Sunday 12 July 2009

Attorney for the Defense (1932)

Director: Irving Cummings
Stars: Edmund Lowe, Evelyn Brent and Constance Cummings

The stars here are Edmund Lowe, Evelyn Brent and Constance Cummings (no relation to the director, Irving Cummings), but I'm not watching for them. Beyond this being a precode, and I'll watch pretty much any precode that I get the opportunity to see, it features a number of actors I watch whenever I get the chance too: Dwight Frye, Nat Pendleton and Clarence Muse, for whom my appreciation is a rare common factor. Frye was the horror icon, best known for his Renfield in the Lugosi version of Dracula; Pendleton the former wrestler who was omnipresent in the old Cagney/Robinson/Bogart Warner Bros gangster films; and Muse the first black actor to star in a film, though one who would unfairly be relegated to bit parts for most of his life.

The first thing we see here is Dwight Frye being convicted for murder in an emotional court room. As James Wallace he gets the electric chair on what is apparently circumstantial evidence, mostly because William J Burton, the district attorney, is very good indeed at his job. Wallace is dragged out of the courtroom in front of his family, screaming his innocence and berating the DA for his ambition. The catch is that he really is innocent, as is discovered a year later after he's been electrocuted, because the real killer confesses. So our ambitious DA, who is that rarest of rarities, an honest lawyer, quits his job and becomes the attorney for the defense of the title.

What's more, he goes to James Wallace's widow to attempt penance, which he gets plenty of opportunity to do. He looks after Mrs Wallace and her son Paul as if they were his own wife and son, putting Paul through law school and bringing him into his firm. Unfortunately for them, there's another episode in Burton's past that will come back to haunt them. While there's unspoken romantic tension throughout between Burton and his secretary, Ruth Barry, his real flame at the beginning of the film is a dangerous young lady called Valesca Lorraine.

Quite why he didn't know better is beyond me, because he trusts her so little that he even hires a private detective to watch her, thus discovering that she's two timing him with a petty crook called Nick Quinn. Naturally he dumps her unceremoniously but ten years later everyone's stories intertwine once more. Nick is now an important figure in the world of crime, Val is his moll and Burton is the man who can put them away. Paul is the obvious candidate to be used to fix that situation.

The story here is pretty predictable but it unfolds quite nicely. Edmund Lowe has too much makeup and has a few wooden scenes but generally carries the part well, even though he turns into Lionel Barrymore for the final court scenes. He must have watched A Free Soul every day for a month to prepare for the part. He'd follow it up duelling with Bela Lugosi in Chandu the Magician and a year later would be the least recognisable of the dream cast of Dinner at Eight. Evelyn Brent is suitably sleazy as Val Lorraine, highly reminiscent of Norma Shearer of all people. Constance Cummings is best of the bunch as the sturdy and reliable secretary, though she doesn't get enough to do.

And as to the names I was watching for, Dwight Frye gets precisely one scene, though admittedly it is the first one. It's a shame he didn't get to play a double role as both James Wallace and his son, but the age progression of the characters was terrible as it was and would have been worse if they'd have added the extra ten years needed for that to happen. Nat Pendleton doesn't get much screen time either, just enough to play a couple of card tricks and get laid out by Edmund Lowe, but he has fun for the time he has. Best of all is Clarence Muse, an elevator boy with the unwieldy monicker of Jefferson Q Leffingwell, who doesn't appear until the film is almost through but makes himself memorable nonetheless.

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