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Sunday, June 01, 2014

"Polished" Powell Takes Talkie Lead


A Welcome DVD Arrival: For The Defense (1930)

Some good news to start: For The Defense is just out on DVD from Universal's Vault Series and looks just fine, being a William Powell too long out of circulation. The early talkie was directed by John Cromwell, who came to Paramount from Broadway success and would master movies through application of stage technique and ability to work with screen veterans just learning ropes of dialogue. Multi-talent Cromwell had covered acting, producer, and directing bases in New York, so could deliver whatever fast-pace factories out west needed. He'd save production time by rehearsing his cast for two weeks before cameras turned, this a sensible continuum of habit formed in legit, but to that there was resistance from Paramount brass. Production chief Ben Schulberg had initially unfurled "red carpet" to Cromwell's arrival, but sought to trim the director's rehearsal period so For The Defense could be completed in two and a half weeks, despite JC's promise that he could save two days off shooting for every one spent rehearsing. Cromwell wound up getting his way to limited degree, but the clash would tip the director toward eventual depart from Paramount to more hospitable RKO.


This info and more was gleaned from a career piece written by Kingley Canham for 1976-published The Hollywood Professionals, a multi-volume series of which this was #5. Cromwell had input to Canham's text and recalls what it was like working at Paramount during a tumultuous transition to sound. He'd reminisce as well for an outstanding interview conducted by Leonard Maltin that appears in Issue #19 of Movie Crazy. Both these are recommended reading. For The Defense shows how creatively Cromwell handled sound from early on. The film opens with NY location of a touring bus passing under an elevated crosswalk through which prisoners were then-escorted from holding cells to courtrooms in which they'd be tried, that grim passage known as "The Tombs" (our neighboring Lenoir, NC has a similar jail/court arrangement). Action then switches to an interior where we hear the tour guide's patter as an inmate is brought to sentencing. Cromwell uses this offscreen talk plus a moving camera to forceful effect, and the scene rhymes nicely with a third act pay-off where dynamo lawyer William Powell finds himself the object of a same exercise.


If there is complaint over Powell's Paramount vehicles, it is tendency of most to punish his characters out of proportion to wrongs committed. Or maybe it's just me not wanting Bill to suffer for any of his mischief. In this case he jury tampers, bribing James Finlayson, of all people, to cast innocent vote for a client. For that misstep, along with reckless impulse to self-sacrifice, Powell goes behind bars for a downer finish. None of this was Code-imposed, 1930 being well before enforcement got strict, but For The Defense and others of Paramount early-30's output do lack "fun" aspect of precodes done at Warners and even MGM. Beloved Bill of later getting-away-with-murder at WB was a Sydney Carton in-residence at Paramount, where guillotines awaited each infraction (Powell's Lawyer Man for Warners was breezy contrast to For The Defense). My rule of thumb for his early talkies is to enjoy a first half where Bill rides high, then prepare for a second where he's brought low. Still, For The Defense is good viewing, and Kay Francis is there for love interest, she and Powell making the usual felicitous team. I've noticed where Amazon has dropped the DVD price by several dollars since I ordered last week, For The Defense to be had at present for $15.98. Others also lately arrived will hopefully get Greenbriar coverage in a coming week (including No Room For The Groom, If I Were King, and long-awaited The Mississippi Gambler).

2 Comments:

Blogger VP81955 said...

Hope this will lead to more early Paramount/Universal product from the U Archive. I note that four Carole Lombard titles are available -- that's the good news. The bad news is that all initially were part of the 2006 "Glamour Collection" (the omissions are "Love Before Breakfast" and "True Confession"). There are plenty of Carole Paramount programmers still absent from DVD releases (the same also applies for stars such as Powell and Claudette Colbert); get with it, Universal.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Bonita Love said...

I just saw FOR THE DEFENSE with William Powell. I feel as though I have been falling in love with him especially in his THIN MAN movies. I have a question... I don't like the ending of this movie and would like to know if in the original script they went further into the story and showed when he got out of jail to find that his girlfriend was indeed waiting for him? I also wish I knew how much time he would have spent in jail. If anyone can answer my questions I would be very appreciative.

1:03 AM  

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