Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Monday, 7 June 2010

Lawyer Man (1932) - William Powell Goes to Court, Joan Blondell Throws Stuff Around...

I had been looking forward to watching Lawyer Man for a long, long time. The reason? Because it features the one time only teaming of two of my tip-top favourite screen stars, William Powell and Joan Blondell. Successful screen partnerships are always a tricky business. On paper, having two favourite stars together always looks like an exciting proposition, but in reality a number of factors can enable the venture to fizzle away into 90 minutes of forced love scenes and passionless kisses (think Errol Flynn and Bette Davis). A good script helps, as does a capable director and supporting artistes, but when it comes down to it you either have chemistry together or you don't. William Powell had it in spades with Myrna Loy, and before that with Kay Francis. Joan Blondell obviously had it with Dick Powell and also with James Cagney. But put the two of them together and would it work?

To be honest, having just watched Lawyer Man I'm none the wiser.

The movie, directed by William Dieterle is one of those fast paced, star laden Warner pre-code gems that the studio managed to churn out so effortlessly in the early 30's. The story concerns the ups and downs of lawyer Anton "Tony" Adam (Powell) as he goes from struggling East Side councillor for the needy to Assistant District Attorney and right back again. In between he gets mixed up with a crooked D.A, a shady doctor and his scheming gold digging gal. The constant in Powell's rise and fall is his no nonsense secretary Olga (Blondell) who acts as his personal organiser and conscience, all the time holding a secret love for her boss.

I've said this before and I'll say it again, in a movie like this the plot is (obviously) necessary but ultimately just window dressing for the stars to do their thing, and here is no different. The story is engaging and brisk, though moving from each new set of situations and characters rather quickly with little time for much characterisation or detail. As it typical of the era, the tone mixes the light with the dark, segueing from broad comedy and pathos to the serious inner workings of the courts and the corruption of City Hall and the racketeers. This backdrop is all standard fare but never less than exciting.

A lot of the fun to be had in Lawyer Man is by spotting the familiar faces in the cast, not all of twhom are listed in the credits. Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue play a couple of hoodlums lured into the pay of William Powell by the offer of maple layer cake; Claire Dodd once again excels in having dubious morals as the film's bad girl; Roscoe Karns shows up unannounced as a reporter; and Laurel and Hardy fans like myself will spot Tom Kennedy, Wilfred Lucas, Henry Hall, Dorothy Christy and Max Davidson in (sadly) minor roles. Finally, in the pre-code moment of the whole movie Sterling Holloway pops up as a drunk in a bar while poor Joan Blondell mopes around over Powell. As she looks off into middle distance all sad he declares that "you're in love with your boss and he won't give you a tumble". That she doesn't disagree with him is one reason why we all love pre-code films.

However, when it comes down to it this is a William Powell picture. He gets the top (and only) billing on the title card and everyone else is reduced to support (Blondell does get a fairly prominent mention in most of the advertising). As usual he is fantastic, giving an assured performance typical of this pre-Nick Charles period in his career. Powell's films with Warner and Paramount are always good value even though he essentially plays the same character in most of them, as he reigns in his comedic tendencies and and allows himself to be slightly unsympathetic when need be. In this era (before Manhattan Melodrama) he's a real leading man and one who doesn't need a female co-star to help carry a picture. I always felt that as good as he was with Myrna Loy (and he was very good) he always got tagged as a part of a double act once they got established and in all his appearances after The Thin Man producers felt they couldn't put him in a movie without a Loy surrogate. Interestingly Myrna Loy didn't suffer from this as she continued to carry movies whilst slipping back into the Loy-Powell partnership when needed.

As I said, this is Powell's film, so sadly we don't get to see the real potential of a Powell-Blondell partnership as Joan and indeed all the other stars are relegated to mere support. It's strange that Blondell doesn't get more to do as even though she was yet to hit her Gold Diggers of 1933 peak, she still had such popular hits as Blonde Crazy and Miss Pinkerton behind her. It could be argued that she wasn't seen at the level of William Powell at that time as her appearances to this point had been as love interest to stars such as Cagney, or sharing the top slot with other female leads (such as in The Greeks Had a Word for Them). By 1932 she was just beginning to get top billing in a few films and probably this was another step towards establishing herself as a star in her own right.

Despite her lack of screen time with Powell, Joan Blondell makes the most of her scenes. The theme of her relationship with him is the phrase"I told you so!" (so much so that it's the last line of the film) as she arches her eyebrows and screws up her face each time her boss is led astray by another woman or hopeless court case. She acts as the conscience of Powell's character and when she doesn't get her own way has a nice line in slamming doors and throwing files around the office. At one point, when Powell is about to go to lunch with his colleague's sister, Blondell glares at him while menacingly snipping a pair of scissors. What could she be implying?

