Sunday, April 04, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Perfect Strangers (1950)

PERFECT STRANGERS is an entertaining cross between a romantic drama and a courtroom "procedural." Dennis Morgan and Ginger Rogers, who costarred in Ginger's Oscar-winning KITTY FOYLE (1940), play sequestered jurors on a murder trial who fall in love. One catch -- they're each already married.

The film walks through the entire trial process, beginning with names being selected for jury summons notices as the opening credits begin. The film then goes through jurors reporting to the jury commissioner's office, voir dire (the attorneys questioning and choosing the jury), the trial, closing arguments, deliberations, and the reading of the verdict.

Relatively little time is spent on the actual facts of the case; details are given in shorthand, sometimes with trial witnesses just saying one or two lines, so that the film can focus more closely on the experience of being a juror than on the case itself.

I found the romantic angle a bit sudden, and although I love both Rogers and Morgan, I think their romance was actually of less interest to me than the overall jury storyline. Nonetheless, I found the entire film enjoyable and the way the Rogers-Morgan romance intersected with the facts of the case was thought-provoking. I also liked the way their relationship was resolved; Morgan has a very good line near the end of the film which summed things up neatly.

Thelma Ritter is one of the jurors, so needless to say she adds her usual wry comedic spark to the proceedings. Margalo Gillmore, Marjorie Bennett, and the ever-present George Chandler are among the other jurors. (Chandler has 444 credits, so small wonder it seems that he's been in most of the movies I've watched lately!) Paul Ford, perhaps best-known as Mayor Shinn of THE MUSIC MAN, plays the trial judge.

I proofread trial transcripts for court reporters, so I found the film of particular interest. It's fascinating to me how little has changed in the six decades since this film was made. Some of the standard wording used during court proceedings hasn't changed since the late '40s, such as the admonition given at breaks reminding jurors not to discuss the case amongst themselves or the wording used to confirm the jurors' verdicts.

On the other hand, juries are chosen now by computer, rather than tumbling slips of paper in a bin, and jurors in California would no longer be questioned about if they can convict someone knowing guilty means the death penalty; the jury is not to discuss or consider punishment when reaching a verdict.

A side note which I was mulling during the jury selection scene: I have felt for some time that attorneys in the modern courtroom have way too much leeway bouncing jurors in their quest to get the "perfect" jury. I believe peremptory challenges -- the ability to dismiss jurors for no reason -- should be shaved way down and jurors only bounced if there's a huge problem, rather than lawyers attempting to "rig" the jury and even bringing in "jury consultants." There's way too much game-playing when it comes to selecting juries.

Back to the film itself, I think it did a good job demonstrating the cross between the perfunctory and the dramatic that can happen in a courtroom, such as the quick, monotonous readings of standard language by members of the court staff, or the bailiff looking much less interested in the goings-on than the jury -- after all, the bailiff's seen it all before, dozens of times. These moments contrast with the reading of the verdict, when the defendant's future hangs in the balance.

The movie has some wonderful late '40s shots of Los Angeles, starting with Ginger Rogers getting off a Red Car in Downtown L.A. One of my favorite shots was of an electronic news ticker on a building which advertises KFWB, a longtime Southern California news radio station.

PERFECT STRANGERS was directed by Bretaigne Windust. It was shot in black and white by J. Peverell Marley, who incidentally was married to Linda Darnell for several years. The musical score was by Leigh Harline, who wrote the music for Disney's SNOW WHITE and PINOCCHIO.

This film runs 88 minutes.

PERFECT STRANGERS is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive. The print is excellent.

The movie can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.


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