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The Judge Steps Out

The Judge Steps Out(1949)

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On his birthday, Tom Bailey, a hardworking Boston probate judge, learns from his fellow jurists that he has been assigned to the troublesome Winthrop custody case. Tom then discovers that his wife Evelyn and grown daughter Catherine have forgotten his birthday, but have bought expensive hats for themselves. Claiming that he is merely following the dictates of the law, Tom rules against Joan Winthrop, a widow from a lower-class family who is fighting with her rich father-in-law for custody of her son. Later, Evelyn informs Tom that Catherine has become engaged to wealthy heir John Struthers III and must have fine clothes for her trousseau. Although Tom protests his wife's extravagances and social ambitions, he pays for a lavish wedding and agrees to consider a job as chief counsel at John's father's bank. On the train to Washington, D.C., however, where he is to do some preliminary work for Struthers, Tom feels suddenly ill and disembarks in the next town. There Tom is told by small-town doctor Charles P. Boyd that his only problem is an unfulfilling home life. Tom protests Boyd's diagnosis, but finally accepts his offer to go fishing for a few days. The absentminded Tom forgets to mail Evelyn a telegram explaining his change of plans and is shocked to read in the newspaper three days later that he has been reported missing. As Tom is boarding a Boston-bound train, he gives Boyd another telegram to send to Evelyn, but the stubborn doctor tears it up. When Tom finally arrives at his house, he overhears Evelyn nonchalantly discussing his disappearance with her friends and, without revealing himself, turns and leaves. Sometime later, Tom, now a drifter, arrives in central California and meets Peggy, the divorced owner of a roadside diner. The kindhearted Peggy at first believes that Tom, who calls himself Tom Brown, is a petty thief, but soon deduces that he is both honest and educated. Respecting Tom's desire for privacy, Peggy asks him no questions and offers him a job as a short-order cook. Soon, Tom is reveling in the tranquility of his new life and begins dating the popular Peggy. After he realizes he has fallen in love with her, Tom feels compelled to reveal that he is married. Although Peggy insists that Tom's marital status is unimportant to her, Tom is disturbed by the situation. When Peggy then learns that her application to adopt Nan, an orphan she has befriended, has been rejected because she is single and runs a diner, Tom becomes determined to obtain a divorce and marry her. After assuring Peggy he will return soon, Tom goes to Boston and finds that, during his absence, Catherine has given birth, and in her reduced circumstances, Evelyn has become a kind and thoughtful woman. The reformed Tom then determines to overturn his Winthrop decision, which is being appealed by Mrs. Winthrop. With help from his loyal assistant, Hector Brown, Tom scours his law books for a precedent with which to reverse his own ruling, but is unsuccessful. Tom is about to concede defeat when Peggy calls and inadvertently uses the word "prejudice" to describe his old attitudes. Inspired, Tom rushes to the courthouse and convinces the panel of judges that his previous decision was invalid because he was prejudiced against Mrs. Winthrop. The case eventually winds up in the state Supreme Court, where Mrs. Winthrop is finally awarded custody. Back in California, Peggy learns that, as a result of Tom's legal success, she will be allowed to adopt Nan. Tom is then offered a position on the Supreme Court, but turns it down, still determined to return to Peggy. To complete his mission, Tom signs his divorce papers and says goodbye to Evelyn, whose dignified graciousness deeply touches him. At the train station, Tom overhears a woman referring to him as an "old man" and suddenly begins to re-evaluate his recent life. Realizing that his time in California was only an "Indian summer," Tom is about to leave the station when he is stopped by Peggy, who has flown to Boston to see him. Peggy, too, has become convinced that his place is with his family and his courtroom, and nobly insists that he remain in Boston. Acknowledging the wisdom of her words, Tom gives Peggy his train ticket and, after bidding her a sad farewell, returns home for good.