Monday, March 12, 2012

Trial - 1955

This week we take on two films which examine (or in Hollywood fashion, exploit) the era of communist witch hunts. “Trial” (1955) and “Storm Center” (1956) were both made after the most threatening period had ended, yet still timidly take a tentative stance on the violation of civil liberties. They both seek to make us understand the plight of the innocent caught in a web of social repression. However, neither takes the bold and rather obvious step to point out that nobody was ever indicted in this country of being a communist -- despite the showmanship of the McCarthy hearings -- simply because to affiliate oneself with communism is not illegal in a nation that guarantees no discrimination based on creed.

That neither of these films could address that is itself a testament to the intimidating politcal climate.

“Trial” (1955) is a film that is both typical of that era, and yet a bold move into new territory. Many complex issues are raised, including bigotry, political extremism on both the right wing and the left. Personal commitment is challenged, and the very idea of justice. The movie raises many questions, but supplies few answers. In this sense, it seems more modern than many of the films of its day in its cynical approach.

This fence sitting may make the film seem unsatisfying to classic film fans who are accustomed to enjoying simple resolutions. Fans of modern films will likely see this movie as an example of 1950s stereotypes and melodrama. The melodrama, I think, is part of what is fascinating about this movie. One downfall to the film is that it has so much going on. Issues too difficult to solve are dropped for other issues.

Ironically, what makes the film resonate to the modern viewer is the conflict between the right wing and the left wing, still so strong today. There are messages here against left wing extremism and they may make a liberal democrat offended (the image that by merely belonging to a labor union one might be considered a communist). There are also messages against a right wing extremism that may make conservative republicans offended (the image that town fathers, the sheriff, and other representatives of the establishment are racist and bloodthirsty for the death of a young Mexican boy).

If one is to take from this movie any singular message, it might be that all extremism is bad. However, most of us whatever our political beliefs, do not regard ourselves as extremists. It’s always the other fellow. This movie dramatizes cartoonist Walt Kelly’s famous slogan from his “Pogo” comic strip: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

“Trial” begins with a very 1960s feel to it in the opening title sequence, crashing at us with a rapid cymbal beats, piano riff and timpani rumbling that makes us feel we are heading into 1960s political divide.

Rafael Campos is a young Mexican boy. He wanders to a Southern California beach at night crowded with people necking, drinking and generally having a good, illicit time. A sign says this is a private beach. Rafael later tell us that what this means is it is a restricted beach. These night-time beachgoers are all Caucasian.

After the first flush of the bebop theme music we hear Campos calling for help and the camera zeroes in on a young girl lying at his feet. The girl is dead. He is Mexican and he is not supposed to be here.

We cut to Glenn Ford, a law professor being booted out of his faculty position because he has no criminal trial experience. We are told that he has an excellent war record, four battle stars and a silver star. That, and his determined pacing and his pressured speech, and his perpetually pained expression tell us that he’s the hero of the peace.

He needs to get some criminal trial experience to keep his professor’s position. Arthur Kennedy, in one of his best smarmy roles (he would receive an Oscar nomination for this role, and would win a Golden Globe for it), decides to hire him. Kennedy is slick, street smart and goes ambulance chasing for young Rafael’s case.

Kennedy’s gal Friday is Dorothy McGuire. McGuire is an interesting choice for this role. She carries a pedigree of being a lady. Her soft spoken, well-modulated voice indicates, just as Glenn Ford’s clean cut World War II hero image, that she naturally is the heroine. She’s smart, ladylike, decent, and a little sexy. So, why is she working for a snake like Arthur Kennedy?

We soon learn that she and Mr. Kennedy have much in common.

Arthur Kennedy plays a complex character. We may see him first as an irascible fighter for justice, the kind of lawyer whose brusque manners put everyone off, but if he’s your lawyer you love him because you know he’ll fight to the death for you.

Then, when he approaches Katy Jurado, the accused boy’s mother, to take their case he puts on a show with a bit too much fake bravado. There is a glint in his eye and a fire his belly. He’s a showman. He slips the sheriff 20 bucks to let him in the jail to see the boy. Glenn Ford sees him pay the bribe, and in only the first of many of Glenn Ford’s patented worried grimaces of disgust we begin to see the chipping away of an American hero. We begin to see the compromise of conscience.

Arthur Kennedy grills the boy and even slaps him around a little in an ugly scene to get him to tell the truth. The boy is scared and confused. He explains that he knew he was not supposed to be on the restricted beach, but when he saw the girl coming up the stairs she recognized him from school and they struck up a conversation. He says she became friendly with him, talked to him, held his hand, placed his hand on her knee.  When he tried to kiss her and touch her, she pulled away from him and ran up a set of wooden steps. Then she collapsed and died.

