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Lawyers by Other Names

by Howard Kaplan*

Lawyers practice law, but they also have often found their way into other professions and fields of endeavor—whether through calculation or happenstance. This is even the case in the seemingly unrelated fields of entertainment and the arts. It’s interesting to consider whether—and how—a legal background affected lawyers' other pursuits. How did their legal training influence their creative process, the techniques they used, and the substantive issues they considered?

Someone like David E. Kelley (L.A. Law, The Practice, Boston Legal) entered the entertainment field precisely because of his experience as a lawyer. It’s commonly known that he has a legal background germane to his distinctive career in television drama. Other lawyers have found their way to entertainment in ways apparently unconnected to their prior legal background. I’d like to focus on two interesting early examples, both born at the beginning of the twentieth century and hardly known as lawyers.

The first is composer/singer/pianist/actor Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981). Hoagy is one of the great figures in popular jazz, the composer of such standards as Georgia on My Mind, Stardust, and In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening. He graduated from Indiana University and then went to that university’s law school. Carmichael had a very brief career as a practicing lawyer with a firm in South Florida. When one of his early songs was recorded by Red Nichols, however, Carmichael decided to end his legal practice and become a professional composer and musician. As his son has written, “And so a lawyer was lost and a ‘jazz maniac’ was born.”

Carmichael also appeared in fourteen movies, playing a character role evidently based on his own persona—the songwriter or piano player. Memorably, he played this role in two classic Hollywood films of the 1940s, To Have and Have Not (directed by Howard Hawks) and The Best Years of Our Lives (directed by William Wyler). “His presence in movies was laconic, maximum-cool, an angular fellow with a cocked eyebrow who had been everywhere, seen everything and was beyond being surprised by much.” It’s hard to say, beyond the benefits of being well educated and skilled in the arts of communication, how much his legal education contributed to Carmichael’s film persona, let alone his career in music.

In contrast, it’s easier to see a connection, both in terms of approach and substantive interests, in the fascinating figure of film director/producer/actor—and lawyer—Otto Preminger (1906-1986). Preminger, an Austrian Jew, graduated from the University of Vienna with a law degree (LLD) in 1926. What’s more, he came from an illustrious family of lawyers—his father was a high-ranking Austrian legal official and his brother was a lawyer. However, he was bitten early by the theatrical bug, starting his career with the esteemed theatrical director Max Reinhardt. In the 1930s Preminger immigrated to the United States, working first in Hollywood as both actor and, later, studio director. Ironically, given his Jewish background, he often played Nazi heavies in films.

Earlier this month, film critic Richard Schickel reviewed a new biography of Preminger and offered this succinct but rich portrait: “A civilized, upper-class Jewish émigré from Vienna, son of Emperor Franz Josef’s chief legal defender; a political liberal; a man capable of courtly kindness and generosity to favored colleagues; a shrewd showman with a genius for manipulating the press, a producer who in the 1950s became one of the first great masters of independent (as opposed to studio system) production; and, finally, a cinematic stylist with a unique, if sometimes limiting, manner.” That style and approach was typically cool, distant, and observational, with film shots of long takes and multiple characters interacting with one another. He seldom, if ever, used close up shots of characters in isolation. Schickel aptly describes Preminger and his film work: “The man had a passion for dispassion.”

This is especially evident in one of his best films and the one that clearly focuses on the professional work of lawyers and the workings of the legal system—Anatomy of a Murder (1959). If you haven’t seen this movie—or it’s been a long time—I urge you to put this in your Netflix queue. Released during the “golden age” of Hollywood legal films of the 1950s and early 1960s, it actually stands apart from them—and holds up remarkably well as a film classic and not just as an interesting period piece. It’s often described as “modern” and was certainly pathbreaking in its day. For those unfamiliar with the story, it focuses on Upper Peninsula, Michigan, defense lawyer Paul Biegler (played brilliantly by Jimmy Stewart as “just a simple country lawyer”) taking on the case of a surly Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) charged with first-degree murder for killing (shot six times) a bartender who may have raped his unabashedly sexy young wife (Lee Remick). A young George C. Scott plays the prosecutor, and actual Hale & Dorr lawyer Joseph Welch (famous for representing the Army at the 1954 McCarthy hearings and inquiring of the Wisconsin senator, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”) played the judge. It was based on a best-selling 1958 novel penned by “Robert Traver,” who actually was a Michigan Supreme Court justice, John D. Voelker. Duke Ellington provided a memorable jazz score and even has a cameo.

At 161 minutes, Anatomy of a Murder is a long movie but doesn’t play that way, with terrific performances, a great screenplay, on-location filming, skilled direction—and frequent twists and turns in the plot, mirroring its ethical and legal complexities. In telling its story, the film explores issues of legal ethics (especially, witness coaching) and the insanity defense (“irresistible impulse”). Michael Asimow and Timothy Huff have written about legal issues in the movie online at Picturing Justice and the University of Texas law school website. Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder features the use of language that had been virtually taboo in Production Code-era Hollywood, words such as “rape,” “semen,” “slut” and “panties.” In the case of the last word, this even becomes the basis for a slyly humorous scene in which the judge and lawyers engage in a sidebar to determine if they could come up with a more discreet term than “panties” to use in the courtroom. They couldn’t. Neither could Preminger, before the “courtroom” of the film’s audience. No idle metaphor, film critic Charles Derry has commented, reflecting on all of Preminger’s work, that “the director’s recurring image is the courtroom.” Similarly, David Thomson writes that, as viewers of Anatomy of a Murder, “we are put in the position of the jury: the workings of the film become the due process of law.”

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Preminger’s movies increasingly devolved into bloated, sometimes pretentious efforts. In Anatomy of a Murder, however, he created the quintessential film courtroom drama. It’s hard not to see his ingrained legal values, including professionalism and due process; careful gathering of facts; dispassionate “objectivity” rather than, shall we say, a rush to judgment; and a legal realist’s interest in matters of truth and justice, while recognizing their never simple coincidence with law. David Thomson sums up his analysis of Anatomy of a Murder, representative of Preminger’s best work: “Irony does not actually detract from the nobility of the law as an instrument reluctant to make up its mind about people. Preminger’s enquiring camera—always tracking with characters, rarely separating people engaged with one another—is the manifestation of intelligent reticence, and it produced half a dozen great movies.” These make for pretty worthwhile values and sensibilities, in drama and in life.

*"Lawyers by Other Names" by Howard Kaplan originally appeared in November 2007 on the Talking Justice blog, published by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania.