It was an impassioned courtroom defense made by Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul (1931) that won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1931. Talking pictures are just a natural for lawyers, after all, who can talk like a mouthpiece? In November 1931 Counsellor-at-Law starring Paul Muni as George Simon would open on Broadway and be the longest running play of the season. It'd be made into a film by Universal that was released at the end of 1933. Counsellor at Law, the film (minus the hyphens), replaced Muni with John Barrymore, who also played a lawyer in 1932's State's Attorney at RKO, a movie which credits Gene Fowler as one of the writers.
In 1931 Fowler had published The Great Mouthpiece, a life of the colorful real-life lawyer, William J. Fallon. Fallon earned hefty fees successfully defending the notorious in cases as dramatic as the films which would follow. He spent big too and became quite popular along the Great White Way, especially with the ladies. The best portrayal of Fallon is Warren William's breakout role in The Mouthpiece, also 1932. From late that same year came Warner Brothers' Lawyer Man, starring William Powell as a fast-talking, leg-loving defender in the Fallon tradition, Anton Adam.
Lawyer Man premiered in New York on Christmas Eve, 1932 but didn't go into general release until January 7, 1933. Thus the conflicting release dates you'll see with this title.
It's interesting to note that very little of Lawyer Man actually takes place in court. The best scenes of The Mouthpiece came inside the courtroom where audiences got to see William's Fallon character, Vince Day, in action molding the law to his own purposes and often shocking his own clients with his brazenness. Lawyer Man, on the other hand, goes out of its way to avoid the courtroom, keeping the focus on the hallways during trials and muting what went on behind the court's closed doors. Lawyer Man, like the title says, is about the man.
At the start of Lawyer Man defense attorney Anton Adam is a man of the people, bumping shoulders in the crowded Manhattan Streets and taking on charity cases at his East Side offices where his secretary Olga (Joan Blondell) micro-manages his professional life with hopes of taming Adam's private life as well. But Anton loves a pretty girl, his eyes drawn to every pair of shapely legs in their path, leaving the childlike Ogla to huff and puff in frustration whenever Anton is distracted by a new woman.
Despite the seemingly meager setting of Adam's law office he manages to crush well-heeled prosecutor Granville Bentley (Alan Dinehart) in a case and receives a call to come to Bentley's offices for a meeting. While Olga is especially nervous about Bentley's invitation, a reserved Anton arrives, still looking a bit shabby, and is surprised with an offer of a partnership by the uptown lawyer. He's moving on up. The vast Bentley and Adam offices not only have a fantastic view of the city, but they come with legs attached, as Anton is soon in the clutches of Bentley's sister, Babs, played by uptown vamp Helen Vinson.
After whipping local political boss Gilmurry (David Landau) in a case, Anton bumps into him in a club and Gilmurry does his best to get Anton to jump over to his side. Anton isn't going for that, but he is going for Claire Dodd, playing actress Ginny St. Johns, an acquaintance of Gilmurry's. Ginny is all over Anton and gets him excited professionally as well when she has him initiate a breach of promise suit for her against a city hall doctor named Gresham (Kenneth Thomson). Gresham's brother is a judge and both men are Gilmurry cronies. Partner Bentley warns Anton to stay away from a case as trashy as this, but Anton, as always, has something to prove and is smitten with Ginny as well, so he's working doubly hard.
So he's got Joan Blondell making big eyes at him in his office; he's got Helen Vinson playing cat and mouse with him from up above his usual sphere; and he's got Claire Dodd clinging to him out on the town. Poor guy. But it all cracks pretty quick when Dodd's Ginny tells him she wants to drop her case and Gresham, with Ginny's help, records Anton telling her the case is too valuable to drop. Anton is indicted and Bentley dissolves the partnership. Vinson's Babs becomes unreachable. Professionally broken Anton goes begging to Gilmurry who tells him he's a wash-out and he wants no part of him.
"Everybody's walked out on you but the landlord," Blondell says. Anton replies softly to Olga, "Except you." He looks out amongst the people of the city, "pushing, shoving, trampling each other," and declares that "They made a shyster out of me. Okay. I'll be the biggest, busiest shyster that ever hit this town." Anton pushes himself into full Fallon mode, always making sure to grab a sizable cut. Opportunity knocks once more when he has the opportunity to squeeze Gilmurry.
