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By our standards today, William Powell was an unlikely candidate for romantic leading man status. Already 30 when he made his film debut in 1922 and close to 40 by the time sound came in, Powell was tall and lanky with a high, broad forehead, large nose, heavy-lidded eyes, and a mouth and chin a little too small and weak for his otherwise imposing features. Yet from his first of five appearances as gentleman detective Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case (1929) through the mid-40s and the last of his six turns as gentleman detective Nick Charles in the Thin Man series, Powell was the epitome of debonair appeal, an actor equally adept at comedy and drama. With his charm and wit, he was always believable squiring sophisticated ladies like Kay Francis (seven pictures between 1930 and 1932) and Myrna Loy (fourteen films between 1934 and 1947).
Joan Blondell was rarely anyone's idea of high-style sophistication. A mainstay of Warner Brothers Depression-era movies, Blondell was more of a girl-next-door type -- if you happened to live in Brooklyn or on the Lower East Side. She was an earthy urban dame with a snappy retort always at hand and a real pal to the working-class fellows she paired with, most often personified by tough-guy James Cagney or Broadway bound Dick Powell, her husband from 1936 to 1944 and co-star in eleven pictures, most of them musicals. So it was rather out of character for her and Powell to be co-starred for the first and only time in Lawyer Man (1932). Reviewers at the time, while praising their performances individually, had a hard time accepting them as a screen team, although Variety, while insisting they didn't "stack up right together," had to acknowledge that "perhaps Blondell is more the sec[retary] type than Kay Francis would have been." That opinion has survived to the present, with TV Guide calling each excellent but "mismatched" as a couple.
In fact, the two stars aren't really a couple in Lawyer Man, not in the standard romantic sense, although Blondell's character, Olga, certainly wishes they were. As the loyal secretary to attorney Anton "Tony" Adam, Blondell is all efficiency and common sense, especially when her boss gets entrapped by alluring women, a situation that arouses both her longing for his affections and her jealousy, manifested through a lot of thrown objects and one suggestive snipping by a pair of scissors.
Powell's Adam, a successful Lower East Side lawyer, quickly works his way up to a position at an important uptown firm. After defeating a political boss in court, and turning down the boss's offer to join his team, Adam gets involved with showgirl Virginia St. Johns (perennial "other woman" Claire Dodd) despite Olga's warnings. He realizes his error only after the showgirl helps the corrupt politician frame Tony for unethical behavior. Neither acquitted nor vindicated, Tony is unable to find legitimate work, so he takes on every shady case that comes his way, vowing to be the "shyster" everyone assumes him to be. Eventually, he maneuvers his way to revenge on those who set him up and decides to turn down prestigious positions in favor of being an honest lawyer back on his old turf. Through it all, Olga stands by him, acting as his conscience and faithful assistant. But instead of falling into each other's arms at last, the two walk off together somewhat ambiguously. Perhaps Olga's love for him will one day be requited, but at the fade-out they seem content to foster a mutually beneficial companionship rather than a passionate romance.
Blondell's work is solid as always, but the picture is really Powell's, offering him every opportunity to show all facets of his appeal and acting skills (including the drunk scene that became a standard for William Powell pictures). In fact, he's the only cast member whose name goes above the title.
Viewers may recognize the voice, if not the face, of a player whose role is small enough to keep him from receiving any screen credit here at all. At one point, Olga has dinner in a diner with an odd-looking young man who tells her, "I know what's wrong with you. You're in love with your boss and he won't give you a tumble." The distinctive high-pitched froggy voice belongs to Sterling Holloway, a supporting actor in 131 films between 1926 and 1977 (and a TV performer for about a decade after that). Holloway is probably best remembered for his voiceover work in Disney films, starting with Mr. Stork in Dumbo (1941). Among many other roles for the studio, he was the adult Flower in Bambi (1942), the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (1951), Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book (1967), and provided his voice four times as Winnie the Pooh. Holloway was officially named a Disney Legend in 1991, the year before his death at 87.
Lawyer Man was directed by William Dieterle, one of many German directors who came to Hollywood in the sound era. Dieterle started his career in Europe in 1923 and made his first picture in America in 1931. He made a name for himself in prestige productions at Warner Brothers of the "Great Men" bio-pic genre, starring either Paul Muni (The Story of Louis Pasteur, 1936; The Life of Emile Zola, 1937, earning Dieterle a Best Director Oscar® nomination) or Edward G. Robinson (Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, 1940; A Dispatch from Reuters, 1940), as well as others (Kay Francis as Florence Nightingale in The White Angel, 1936; Van Heflin as President Andrew Johnson in Tennessee Johnson, 1942). In his heyday, Dieterle made several pictures imbued with a distinctive visual and narrative style, often bordering on the supernatural: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Portrait of Jennie (1948). Although never officially blacklisted, his output in the 1950s was limited by suspicions of socialist sympathies, and in 1960 he returned to Germany, where he finished out his career with a few films and some television work until 1968. He died in 1972 at the age of 79.
Lawyer Man was based on a novel by Max Trell, better known as a children's book author and contributor to popular comic strips, such as "Prince Valiant."
According to production records on file at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, filming on Lawyer Man lasted 21 days. A news item in Film Daily included in the movie's file notes that Edward G. Robinson was once considered for the lead.
Director: William Dieterle
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Rian James and James Seymour, Wilson Mizner (uncredited); based on the novel by Max Trell
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Editing: Thomas Pratt
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Original Music: Cliff Hess (uncredited), Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Cast: William Powell (Anton Adam), Joan Blondell (Olga Michaels), David Landau (John Gilmurry), Helen Vinson (Barbara Bentley), Claire Dodd (Virginia St. Johns).
by Rob Nixon