Criminal Lawyer (1937)

Criminal Lawyer (1937)

If you don’t count yourself among Lee Tracy’s fans (like I do) I’m not sure you’ll get a whole lot out of this remake of John Barrymore’s State’s Attorney (1932) unless you’re looking for a pretty good introduction to the ‘s work. Directed by Christy Cabanne with a screenplay by G.V. Atwater & Thomas Lennon that was based on the Louis Stevens story “Gentlemen of New York” this average drama is really just a vehicle for Tracy whose on-screen persona was perfect for carnival barkers newspaper reporters and other outspoken individuals such as the (titled) criminal defense lawyer turned district attorney & would-be politician Barry Brandon the character he plays in this one. Character actor Eduardo Ciannelli plays a stereotypical gangster Gene Larkin; Margot Grahame plays Barry’s love interest Madge Carter while Betty Lawford plays debutante Betty Walker who wants Barry for herself so much that she uses her wealthy power broker father (Frank Thomas) to advance his career. Erik Rhodes seems out of place as Tony Bandini the radio singer whose character is used as a plot device.

Barry is a mouthpiece for illegal club owner Larkin; he “springs” whatever hoods the gangster wants him to without regard to their innocence or guilt largely by using tricks which distract juries from considering all the facts by focusing on innocuous ones. John Marston (uncredited) plays the prosecuting attorney he beats in one such case. But Larkin isn’t entirely happy with his criminal lawyer whose sense of humor he doesn’t always appreciate. Larkin advises Barry to “switch sides” by taking the Assistant D.A. job offered by Walker and District Attorney Hopkins (William Stack) who wants to run for the Senate in order to gain an inside track on those who would put him away. Initially Barry doesn’t want the position but ambition gets the best of him and he warns Larkin that he’ll now be “against” him. He’s emboldened by the love and assistance he receives from a grateful streetwalker Madge that he’d rescued from prosecution in night court by appealing to the judge’s (Claire McDowell uncredited) heartstrings & sense of womanhood. He then employs Madge as his cook putting her up in a vacant apartment in his building and replacing his language challenged houseboy come bartender Mitzu (Otto Hahn uncredited).

As district attorney Barry makes a name for himself by successfully convicting Nora James (Lita Chevret uncredited) of murdering her husband; Charles Lane (also uncredited) plays Nora’s unsuccessful defense attorney. When Betty and her father come to congratulate Barry after the trial Madge realizes she’s not in the same league. At the celebration party that night Betty maneuvers an inebriated Barry into her car drives him to a justice of the peace and takes advantage of his drunken state to get him to marry her. Naturally upset Madge plans to leave town and late one night goes to Larkin hoping he’ll cash her check. This contrived situation sets up Madge witnessing Larkin (with a gun provided by Brooks Benedict uncredited) killing his gang’s rival leader and sets up Barry as his nemesis in yet another trial. Larkin holds Madge until his trial threatening that he’ll kill Barry if she testifies against him. Barry puts Madge on the stand and knowing she’s perjuring herself let’s her go until Larkin laughs at him. This prompts Barry to have a change of heart and tactics; he forces Madge to admit that she was only protecting him and then admits that he was guilty of jury rigging while employed by Larkin. Having separated with Betty and effectively giving her to Tony (who’s been escorting her throughout) he indicates to Madge that he’s free and clear. He finally finishes his “political career ending” speech (e.g. he “falls on his sword”) to convict Larkin; he then leaves arm and arm with Madge.

For fun – there’s a highly recognizable yet uncredited (unlisted even on imdb.com) character actor in the film’s first and last juries. The first who appeared in many Westerns sits in the middle of the back row; the last a large chubby man who appeared in some comedies sits in the front leftmost seat. Can you identify either (or both) of them?

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