Because the girl was underage when she died, after a possible assault, the charge against him is murder. It seems a very difficult case, and is made even more difficult and more interesting by the fact that the girl had been known to have a weak heart due to rheumatic fever, and had collapsed only the year before and required months of bed rest.

In this circumstance, is Rafael Campos guilty of murder or manslaughter, or innocent of any crime? This issue at the very heart of the case gets dropped very quickly in the movie. We move on to other issues that are so big they linger today. Society steps in and the sharks are circling.

The town has a very virulent anti-Mexican bias. Hence the restricted beach. People are up in arms already that the girl died at the feet of a Mexican boy who put his filthy paws on her. They want to hang him.

Arthur Kennedy wants Glenn Ford to take on the trial, while he himself raises public awareness of the trial and raises money for the defense. We are introduced to the prosecuting attorney played by John Hodiak. He is teased at being called Jack Armstrong - the All American Boy (old radio show, if you’re unfamiliar with that), but he gets a good line here, teasing Kennedy:

“I may be a native-born white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but in my heart I like to think I’m as good an American as if I just stepped off the boat.” There is much contemplation on racial perspectives in this movie. Later at a rally, Katy Jurado will complain to Kennedy that the obvious choice of Mexican food so often at the fundraisers is milking her heritage a bit too much. She sarcastically relates that she often just has meat, potatoes and vegetables at home like any white person. Kennedy exploits the symbolism of Mexican cuisine.

Arthur Kennedy and Glenn Ford persuade the mother of the dead girl to hold a private funeral, because they fear a public exhibition will rally the bigots in town and turn the case into a circus. Her parents are obviously heartbroken, but her mother is a brave, conscientious woman, sees the ramifications, and agrees to a private funeral. At the funeral the next morning as the services conclude by the gravesite and the mourners are walking away, the town’s bigots come to make a show of it. They ostentatiously wear black armbands, make a speech and rally round the grave. It is an ugly, threatening scene, where the vigilantes bully the minister into presiding over a prayer of revenge invoked over the grave that announces they are, “…going to see to it that people live with their own kind the way it used to be.” There are members here of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacists. They bark the word “Amen” in the same crude, bloodthirsty manner that other people once said, “Heil Hitler.”

Then we have a scene at the courthouse where crowds attack the door with a battering ram to take Rafael Campos out of his cell and hang him. But, the jovial sheriff, played by Robert Middleton, is persuaded that he will look like a great guy if he a makes them go away. After all, the kid is probably going to lose the trial anyway and be hung legally. Otherwise, he could care less.

Robert Middleton often played these kind of oily roles, and he is as much a type as Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire are types. The minute we see him we know he is a man whose palm has to be greased before he’ll do anything. I can’t help wondering if it would be a more interesting picture it Glenn Ford played the corrupt sheriff and Robert Middleton played the hero law professor.

The movie is essentially a story about hypocrisy, but it is also a story about there sometimes being no right answers. We know in life that is sometimes true, but this does not always make a satisfying movie. The movie jumps around quite a bit it, so it appears convoluted. The traditional love story gets thrown in, in a most untraditional way.

Working late one night, Mr. Ford takes his suitcase and says he does not even have a hotel room. There is an interesting shot of Miss McGuire standing in the doorway silhouetted in the darkness, telling him to come on. Is she going to find him a hotel room or is she taking him home? We’re not given the answer, except in the querulous expression on Glenn Ford’s face.

Arthur Kennedy offers Ford the use of his country cabin while the case is going on and Dorothy McGuire goes with him now to be his girl Friday.

At the cabin Ford works on his notes. He has trouble with an electric blanket, and Dorothy fixes it. She has experience with it. She has fixed it before for Arthur Kennedy. What else has she done for Arthur Kennedy?

“I used to help him. Used to. Not for over a year. Any questions?”

No, Ma’am, we don’t have any more questions. He kisses her, happy to take on both Kennedy’s trial and his old girlfriend. We are allowed to assume Ford and McGuire are sleeping together.

Suggestive as this may be for era, by far the boldest move taken by this movie is to have the role of the judge played by Juano Hernandez.  He is probably the first dark-skinned man to play a presiding judge in classic films. This opens up the question of bigotry one step further, but not from the bigoted whites in town as we might expect. A question on his impartiality is raised first by Rafael Campos, who overhears one of his jailers telling him that he is even more likely to be convicted by a black judge because a black judge will want to keep his job and impress the whites.

