Thursday, July 12, 2018

Lady Lawyers and Suave Gangsters

I don't know why Glenda Farrell isn't better remembered today. Of course, those of us with the good taste and natural brilliance to be fans of B-movie detectives know her quite well as newspaper reporter Torchy Blane, who teams up with her homicide detective boyfriend to solve crimes.

But Farrell brought her charm and quick wit to other films as well. In 1936, for instance, she co-starred with Margaret Lindsey in The Law in Her Hands. The two had just become lawyers, opening an office together and hoping to build a successful practice.

Margaret Lindsey is Mary Wentworth, who at first insists they run their practice ethically, even turning down a huge retainer to work for local gangster Frank Gordon. Glenda plays Dot Davis, Mary's best friend and partner, who is at first annoyed at losing the large fee, but goes along with it when Mary explains who Gordon is.

But its hard for two brand-new female lawyers to build up a pool of paying clients and Mary eventually decides to represent Gordon's mob minions in court. This puts her at odds with her boyfriend, an assistant D.A. who wants to nail Gordon.

Mary's pretty good at getting her clients off, employing clever tactics to do so. But when some local restaurants won't go in on Gordon's protection racket, he has their milk poisoned. The resultant deaths give Mary an attack of conscience and she refuses to continue to work for Gordon.

Circumstances soon put Mary in a difficult spot. To save the life of the assistant D.A., she might be forced to defend Gordon anyways. But perhaps she can once again use some clever tactics, albeit tactics that are likely to get her disbarred, to save her boyfriend's life and send Gordon to the chair.

It's a fun movie that could have been too heavy in melodrama. Also, the plot flows along a little too loosely--it lacks the strong story construction that the best B-movies have. But Glenda's fast-talking and witty performance as Dot lightens up the mood and gives The Law in Her Hands just the right tone.

Character actor Eddie Acuff (another actor who should be better remember) also helps the mood as a process server who becomes a sort-of sidekick to the firm of Wentworth and Davis. He claims to be the best process server in New York, but his main skill seems to be his ability to take a punch when the people he's served get angry with him. With each successive appearance in the film, he's a little more beat-up than he was the last time.

Lyle Talbot as Gordon also deserves a mention in almost underplaying the part of the villain. He does not seem overtly evil at first and that leaves us room to accept that Mary can work for him (at least initially) without making her seem stupid or naive.

The courtroom tactics used in the film are, I suspect, somewhat less than realistic, but in a movie like this, that doesn't matter at all. The Law in Her Hands is a prime example of something I've been preaching in this blog for years. There were legitimate issues with the Studio System in terms of treating people fairly. But its strengths in giving studios the people they needed to produce quality films is undeniably. In this case, First National Productions (then owned by Warner Brothers) could dip into the pool of actors under contract to them and pick just the right actors to make this particular film work. Without Farrell, Acuff and Talbot, the same script would have been a melodramatic and poorly constructed mess. But with them in the film, it gives us 57 minutes of light-hearted entertainment.

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