SPOTLIGHT: Brassy Pre-Code Blondell (VI)

Welcome to a new Film Friday, and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, and so far we’ve featured Blonde Crazy (1931), Union Depot (1932), The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932), Miss Pinkerton (1932), and Three On A Match (1932). Today…


Lawyer Man (1932)


Success corrupts a smooth-talking lawyer. Starring William Powell, Joan Blondell, David Landau, Helen Vinson, Claire Dodd, and Alan Dinehart. Based on the novel by Max Trell. Screenplay by Rian James and James Seymour. Directed by William Dieterle.


“Anton ‘Tony’ Adam, a successful lawyer on New York’s Lower East Side, is asked by Granville Bentley to join an uptown firm. Tony’s secretary, Olga Michaels, urges him to accept, but warns him to watch out for the ladies. Tony continues to win cases and starts to date Bentley’s sister Barbara. When he defeats political boss Gilmurry in court, Gilmurry asks him to join his organization but is turned down. Later, showgirl Virginia St. Johns begs Tony to help her sue her fiancé, Dr. Gresham, for breach of promise. Flattered by her attention, Tony pursues the case despite warnings from Olga and Bentley. He learns his mistake when Virginia helps Gilmurry frame him for unethical behavior. He defends himself, but the jury cannot reach a verdict. Tony is neither acquitted nor vindicated and his partnership with Bentley is broken. He cannot find work.


“Although Barbara still believes in him, Tony breaks off his relationship with her, not wanting to involve her in his problems. Forced out of legitimate legal work, Tony takes every shady case that comes his way, charging high fees when he wins. Eventually he takes a case against Gilmurry. When Gilmurry tries to settle out of court, Tony agrees to accept the position of assistant district attorney. Now he plans his revenge on Dr. Gresham. Gilmurry warns him that Gresham is part of his organization, but Tony gets a conviction for fraud against the doctor. After his success, Gilmurry offers Tony a judgeship, but Tony turns him down to work as an honest lawyer on the Lower East Side. Olga, who has always been in love with Tony, accompanies him happily.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)


Joan Blondell is nothing more than an amiable sidekick who’s around to show support and toss off a ready quip (with her accompanying cigarette buds). This is really William Powell’s picture, and it would be better suited for coverage in a series of posts on his work. But because we’re in Blondell land and this post is already half completed, let’s go through with my musings on Lawyer Man, which is an immensely enjoyable B+ Warner Bros. picture about a lawyer who’s ruined by corruption and decides to turn the tables to get his revenge. I believe he becomes, per the direct quote, a “rat daddy,” accepting seedy cases, charging exorbitant fees, and taking the first opportunity to challenge those who’ve done him wrong. The very idea of our protagonist stooping to non-respectable means of behavior to achieve a personal vengeance is very Pre-Code, shading the otherwise black and white concepts of right and wrong.


Meanwhile, the film is utterly Warner Brothers, and if the roster of lower level character players who appear (Helen Vinson as the ritzy girl and Claire Dodd as the naughty girl, both appropriately cast) aren’t evidence enough, the slangy dialogue and smoky atmosphere are strong indicators. If anyone was to take on Lawyer Man, Warner Bros. were the best guys to do it, because they don’t try to fool an audience into thinking the product is better than it is. In other words, they don’t add gloss to a solid, but unspectacular story. They just do it honestly, with a fair amount of appropriate grit. And that works, especially when elevated by the presence of Blondell, and in this particular case, Powell, who’s as magnetic on the screen as in his classics (like The Thin Man series).


Although the story is predictable, the proceedings are fairly fast-paced and peppered up with smartly ’30s speak. And with an interesting protagonist at the helm, Lawyer Man sticks out on the studio’s second tier shelf. Thus, if you like Warner B. or William P., this film is easily recommended.