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Society Lawyer

Society Lawyer(1939)

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teaser Society Lawyer (1939)

"Hear VIRGINIA BRUCE as the beautiful torch singer in one of New York's most exclusive night life cafes!"
Tagline for Society Lawyer

Although her career had started to lag with the death of Irving G. Thalberg, her main champion at MGM, Virginia Bruce still merited some level of star treatment, even in a B picture like this 1939 crime drama. Although it takes her character, nightclub singer Pat Abbott, a while to turn up on screen as love interest to Walter Pidgeon, in the title role, at least she got to sing "I'm in Love with the Honorable So and So" with some welcome coaching from the film's music director, Roger Edens.

If Bruce was on her way out, however, Pidgeon was gradually building his stock at MGM, where he had started out in 1937 after a few years at other studios and a strong career on stage. He stars as lawyer Christopher Durant, who loses his fiance and his position at her father's law firm because he insists on representing gangster Leo Carrillo. When his ex's new boyfriend (Lee Bowman) is accused of killing an old flame, he takes on the case. That puts him in contact with Bruce, who was the victim's friend. Before long, she's made herself an indispensable part of the investigation and of Pidgeon's life, though not without some risk to herself.

This was hardly a new plot for MGM. Although the writing credits only list the screenplay as taken from a story by Arthur Somers Roche, it was actually adapted from his novel Penthouse, which MGM had filmed in 1933 with Warner Baxter as the lawyer and Myrna Loy as his love interest. The husband and wife writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had written the earlier version. Although there are no studio records of their having worked on the re-make, they are credited as screenwriters alongside Leon Gordon and Hugo Butler, possibly to give them credit without publicizing the fact that the film was a remake. Nonetheless, there are scenes and lines of dialogue in Society Lawyer that are identical to those in Penthouse.

One of the great selling points of Society Lawyer is its supporting cast. Carrillo, best remembered for playing lovable scamps in films like The Gay Desperado (1936) and History Is Made at Night (1937), co-stars as the friendly gangster who helps Pidgeon solve the case in return for his legal services. The evil gangster is handled by one of the screen's great villains, Eduardo Ciannelli, who had provided sophisticated menace in the film version of Maxwell Anderson's verse tragedy Winterset (1936) and, most recently, menaced Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Gunga Din (1939). Stealing almost every scene he's in is Herbert Mundin as Pidgeon's butler. The British-born actor had been lighting up screens since his feature debut in East Lynne on the Western Front (1931), in which he had played a British soldier in the trenches during World War I who takes on the role of Lady Isobel in an impromptu production of the classic melodrama East Lynne. He was Barkis in MGM's David Copperfield (1935) and the member of the Merrie Men in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) who flirts with Maid Marian's lady in waiting (Una O'Connor). Sadly, Society Lawyer would be his last film. He was killed in an automobile collision a few weeks before the film's release.

It was near the end of the road for Bruce, too. She would only make one more film at MGM, this time top-billed over Pidgeon in the courtroom drama Stronger Than Desire (1939). That film also features Bowman, this time as a married man trying to lure Bruce away from husband Pidgeon. The latter would be moving on to brighter things in just two years, when MGM teamed him with Greer Garson for Blossoms in the Dust (1941), the first of eight films together that would make both major stars.

Director: Edwin L. Marin
Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Leon Gordon, Hugo Butler
Based on a story by Arthur Somers Roche and his novel Penthouse
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Score: Edward Ward
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Christopher Durant), Virginia Bruce (Pat Abbott), Leo Carrillo (Tony Gazotti), Eduardo Ciannelli (Jim Crelliman), Lee Bowman (Phil Siddall), Frances Mercer (Sue Leonard), Ann Morriss (Judy Barton), Herbert Mundin (Layton), Edward Brophy (Max), Tom Kennedy (Alf), Clarence Kolb (Mr. Leonard), Ian Wolfe (Schmidt), Paul Guilfoyle (Murtock), Joseph Crehan (City Editor), Bess Flowers (Mary Trimworth), Frank Puglia (Headwaiter)

By Frank Miller

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