Glenn Ford will express his own doubts and suggest that he prefers not to have a black judge. Ford says, “I think you were selected so that after the conviction they can say, of course, the Mexican had a fair trial. Sure. He even had a Negro judge.” He is in profile saying his lines, so we are allowed to concentrate on Mr. Hernandez as the judge silently seethes next to him. The judge responds,

“I’m sure that you consider yourself completely without race prejudice, but you’d bar me from the bench in this trial because of the color of my skin.” He puts Ford put in his place.

But, I particularly like in gentler moments when the judge calls Glenn Ford, “boy,” the prerogative of an older man addressing a younger man. That simple line said in an affable manner probably made white supremacists in the audience choke, and I hope they did.

I also like the way Miss McGuire busily feeds Ford information during the trial like a catcher throwing signals to the pitcher. Too bad she’s not the lawyer, she’s the smartest person on Campos’ defense team.

Most of the movie is taken up simply trying to pick an impartial jury.

Another problem looms on the horizon. Glenn Ford is summoned to fly to Kennedy’s side to attend a rally in another part of the country. It is a fund-raising rally for Rafael Campos’ defense. In the auditorium, we see Kennedy approaching members of something called the “All Peoples Party Club” to raise collections. This is a communist front organization. Ford, with that squeamish expression on his face, protests to Kennedy that they should not be dealing with communists. Kennedy frankly tells him that money is money no matter who gives it and these people are willing to give it. Just as we had seen Kennedy slip the sheriff $20 early in the movie, we now see him making deals with organizers of communist groups and labor unions to split the money raised.

The rally is an impressive scene. It takes place in a public auditorium and is absolutely full to the rafters with extras. There are banners and songs, and it has the flavor of an old revival meeting. Glenn Ford is disgusted. When he tries to make a few statements in the microphone, Arthur Kennedy orders him cut off and it is almost like that scene in “Meet John Doe” (1941) discussed here, where Gary Cooper is silenced at the hands of fascists.

Then we see Kennedy work his magic with the crowd, a combination of Charles Foster Kane and Aimee Semple MacPherson. He tells the crowd to give their money, but tells them to not trust anybody. It is an anti-establishment shout, a forerunner of everything we will hear in the 1960s. We have another interesting shot of Glenn Ford slinking out of the arena in the bowels of the auditorium. Stylistically there are many fine camera shots in this movie.

Ford feels he has been duped, not only by the two-faced Kennedy but by McGuire. He wants to know just how deeply involved she is with communists. Apparently, her intimate relationship with Kennedy is no longer of interest in him. If it ever was.

She can be a woman of easy virtue, but her political beliefs are what taints her.

Dorothy McGuire next has a scene where she explains how she came to be involved with communists. She tells him that she drifted when she was in college. That she was “one of a thousand freshmen and I wanted to be different. And I found out they were clubs and meetings, and if went to them you were different. Suddenly people pointed you out and you became kind of campus curiosity… Suddenly you had friends who were going to change the world with you.”

It is a rather dishwater way to explain one’s move toward a new political perspective, even if for many it happened that way. Dorothy McGuire’s role, possibly simply because she was played by Dorothy McGuire the all-American girl type, was never meant to be a card-carrying communist. She is portrayed only as someone who was duped even as Glenn Ford has felt himself duped in this movie, who went astray and who regrets her actions.

She tells him that the communists dumped her. Because she was “…hopelessly bourgeois. They were right. I could never really accept the party line. The way it kept changing. Monday’s truth would be Tuesday’s lie.”

A great line, but the movie fails to consider the very irony that one of the biggest and most shameful actions of the McCarthy era is that people who had a minor role or even nothing to do with communism were painted with the same brush as the dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin was unreachable to them, so they bullied and persecuted anybody at hand, usually for fame and profit. Indictments were slim in “un-American activities” trials; bribes were more common.

The movie moves on to the trial, after an arduous jury-picking process.

Mr. Ford questions the girl’s cardiologist about her weak heart. The doctor is played by Richard Gaines, who we saw before as the delightful bore in “The More the Merrier” (1943) as well as in “Strange Bargain” (1949) here. He can give no proof that her heart would not have given out anyway. A montage of witnesses testify. Glenn Ford intends to wrap up his defense quickly and not bring Rafael Campos to the stand because that would jeopardize the case, but Arthur Kennedy shows up to take over. He puts Rafael on the stand.

Meanwhile, a man stalking Ford turns out to be a Elisha Cook, Jr. in a minor role, who turns out to be a process server. It seems a local red baiter, a state congressman named Battle has subpoenaed Ford to testify before his own Un-American Activities Committee. Ford is really up to his ears in trouble now. Just by going to Arthur Kennedy’s communist rally he’s tainted himself.

