Lawyer Man (1932) Review

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Politicians? CORRUPT. Lawyers? CORRUPT. The police? CORRUPT. Newspapers? CORRUPT. Women? SEXY. ALSO USUALLY CORRUPT.
  • To wit: “I’m going to be so dirty that next to me you’re going to look like you just came back from the dry cleaners!”
  • William Powell’s character has a roving eye, and takes work from one female client who wins him over with drinks and affection. He defends himself to another lawyer:

“I’m her lawyer!”
“From what I hear, that’s a new name for it!”

  • At one point, William Powell is at the spa and jumps up to confront someone. We get a pretty impressive view of his area– I went ahead and linked it here in case you were dying to get a good glimpse some hot inner William Powell thigh.
  • One particularly ugly criminal jokingly asks Powell, “Do you ask every girl you go out with how old she is?”
  • Joan Blondell stares William Powell down and clips a pair of scissors, silently threatening to cut off his dick. It is one of the funniest moments I’ve seen in Pre-Code:

The Thin Man would have been called ‘The Short Man’ if Blondell had had any say in it.

The Particulars of the Picture

 Anton Adam …
William Powell
 Olga …
Joan Blondell
 Gilmurry …
David Landau
 Babs Bentley …
Helen Vinson
Izzy …
Alan Jenkins
Directed by
William Dieterle

Corruption Comes Knocking

“I’ve got enough on that guy to hang ‘im!”
“What… what are you going to do?”
“… Hang ‘im!”

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.

Nice hat. This is the stuffy Powell.

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.

No hat. Better looking suit. About to go down, though.

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.

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!”

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!”

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.

“Perhaps you mugs would like these back?”

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.

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!)

Trivia & Links

  • Cliff over at Immortal Ephemera (a site so good that I’m going to be able to spell it soon without looking it up) digs into this one. I share his enthusiasm for David Landau, and his dissection of the emergence of the lawyer genre of the 1930′s is a good read.
  • Mordaunt Hall for the Times gets about as close as he ever gets to analysis with this one (and perhaps a bit of existentialism as well), noting about the script:

However, it is really the author who gets Adam into trouble and therefore some might say that the man who wrote the plot is entitled to favor his main character occasionally.

  • For all the talk of how Anton is a fantastic lawyer, we never actually see him in action in the courtroom. This is a pretty clever way to both save the writer from having to be clever and to demonstrate that we already know how effective Anton is simply because of the way he’s presented. Interesting.