Anton is an interesting character in that no matter how much he gouges his clients it's pretty clear that money is not his primary motivation. Here he differs from the real Fallon and from William's Vince Day, who appear to have worshiped the almighty dollar over all. For William Powell's Anton Adam power is the motivation. What's more, it's an in-your-face kind of power preceded by a cry of "I'll show you," before knuckling down and actually showing them.
While Bentley and Babs and Ginny St. Johns will disappear once and for all, and while the relationship with Blondell's Olga is supposed to be the common thread throughout Anton Adam's life and career, I found his uneasy interaction with Gilmurry to be the most interesting facet of Lawyer Man. In another movie Gilmurry would be the strong arm and Adam would be trying to literally save his own skin after double-crossing him. Not in Lawyer Man.
Oh sure, Gilmurry has thugs (fresh faced Allen Jenkins and Jack La Rue!), but his meetings with Adam always remain cordial. When Powell's Adam stalls Gilmurry prior to a meeting and Gilmurry enters Adam's office to find him putting together a jigsaw puzzle he isn't insulted, he just kind of smirks. They have their talk, then Gilmurry, looming over Adam's desk casually grabs a piece of the puzzle and puts it in place. It's a nice little touch to show business is business, but these men really don't dislike one another.
Yes, Adam and Gilmurry insult each other freely, but neither seems to take the others words too hard, perhaps because they can see the truth in what the other man says. At one point Adam puts the squeeze on Gilmurry for an extra $10,000 in fees. Gilmurry not only pays but makes Adam an offer to come work for him.
Gilmurry is played by David Landau, a character actor who appeared in over 30 films from 1931-34. He died in September 1935, age 56. Landau had a long career on the stage prior to coming to Hollywood, which best I can tell began around the turn of the century. He worked in a stock company owned by Charles B. Newhall and married Newhall's daughter, Frances, in 1903. In 1906 Frances convinced her husband to change his name from David Magee to David Landau and from that time going forward Landau's name regularly appears in the dramatic sections of the New York newspapers. His gruff voice and craggy long face made Landau a great villain on the screen for the short time he was able to play on it. In Lawyer Man he's more disreputable than villainous, but he's excellent nonetheless.
Lawyer Man is the last of 10 films made featuring hardworking Joan Blondell in 1932. I think you could make the case that Powell's presence looms so largely over Lawyer Man that any actress could have played Olga, but I'm still glad it was Blondell. While Helen Vinson and Claire Dodd just have to make an entrance to get a leading man drooling, the pure and sassy Blondell provides a definite balance and at least one woman to root for in Lawyer Man. The problem is Olga's only goal is Anton and since she works for him she can't be too aggressive about it. She's the voice that's always in his ear, but Anton has to fall down several times before he begins to hear her. Blondell's energy upgrades the role of Olga from a part we'd otherwise forget to someone for us to pull for amongst the muck and corruption surrounding everyone else, including even Anton.
While I'd take Vince Day and The Mouthpiece over Anton Adam and Lawyer Man any day, William Powell is still perfect for this part. On the heels of two other pre-code gems for Warner's, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage (both 1932), Powell continues to be the slick and fast talking leading man that we sometimes forget existed prior to The Thin Man. It may be a bit early for the debonair label which always seems to find him, but Powell, circa 1932, sure is a charmer!
When the staid Alan Dinehart proposes a partnership because he's "not a spellbinder when it comes to juries," we know that any mouthpiece William Powell plays is. And again, we barely get to see Powell in the courtroom, but because of who he is, and how confident his Anton Adam is throughout Lawyer Man, we know he would be fantastic in front of any jury. Lionel Barrymore needed that courtroom speech to cop his Oscar for A Free Soul; With Powell the performance is implied.
Lawyer Man has been a favorite in my collection of movies for quite some time now. I often watch it back to back with The Mouthpiece, the similarities of which should now be obvious. I've always found both movies underrated and generally overlooked and have wished to see both get the wider audience that comes with a mainstream DVD release for several years now. While I can understand how The Mouthpiece has managed to avoid rediscovery, I can't say the same for Lawyer Man given the presence of two major and perpetually beloved stars in William Powell and Joan Blondell.
Fans of movies about lawyers should really check this one out and William Powell fans simply have to see Lawyer Man.
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- "Actor's Widow Bares Poverty." Oakland Tribune 24 September 1935: 16.
- "In Other Days." Oakland Tribune 13 October 1935: 29.
- "Portrait of a Lawyer." Galveston Daily News 11 October 1931: 13.
- The Great Mouthpiece by Jacob A. Stein in Legal Spectator, April 2003.