We never get to see the character named Battle and that is a shame because it would be a much more courageous movie if this character were depicted. Today we might infer that Battle is meant to be an ersatz Joe McCarthy, and he is, but he really has a closer real life counterpart in a California State Senator named Jack Tenney. Tenney conducted anticommunist investigations in California in the 1940s and early 1950s. Among hundreds of people, the most famous entertainers he attacked were singer and actor Paul Robeson, and Edward G. Robinson. As is usual with these witch hunts not one single person in eight years of harassment resulted in one single indictment. It was a ploy to further his career, just as it was Joe McCarthy’s. Like Joe McCarthy, Tenney’s career petered out into oblivion eventually, but not until much harm was done.

Back to the trial and a very strange sort of grand finale. The jury finds Campos guilty of murder. The sentencing is put off until the next day. Glenn Ford decides to put an 11th hour bid to save the boy, runs off to the library (libraries feature big in our films this week, that haven of solutions -- I believe librarians are superheroes) and tries to find answers.

He addresses the court and raises an obscure ruling where Campos might, instead of being sentence to death, be committed to a juvenile offenders’ detention center for an undetermined period of time. Arthur Kennedy does not want young Rafael to be saved. He wants him to be hung as a martyr to the communist cause. He tries to scuttle Ford’s tactic.

We are never sure in this movie if Kennedy is a dedicated communist or whether he is just a flimflam man on the make for bucks. He attacks the judge with racist remarks, trying to make the judge angry, calling Hernandez a “handkerchief head” and an “Uncle Tom”. But, Judge Hernandez will not be baited.

In another switch, John Hodiak, the prosecuting attorney, agrees with Ford that sending Campos to the detention hall is the right thing to do. The judge so orders, and Campos is saved. Arthur Kennedy gets 30 days in jail for contempt of court.

We are also told that the red baiter Battle will drop his case against Glenn Ford because Ford is a fighter, and Battle only takes on fights he can win. A convenient end, and a copout.

This movie attempts a great deal, but if it were really bold it would have attempted it in the early 1950s or late 1940s when this movie is set. It would have featured Battle. Or more to the point, it would have answered one last question for us…

If Rafael Campos was really innocent, as we are made to believe he was, why is it right that he should go to a detention center, still having a criminal record to his name? The movie is not really about justice, but about expedience, and how sometimes we trade one for the other.

Come back Thursday for more fellow-travelers and red baiters, and libraries, in “Storm Center” (1956).


KimWilson said...

Interesting post, Jackie. Kennedy is a bit intense in this, but I enjoyed Ford and McGuire a lot. Younger people today are often shocked by the whole communist issue, and articles like this one could educate young film watchers. However, as a historian I have to point one thing out. The Communist Control Act of 1954 made belonging to the Communist Party of America illegal. Plus, it was a crime to support or belong to any organization or planning in relation to helping the party. Yes, it was technically unconstitutional, but it was passed by Congress and signed by Ike. While it has never been enforced, it is STILL on the books today. How crazy is that?

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Kim, thanks for mentioning the Communist Control Act of 1954. Crazy, yes. We never really addressed all the ramifications of that era, we just drifted away from it. I suppose you could say the same for other troubled eras in our timeline.

The leads I thought were fine, but I enjoyed all the minor characters as well. A few of the witnesses you might recognize from old TV shows.

twentyfourframes said...

I need to see this, It sounds fascinating. That whole era of the communist witch hunts, finding them everywhere including the "glove compartment of my car" as Bob Dylan wrote, was a scary time filled with paranoia, distrust and vigilante type thinking.


Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John, I hope you can see this sometime. It's a real slice of that era.

Caftan Woman said...

"Ironically, what makes the film resonate to the modern viewer is the conflict between the right wing and the left wing, still so strong today."

Last week on television I watched a retired Canadian politician discussing the current political climate south of the border. His opinion was that "They always start in separate corners, but eventually come together in order to accomplish things. However, these days it sometimes feels as if they are ever going to get together."

Has the shouting just gotten louder so we can't hear the calm and considered thought? I hope so.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Glad to see you back, CW. I thought the last presidential election was the nastiest in my memory, and am wary of how this one is turning out as well. I hope it will not be even worse. As disgusting as it sometimes gets (and not just from candidates, but from special interest groups as well), I do take a certain comfort knowing it's all in the open these days. What is said is recorded and remembered. When enough chickens come home to roost, even the most obnoxious and devious mudslingers will realize they're only hurting themselves. If you do dirt, or say something hateful or stupid, it will come back to haunt you.

The same goes for some special interest groups who wear the ugly mantle of resentful victims. You'll get all the attention you want, and it won't be flattering.

Related Products