Lawyer Man (1932)

Directed by William Dieterle
Cinematography Robert Kurrle

Lawyer Man is a 1932 American Pre-Code drama film directed by William Dieterle, based on the novel by Max Trell. The film stars William Powell and Joan Blondell. It was produced by Warner Bros. By the time of the release, several actors were credited in the studio, but were not seen in the film. These include Edward Arnold, Harold Huber and Henry Armetta.

Plot

Anton Adam is a lawyer who has just got a client acquitted against the uptown New York lawyer Granville Bentley. Granville offers the poor lawyer partnership and he accepts. Anton’s faithful secretary Olga Michaels isn’t delighted to see Anton disrespecting the law. His downfall comes when he meets the beautiful Virginia, an actress who is introduced as a woman whose doctor has abandoned her and now seeks help.

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Helen Vinson

Anton sues Dr. Gresham, but Virginia soon calls him she wants to drop the charges. He responds with anger, which Virginia records. Now, Anton is sued for blackmail and must face a tough jury. He loses his partnership with Bentley and he decides to become ruthless. With only his secretary on his side, Anton returns to his old neighbourhood to set up an honest legal practice.

The opening of Lawyer Man is uninspiring. What’s this, the great William Powell looking unfashionable? Playing a lawyer named Anton Adam who’s street smart but poor? Outrageous!

At least he’s got Joan Blondell hanging around, though she’s playing both a nag and a woman named Olga, two of the worst things that could happen to poor Joan. And poor Olga just wants what any good 1930’s secretary wants– her boss’s hand in marriage.

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Anton’s got a roving eye, though, and that’s the first thing you notice about the character: he’s got flaws. Big ones. While I’m used to something where men drop their jaws whenever a pretty woman enters the room (see Safe in Hell for all this and more), but watching Anton being so dumbstruck by the female figure is surprising, especially coming from Powell. It’s one of many details that makes Anton worth following for the film, as his joyful naivete comes crashing down around him.

What makes Lawyer Man’s rags-to-riches-back to rags story structure interesting is that the ‘back to rags’ section is dictated by Anton’s own methods. After winning a big court case, his opposing council offers to split his office space. This moves Anton and Olga from the poorer sections of New York City and onto the 49th floor of a skyscraper, meaning he both figuratively and literally is moving up in the world.

In the process, though, he runs up against political boss Gilmurry, who offers Anton the chance to either join in or be destroyed. Anton refuses, and when a beautiful women suddenly starts paying him a lot of mind, he doesn’t think twice about it.

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Only the girl is using him to try and get even with her corrupt boyfriend, Dr. Gresham. When the boyfriend rekindles the affair, he uses her to setting him up. After she uses an amorous phone call to make him sound like a swindler, he finds his reputation in court destroyed.

Now, post 1934, this is where a lot of movies would end. The lawyer gained humility, learned not to chase skirts, etc, etc. Or, heck, sometimes he might retain his dignity and win a victory against the boss, while staying true to his roots and honesty.

Not so fast there, though, as Lawyer Man takes scoffs at that hayseed version of justice and instead has hero decide to be as dirty as the men who brought him down. His reputation in tatters, he rebuilds it by taking on every scumbag client and overcharging the lot of them. This keeps him financially solvent until the prime opportunity to take Gilmurry on presents itself.

Using intimidation, he not only gets money out of Gilmurry, but a position as the Assistant District Attorney. As soon as he’s appointed, though, he refuses to play ball, and and instead destroys the corrupt Gresham family out of revenge. As soon as he’s finished, he resigns, and returns to his tiny office in the poor part of town. Oh, and he finally gives Olga that ring she’s been eying since act one.

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Good, Bad, I’m The One in the Courtroom

“You’re part of the machine yourself!”
“Yeah. I’m the monkey wrench in the works!”

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The main notion behind the second half of Lawyer Man is that doing evil is acceptable in the name of doing good. And, of course, to what extent ‘good’ crosses into ‘satisfying revenge.’
The film gleefully ignores that line. Powell’s character’s flaws only lie in his roving eye, with Blondell sitting off to the side to needle him about it. After he loses the court case that leaves him as an outcast, they’re sitting in his vacant office, looking out the window when Powell begins his grand speech. What follows is an evisceration of everyone, including us in the audience, as Powell looks directly out from his perch at the window.

“A lot of dirty politicians giving me the bird because they scared me out of their end of town? Not me. Look down there. People. Millions. Every guy for himself. Pushing, shoving, trampling each other, sure. City full of them. Crooked streets– and crooks. Fight, cheat, deal from the bottom. Boost the guy that’s riding high and kick the guy that’s down. That’s what it takes to make good here, and that’s what I’ll give ’em. When they kick you, kick back, only harder. Sock em, and if they can’t take it, that’s their problem. They made a shyster out of me. Okay, I’ll be the biggest, busiest shyster that ever hit this town. If they want rats, I’ll be a rat. The daddy of all rats. That’ll show ’em!”

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Claire Dodd

Powell turns to Blondell, and she shoots him this look, which can only be described as ‘cheekily condemning’:

 

Powell adds, “That’s a long speech on an empty stomach.” Blondell shoots back, “That’s a long speech on a nine course dinner.”

This scene encapsulates two of the more interesting things here, as we have a movie that lays out how powerful and pervasive corruption is and how it’s the public at fault… but also a film that has a really fun streak of black humor running under the surface.

Powell’s character is ultimately subversive in his actions, and you somehow end up with moments like when he gives a pair of men sent to kill him cake and ice cream. He even wraps up an extra piece for them to take home! Powell sells it all with charm and coolness, and his character is much darker and more human than we’re used to seeing. It’s off-putting at first, but impressive by the end.

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Lawyer Man is ultimately a playful concoction, where the blind statue of Justice dutifully follows Powell around even when the concept eludes him. Whileit drags at times, it’s worth sticking through to get a great sense of just how bad things seemed at the time.

Not that they seem a whole lot better now. (And we don’t even have Joan Blondell!

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