One challenge in making a courtroom drama is keeping the action moving despite the fact that most of the film takes place in only one setting. With the fast-talking Lee Tracy as its star and veteran director Christy Cabanne at the helm, this 1936 programmer solved that problem handily, turning into the kind of sleeper that leaves critics searching for new ways of saying "fast-paced" and "spellbinding."
Louis Stevens' original story, inspired by actual stories of mob shenanigans, had hit screens only five years earlier as State's Attorney, with John Barrymore starring as a crooked attorney who goes straight when his mob connections land him in the district attorney's office. Though critics complained about the star's overacting in the original, it did solid business on the strength of his name, so five years later, RKO decided to give it another try.
Remakes of recent films were nothing unusual in the 1930s. With many fans attending the movies two or three times a week, the demand for new product could be overwhelming. Major films, of course, were reissued, but smaller pictures like State's Attorney, were simply remade with a few script changes, a fresh title and new character names. For the remake, State's Attorney became Criminal Lawyer (1937), and Barrymore's role went to one of the screen's fastest-talking actors, Lee Tracy.
Tracy was at the end of his career as a major star at this time, a victim of bad temper, womanizing and, most damaging of all, drinking. Though he had never missed a performance on Broadway, where he had become a star in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's classic newspaper story The Front Page in 1928, he caused no end of trouble on some of his films. The first time he starred at RKO, in 1932's The Half Naked Truth, the studio sued him over production delays caused by his drinking. The following year, MGM's legendary boy wonder, Irving G. Thalberg, decided that Tracy was ready for the studio's star treatment and signed him to a long-term contract. Things went well as Tracy turned in dynamite performances opposite Barrymore in Dinner at Eight (1933) and Jean Harlow in Bombshell (1933). Then while doing location work in Mexico for Viva Villa in 1935, he went on a bender that climaxed with his showering obscenities and urine on a parade passing below his hotel room window. To placate the Mexican government, MGM replaced him with Stuart Erwin on the film and canceled his contract. Tracy's name was still strong enough to land him leading roles at other studios - including RKO - but by decade's end he was back on stage, where he seemed better able to manage himself.
For Criminal Lawyer, Tracy had outstanding support from leading lady Margot Grahame, one of the great beauties of her day, as the woman who tries to reform him. The English-born Grahame made relatively few pictures, preferring stage work, but won a place in critics' and audiences' hearts as the woman Victor MacLaglen turns traitor for in John Ford's classic The Informer (1935). As the gangster who keeps Tracy on his payroll even after he becomes the DA., RKO cast one of the screen's great villains, Eduardo Ciannelli. After earning strong reviews as the mobster in Maxwell Anderson's poetic play Winterset, a role he repeated on screen in 1936, Ciannelli went on to personify evil in such films as Marked Woman (1937), in which he played a role modeled on Lucky Luciano; The Mummy's Hand (1940), the first in Universal's revived Mummy series of the 1940s; and Dillinger (1945), the first film dramatizing the exploits of the legendary bank robber.
Keeping the action moving was Christy Cabanne, a veteran director who had started his career as an actor and later assistant to D.W. Griffith. Although he worked mostly on low-budget films during the talkie era, he had ranked as one of the silent screen's top directors, working with such stars as the Gish sisters, Wallace Reid, Francis X. Bushman and Douglas Fairbanks, who made his screen debut working for Cabanne. His work on Criminal Lawyer brought praise from no less a source than The New York Times, whose critic called the film "caviar to the masses" and "quite the best of its kind this reviewer has seen."
Producer: Cliff Reid
Director: Christy Cabanne
Screenplay: G.V. Atwater, Thomas Lennon
Based on a story by Louis Stevens
Cinematography: David Abel
Art Direction: Howard Campbell, Van Nest Polglase
Music: Jack Stern, Harry Tobias
Principal Cast: Lee Tracy (Brandon), Margot Grahame (Madge Carter), Eduardo Ciannelli (Larkin), Erik Rhodes (Bandini), Betty Lawford (Molly Walker), Wilfred Lucas (Brandon's Assistant).
by Frank Miller