Of course, regardless of threats she's in love with him. What's unusual about the film is that despite this the love goes unrequited in the end. During the film, Powell is even confronted with her attractiveness when he spots a shapely pair of legs at a shoe shine stand, only to look up and realise they are those of his secretary. In the end, back on the Est Side, the two take a stroll arm in arm, with no final kiss just two friends talking. It's quite disappointing since the film subtly leads up to a romantic conclusion after Powell's bad luck with bad women. It's also quite charming as we can imagine further legal adventures for the pair and perhaps romance now that the boss is listening to his secretary.

In the end, it is Powell's film and the point being made is about the practice of law, not the practise of love. Sadly, because of this the dream pairing of William Powell and Joan Blondell never has the chance to blossom as they are never the focus of the picture. The small hints given of their chemistry show Powell at his suave and subtly humorous best and Blondell doing her trademark pouty looks with added bursts of violence towards stationery and furniture. All in all, they make a sweet couple and given another pairing in a more standard type of vehicle (for example the usual Blondell plot of being the neglected wife of a reporter, detective etc, or of competing with said man in said occupation) they could have been very entertaining. As it is, Lawyer Man is a great film full of memorable moments but sadly only fleeting moments of greatness from two of my favourite stars together.


  1. Joan Blondell is my girl No. 3. She has real charisma.

    I didn't know this movie. Well, I'm used to get into films extremely slow: I watched the Golddiggers about two weeks daily and after that I had two weeks Broadway Melody of 1936.

    See you have 20s' stuff too. My roots are in the 20s - since I was 15 years old I listened to original jazz-recordings of the 20s. When I was 17 I began to play in New Orleans Bands. But the music I really loved (and I still do!) was Paul Whiteman. Now I got to go back to the Charleston era by movies too. Last September I bought my first DVD ever. So I'm sort of movie-greenhorn. But Ginger Rogers influenced me during my youthful days, when I watched her on my parents' tv. So I became a tap dancer too. Well, Ginger is one of my roots.

    My favorite movie-year is 1933. From there I'll go back slowly to my 20s roots - this time not only in music, but in films. Maybe your quite swell blog will be a little orientation ...

    I read you on Dexter's and was interested at once. You've got something to say and that's really swell!

  2. fun read :)
    The film title "Lawyer Man" isn't exactly thrilling but ill defiantly have too see it one of these days.

  3. Thank you both for the kind words, my first ones! You have both made my day!

    Zoe, you are right - never thought what a boring title "Lawyer Man" was. I guess they didn't spend long thinking it up. He's a laywer, and he's a man. Lawyer Man!

    Clarissa - to be honest my real favourite period of time for movies stretches from about 1926 to 1933, but right now I'm just writing about films in a kind of random order. I've got a ton of pre-code and silent films sitting around waiting to be watched so maybe I'll try and focus a bit more on that period.

    Looked at your blog and it ticks multiple boxes with me so added it to my favourites!

  4. Russell, please plan your issues as YOU like. Musically my 'home' is "1926 to 1933" too. After 1933 there was a slow change from twobea-jazz to swinging walking-bass. But in dance-films they play the old style until about 1937 and this is my limit. Well, you can't get music like "My Dancing Lady" 100% in your feeling if having always modern swing in your ear.

    My orientation backwards will take time. The oldest film I presently have is "The Gold-Diggers of 1933", but I've already ordered 42nd Street. Nonetheless I still have missing links in 1935 and 1937: "Roberta" and "Shall We Dance?" (Fred&Ginger). After having fixed that, I'll go slowly back to the end of the year 1932, so I won't feel like a stranger there ...

    I wonder how the music in silent films may be? It would be quite shocking, if I heard modern recordings in them. I know a few amateurs who are able to play really old (because they never hear and play anything else), but professional musicians can't do that.

  5. All the major silent films had music specifically written for them to be played by the orchestra in the cinema, but I believe most of the original scores have been long since lost so DVD releases, revivials etc generally are scored according to the taste of the restorers. Not always a good thing. Believe me, watching Louise Brooks while listening to ambient beeps is not pleasant...

  6. Jeepers, electronic sounds in old movies is cruelty without examples! I would just turn off the sound and play a CD from my Fats Waller Box. He played quite often in movie theaters during the 20s. I think I have even recordings he made at an old cinema-organ.

    Once I found a cheap DVD-box with over 1200 minutes John Wayne Westerns from 1933/34. There are quite long wild horse chases in it and it seems the studio-people felt it was too boring. So they tried to imitate a classical western film-orchestra by synthesizer. Honestly it was pretty fair midi-editing, but it wasn't 30s' music at all and one can still hear, that those sounds are synthetic stuff. Reason enough to dip that editor in a horse-trough!