Sunday, August 24, 2014

Criminal Lawyer (RKO, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I screened one of the movies I’d recorded on a recent Turner Classic Movies tribute to actor Lee Tracy, a 1937 RKO “B” called Criminal Lawyer. It’s impossible for me to think (or write) about Tracy without recalling how he literally pissed away a major career; in 1934, on location in Mexico for MGM’s big-budget biopic ¡Viva Villa! (with Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa and Tracy as his gringo press agent responsible for getting him and his revolution good publicity in U.S. papers), he stood on the balcony of his hotel room one day and urinated on a passing detachment of soldiers in the Mexican army. This antic got not only Tracy but the entire film crew thrown out of Mexico immediately, and MGM got back by firing not only Tracy but director Howard Hawks, replacing him with Jack Conway (who got sole screen credit even though between two-thirds and three-fourths of the released film is Hawks’ work) and the Mexican locations with whatever places they could find in alta California that looked more or less right. Tracy drifted through the studio food chain, ending up at RKO and then an even cheaper (but still semi-major) lot, Universal, doing cheaper movies designed to show off his fast-talking wise-guy persona. Criminal Lawyer is listed on as a remake of a 1932 film called State’s Attorney (with John Barrymore, of all people, as the character Tracy plays here) — in 1951 RKO would make another “B” called Criminal Lawyer that would have certain plot devices in common with this one but wasn’t really a remake — and is actually a crackling-tough little melodrama which casts Tracy as attorney Barry Brandon, who wins his cases with spectacular courtroom stunts and, it’s hinted (but not officially revealed until the end), bribing jurors.

His main client is gangster Gene Larkin (Eduardo Ciannelli), and while running an illegal casino in New York City is a bit of a comedown for this actor after he played a character (based on Charles “Lucky” Luciano) who was running the entire New York Mafia in Marked Woman the year before, he’s nonetheless sinister enough that we applaud when Brandon, as a weird practical joke, arranges for the casino to be raided. He gets everyone off in night court with a $50 fine, which Larkin agrees to cover for everyone even though this sets him back over $2,000 and he’s naturally pissed at Brandon for costing him that much money. Incidentally, the night court judge is a woman (Claire McDowell) — there may have been an earlier one, but offhand this is the first film I’ve seen that shows a woman judge — and Brandon stays on to watch her hear her next case. This involves Madge Carter (Margot Grahame), a “woman of the streets” — it’s ambiguous in that maddening Production Code way exactly what she’s accused of doing, but whatever it is it involves picking up a man, Jack “Fingy” Doremus (Francis McDonald), who Brandon, taking Madge’s case on the spot as a lark, establishes is a paid police informer who’d swear out a complaint against anybody for the fees the cops are paying him. Brandon takes Madge home and installs her in an apartment in his building — chastely, of course, this being a post-Legion of Decency strict-Code-enforcement era film — while still continuing his relationship with Betty Walker (Betty Lawford), daughter of political boss William Walker (Frank M. Thomas). Larkin and Walter père have hatched a plot to get Brandon appointed as an assistant district attorney, and then move him up to full D.A. when Walker’s political machine gets the current D.A. elected to the U.S. Senate — only Brandon warns Larkin that if he expects this will give him a free pass from prosecution, he’s mistaken. While I took your money I was on your side, Brandon tells Larkin, but if I’m going to be paid by the people of New York to prosecute criminals, then I’m going to prosecute them — and that means you. Accordingly he aggressively pursues Larkin’s criminal enterprises and also wins a spectacular conviction against Nora James (Lita Chevret), who murdered her husband after she reviously tried to hire Brandon to help her divorce him and he refused on the rather hypocritically “virtuous” ground that he never did divorce work and regarded the marriage bond as sacred.

With Madge Carter working in his office as a secretary and personal assistant, Brandon expects to stay in the good graces of Walker’s political machine long enough to get elected governor — only one night, after a drunken crawl through various nightclubs and parties, Betty Walker steers the drunken Brandon to a justice of the peace and marries him. (Usually in the movies it was the guy who got the girl drunk so she’d agree to a “marriage” she wouldn’t have consented to sober.) The shock of realizing that Betty tricked him into marrying her convinces Brandon that it was Madge he really loved anyway, but now that he’s a married man she wants nothing to do with him either professionally or personally. She quits Brandon and goes to Larkin, of all people, to cash Brandon’s severance check — maybe her final get-back at him was supposed to be to give Larkin the check and therefore a hold over Brandon that would destroy him, but writers Louis Stevens (story), G. V. Atwater and Thomas Lennon (script) don’t make that clear — and as she leaves Larkin’s she sees him go out and shoot his gangland enemy “Bird Dog” Finn (probably William A. Williams, since he’s the only actor lists for this movie without a character name). Then Larkin kidnaps her and forces her to testify at his trial that he shot Finn in self-defense after Finn pulled a gun on him — only Brandon destroys Larkin’s self-defense claim by revealing that Finn was shot in the back. Brandon gets Madge to admit that she was forced to perjure himself, and in a climax that seems more like a 1960’s movie than a 1930’s one he confesses to jury tampering and other forms of complicity in Larkin’s crimes, announces he’s stepping down as D.A. and giving up his law license, and he and Madge (like William Powell and Myrna Loy at the end of Manhattan Melodrama three years earlier) walk out of the courtroom arm in arm to heaven knows what.

Criminal Lawyer is a well-made film (the director is former D. W. Griffith assistant Christy Cabanne, who didn’t have anywhere nearly as distinguished a career as Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning or Raoul Walsh but did work a long time and make some entertaining films, as well as total crap like the 1947 Bela Lugosi stupidity Scared to Death; according to both the American Film Institute Catalog and, however, Edward Killy filled in briefly while Cabanne was ill) and Margot Grahame gives a performance that should have marked her for biggers and betters, but didn’t. If there’s a fault in it, it’s Lee Tracy, who as in his other films plays a character whose sheer energy is entertaining but is utterly unable to make us like him; he’s great in the scenes where Barry Brandon is an unscrupulous shyster but he’s utterly unable to convince us that he’s having a crisis of conscience. Lee Tracy was a superficially similar “type” to James Cagney — they were both short, highly energetic Irish wiseguys — but the depths Cagney could sound even within the limits of the stereotyped gangsters and con men Warners kept casting him as were completely beyond Tracy, and to a modern audience the surprise is not that Tracy so stupidly blew his chances at a major career but that he got as close to one as he did in the first place.