Monday, September 26, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Society Lawyer (1939)

SOCIETY LAWYER is a genial remake of MGM's fine pre-Code crime drama PENTHOUSE (1933), with Walter Pidgeon and Virginia Bruce appearing in the roles originated by Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy.

Pidgeon plays Chris Durant, a lawyer trying to help his ex-fiancee (Frances Mercer) by saving her new love (Lee Bowman), who is accused of the murder of Judy Barton (Ann Morriss). Durant is aided by Tony Gazotti (Leo Carrillo), a mobster he'd saved from a murder conviction, and nightclub singer Pat Abbott (Bruce).

The story, which ran 90 minutes in the original film, is condensed down to 74 minutes in SOCIETY LAWYER. The film is a pleasant vehicle for Pidgeon, who had been in films for many years but was just starting to hit his stride at MGM in the late '30s, playing prominent supporting roles in "A" pictures and leads in "B" movies. He was still a couple of years away from his enormously successful teaming with Greer Garson, which began in BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST (1941); the same year he was first teamed with Garson, Pidgeon played leading roles in Fritz Lang's MAN HUNT and John Ford's HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

Along with the running time, the storyline was somewhat changed in order to comply with the Production Code. The most notable change was the lead female role; Myrna Loy played a call girl, who was transformed into a nightclub singer in the remake, and also given a completely new name. Bruce is seen to good effect as the singer, performing "I'm in Love with the Honorable Mr. So and So" in the nightclub, and sparring with Chris's butler (Herbert Mundin) in later scenes. She's beautifully photographed in black and white by George Folsey.

The remake changed some other character names in addition to the Loy/Bruce character, while partially changing others (Chris Durant was named Jack Durant in the original), and keeping still other names the same in both versions.

Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett have screenplay credit for both PENTHOUSE and SOCIETY LAWYER, based on a novel by Arthur Somers Roche; the remake lists additional screenwriters, Leon Gordon and Hugo Butler.

Herbert Mundin, who is amusing as Chris's butler, is perhaps best remembered as Much the Miller's Son from 1938's THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Sadly, this was his last role, as he was killed in a car accident in March 1939.

Ann Morriss, who played the murder victim, married the film's director, Edwin L. Marin, in 1940. The marriage lasted until Marin's untimely death in 1951.

The cast also includes Eduardo Ciannelli, Frank M. Thomas, Edward Brophy, Tom Kennedy, Clarence Kolb, Paul Guilfoyle and Lillian Yarbo.

SOCIETY LAWYER is available on DVD-R from the Warner Archive. It's sold in a two-film set with another film Pidgeon, Bruce, and Bowman made in 1939, STRONGER THAN DESIRE.

The trailer can be seen at Turner Classic Movies.


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