Thursday, February 16, 2017

For the Defense - 1930

For the Defense (1930) presents a gritty Depression-era drama, but very much on the cusp of the 1920s “era of wonderful nonsense” and a semi-biographical take on one of its outrageous characters.  It is grim, fatalistic, but with that cheeky spark of chip-on-the-shoulder humor that marked the character needed to survive the Great Depression, and which we see abundantly in films of this era.

William Powell stars as a clever, charming, hard-drinking New York attorney whose tactics sometimes actually skirt legality.  He is immaculately dressed and performs in court with Shakespearean flourish, never loses a case, but he is flawed, and eventually must suffer the consequences.  Despite his eventual downfall, he is not, however, a tragic figure in the sense that he is the master of his own destiny.  He gambles with his clients’ lives, with his own, and refuses to take life on anything but his own terms.  No hero, but we can’t help but smile at his success, particularly during a long-played out courtroom scene where he takes a vial of nitroglycerin that is a piece of evidence and smashes it on the floor to the horror of everyone.  He knows it is not really nitroglycerin (and so do we, as the scene telegraphs that to us beforehand).  His greatest courtroom trick, however, is his bribing of juries.

Far more shocking than the nitro scene, at least to modern sensibilities, perhaps, is Powell’s self-destructive drunkenness.  It is not played for comic effect, despite his wisecracks.  The real  ugliness of the drunkenness is its treatment as being normal, being necessary to fuel the engine of a driven man.

The character is based on real-life New York champion lawyer and marathon inebriate William Fallon, who is said to be the inspiration as well for the rogue lawyer Billy Flynn in the stage and screen musical Chicago, as well as other films.  His life of hard drinking left him dead in 1927 at only forty-one years of age.

More tragic, perhaps, is the character played by Kay Francis, who loves Powell and wants to marry him, but his uncomfortable, gentle response is, “After all these months, don't you think that would be rather silly?”  He clearly loves her, but it’s a slap in the face, and we feel her humiliation. 

Kay Francis, who would go on the make six films with Mr. Powell in all, plays an actress, and her flapper’s severely short bob make her look more devil-may-care than Powell in his conservative three-piece-suits, though she is far more traditional, at least as regards her feelings about marriage.  She really looks startlingly modern compared to Powell and stands out in appearance from the Depression-bedraggled cast, as if she hasn’t gotten the memo that the 1920s are over.

Obviously, noting their relationship, the drinking, and Powell’s clever flouting of the law, we are distinctly in Pre-Code era, unrepentant and blasé about rules.  It’s also a marvel to note that Mr. Powell’s screen presence is magnetic and, unlike his cast mates, really quite natural.  Even Kay Francis, who had a strong screen presence, comes off as extremely mannered in performance compared to the smooth William Powell, who never plays to the camera, and seems not to know there’s a camera in the room.

The plot takes us from Powell’s many victories in the courtroom getting criminals off, to a tragedy when one of Kay’s admirers, played by Scott Kolk, tries to lure her away from Powell by proposing marriage.  Kay and Kolk get into a car accident which kills a pedestrian, and Kolk goes on trial, though Kay was driving.  He tries to protect her, and Kay tries to keep her involvement with him a secret from Powell, knowing he will never forgive her for being out with his rival.  Powell refers to Kolk as her raccoon coat, because that is what he wears—more shades of the previous decade.  Their scenes in a speakeasy also flout the law, and remind us that Prohibition was not repealed until 1933.

Powell will lose his first case, and find himself shipped to Sing-Sing for his chicanery , but the sordid tale ends on a note of hope when Kay promises to wait for him.  He promises to marry her, if she does.

Director John Cromwell gives us a lean and strong, quickly shot story.  Look for him also in a bit part as a reporter.  The dogged district attorney is played by William B. Davidson.  Also popping up in the cast is George “Gabby” Hayes as a waiter.

There is a sense—I wonder if it was perceived even when this film played in theaters—that we were stuck treading water in a period of time where one era was finished, but the new one had not yet acquired a personality of its own.  We were waiting warily to be introduced.  Rather than a sense of foreboding, there was a only a weak smile and a shrug of the shoulders.  We hadn’t touched bottom yet as a society; we were still in the freefall, waiting to land. 


Come back next Thursday when we shift gears to an era of another kind of anxiety but a greater message of comfort – the gentle wartime home front story of Happy Land (1943) starring Don Ameche.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.


Rich said...

When I wrote about Powell a couple of years ago, I watched some of his early stuff, and I had noticed for the first time how much of an edge his 30s characters usually had. It was as if they were variations on MY MAN GODFREY: rogues from the street playing at being gentlemen. That's how it seemed to me, anyway.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Rich. Yes, I suppose many of his early characters were cut from the same cloth, though this role is more rogue than gentleman. He certainly did have a talent for bringing out both sides.

Caftan Woman said...

Love your description of Powell's performance as if he didn't know there was a camera in the room. He really is a unique and watchable actor. I'll have to add this to my "lawyer movie" list. Maybe one day I'll divide them into decades, and won't know where to place this one.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, CW. Lawyer movie list, I like that. Has anyone ever held a courtroom movie blogathon? I like courtroom dramas.

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