agent was savvy enough to get Columbia’s interest in Powell to encourage the far larger and more prestigious MGM to make him an offer. MGM did, and within a year he’d starred in a blockbuster hit, The Thin Man, and would remain a major box-office attraction for over 10 more years. Lawyer Man is one of Warners’ you-can-take-the-man-out-of-the-slums-but-you-can’t-take-the-slums-out-of-the-man dramas, which started life as a novel of the same title by one Max Trell and was adapted into a screenplay by Rian James, James Seymour and an uncredited Wilson Mizner. It starts with attorney Anton Adam (Powell) — the assonance between his names and his occupation seems deliberate — holding forth from an office on New York’s East Side (building all those tenement sets for The Jazz Singer seems to have been one of the best investments Warners ever made, since they used them over and over and over for the next 30 years) and being on a first-name basis with all the pushcart owners, street peddlers and women taking their children to playgrounds. He has one staff person, secretary Olga Michaels (Joan Blondell), who’s in unrequited love with him.
Things change for him when he finds himself up against big-time attorney Granville Bentley (Alan Dinehart) and cleans Bentley’s clock in a case — whereupon Bentley makes him a partnership offer and Adam accepts. As they close up their East Side office and have one last meal in the old neighborhood, Olga warns him that the problem with previous East Siders who tried to make it uptown was “they got mixed up with the ladies” — advice Adam, of course, ignores. First he ends up in an affair with Bentley’s sister Barbara (Helen Vinson) — Olga’s reaction to the news that Adam is going to take her to lunch is to grab a pair of scissors and wave them at his face as she moves their blades (it took me a split second to get the Delilah reference) — and, as if that weren’t bad enough, he ends up falling for Virginia St. Johns (Claire Dodd), a showgirl who hires him to represent her in a breach-of-promise case against Dr. Gresham (Kenneth Thompson), who treats people for workers’ compensation cases and takes bribes to inflate their injuries.
Adam is warned by Bentley not to take on Gresham — his brother (whom we never see) is a judge and both are powerful people in the organization of political boss John Gilmurry (David Landau) — but of course he ignores the warnings, keeping the letters Gresham wrote Virginia (in one of the few scenes that actually shows off the kind of dry wit William Powell did so well — and so much more of in his great movies — Adam tells Gresham, “For an intelligent man, you certainly write some of the stupidest tripe”) in his desk (and telling that to the other side!) and ignoring the possibility that he’s going to be toppled — which he is when Gresham and Virginia reconcile, Gresham bugs the phone as Virginia calls him to tell him she’s dropping the case and he pleads that she can’t do that to him, and he’s indicted for fomenting a phony case to profit from it.
The letters are stolen from his desk drawer and, without the documents, he has no defense — though the jury in his case deadlocks 9-3 for acquittal, the judge declares a mistrial even though Adam is sure they’d free him if they could continue to deliberate. He’s thrown out of the partnership with Bentley — though he somehow manages to stay in Bentley’s old office — and he eventually decides that if he’s going to have the shyster name, he might as well play the shyster game, taking the seediest cases and charging inflated fees. Then he runs into a victim of the Gilmurry machine, takes his case to trial and manages to bluff Gilmurry into settling even though the jury’s verdict, still sealed when the settlement papers were signed, is for acquittal. Gilmurry offers him a post as assistant district attorney — and Adam uses the power of that office to nail both Dr. Gresham and his brother the crooked judge. Gilmurry offers Adam the judgeship vacated by Gresham, but Adam turns it down and walks out of his fancy office to resume his old practice on the East Side, this time with his arm around Olga indicating that he’s finally come to see her the way she sees him.
Lawyer Man, directed by an overqualified William Dieterle (who tries to throw a few visually interesting shots into a journeyman assignment that offers him little stimulation), is a story that does some genuinely creative twists on the old clichés, though they remain the old clichés, and according to the American Film Institute Catalog the part was originally intended for Edward G. Robinson — who would have been more believable as a crooked lawyer but less so as a lover. Powell is just too urbane for his part here; he’s more believable as the uptown shyster than he was as the slum kid who never wanted to leave the neighborhood, and there’s so little chemistry between him and Blondell I couldn’t help but wish Myrna Loy had still been at Warners so she could have played the role instead. Oddly, from the TCM synopses I had expected Central Park to be a chip off the old programmer block and Lawyer Man a suspenseful and innovative thriller — instead it was the other way around!