Alphabetical Index of Column Topics

Click here for index.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Court Jesters (originally published 1/03)

Given that popular culture has generally assigned to lawyers a less than savory reputation, you might not expect to find much in the way of light-hearted movies featuring attorneys. In fact, there have been quite a few. "Two Weeks Notice," featuring Sandra Bullock as a crusading attorney who falls for a self-involved millionaire, is only the most recent in a long line of lawyer comedies. Here are a few more examples to look for on home video.

"Star of Midnight" (1935). William Powell's single greatest claim to fame is undoubtedly his role as Nick Charles in the "Thin Man" series. These classics of the comedy-mystery genre feature Nick and his wife Nora (Myrna Loy) solving mysteries in high style, sipping champagne and trading bon mots all the while. "Star of Midnight" was an attempt to cash in on the success of the "Thin Man" films, with Powell cast as a wisecracking lawyer whose resemblance to Nick Charles is far from coincidental. Ginger Rogers stands in for Myrna Loy in a Nora-esque role.

"Adam's Rib" (1949). Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn star as a married couple, Adam and Amanda Bonner, both of whom happen to be attorneys. Adam is assigned to prosecute a woman for the attempted murder of her philandering husband. Amanda, unaware that Adam will be the prosecutor, volunteers to defend the woman. She's outraged by what she sees as a double standard, believing that a man who committed the same crime would be lionized for defending the sanctity of his marriage instead of being hauled into court. By the time Adam and Amanda realize that they will be opposing each other, each is too committed on principle to back out. The all-out gender warfare that ensues makes for some of Tracy and Hepburn's finest onscreen moments together. Scripted by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and directed by George Cukor, this film is a class act all the way.

"Brothers in Law" (1957). John and Roy Boulting were a pair of twin brothers who enlivened the British cinema by producing and directing a series of satirical comedies during the late fifties. Their targets included the British army ("Private's Progress"), higher education ("Lucky Jim"), and labor relations ("I'm All Right, Jack"). It was inevitable that they would sooner or later get around to lampooning the British courts, which is exactly what "Brothers in Law" does. As he did in many of the Boulting comedies, Ian Charmichael plays a wide eyed youngster thrown to the wolves, in this case a young apprentice barrister trying to learn the ropes without hanging himself in the process.

"Legal Eagles" (1986). Robert Redford plays a talented, ambitious district attorney opposite Debra Winger as an unconventional defense attorney in producer-director Ivan Reitman's tribute to the courtroom comedies of yesteryear. There's a mystery that the two stars must team up to solve, which places the film squarely in the "Thin Man" tradition, and therefore in the "Star of Midnight" tradition. At the same time, there's the gender warfare element that flows from casting the romantic leads as opposing counsel, placing it in the "Adam's Rib" tradition. That's a lot to live up to, so we can't be too hard on it for not doing so. Taken on its own merits, it's an entertaining diversion.

"And Justice For All" (1979). Al Pacino stars as attorney Arthur Kirkland in this early Barry Levinson screenplay, which was co-scripted by Valerie Curtin. The film walks a ragged edge between comedy and drama. Many of the scenes, to be sure, are quite grim indeed. The comic highlights, however, are extremely funny. Jack Warden, in particular, nearly steals the picture from Pacino with his hilarious portrayal of a sitting judge who's got more than a few screws loose.

You'll note that I haven't resorted to quoting the old Shakespeare line about killing all the lawyers. That's because, in the spirit of these courtroom comedies, I think it might be better if we all just had a good laugh together. Remind me sometime to tell you about the time I spent 80-plus hours over a period of six weeks cooped up with a couple hundred law students reviewing for their bar exam, and I'll explain to you just how desperately these folks need the solace of comedy.

No comments: