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Mary Dugan, a Broadway showgirl, is charged with murder in the knifing death of her wealthy lover, and goes on trial for her life. When her defense counsel appears to bungle his job, Mary's brother Jimmy, a newly licensed attorney, jumps into the case to defend his sister. Jimmy's courtroom style is unconventional, but he seems to be holding his own against the prosecuting attorney... until a surprise testimony changes the course of the trial. Written by
Dan Navarro <email@example.com>
This film is certainly worth seeking out for the fan of the early talkie. It was Norma Shearer's first talking picture, and she still has a thing or two to learn about acting in the age of sound film at this point, but she still pulls off an admirable performance. However, at first you wonder if she is ever going to speak at all.
The camera is still nailed down at this early point in talking film - early 1929. Thus the film consists of just a few static scenes, with about 90% of the film taking place in the courtroom at Mary's trial. Mary Dugan (Norma Shearer) has been found by the police at the side of her dead lover. He has a knife sticking out of his back, and she is covered in blood. The dead man is wealthy and married, and Mary is a "fallen woman". She is thus assumed guilty of the crime and put on trial for her life. Lewis Stone is her attorney, and H.B. Warner is the prosecuting attorney. Early in the film, Mary's brother (Raymond Hackett) bursts into the courtroom and objects to how Mary's attorney is conducting the defense and requests that the judge allow him to take over. He is, as luck would have it, an attorney himself. How the mystery unravels of who did kill Mary's lover is quite interesting, although there are a few glaring hints throughout the film. At one point the guilty party says something that practically paints a sign on himself/herself (I'm not telling you which!) that says "I did it!". Even if you figure out who did it, you'll want to watch to the end to figure out exactly why and how.
Getting back to Norma Shearer, her chance to speak extensively before the camera comes when she is put on the witness stand, never a particularly good idea if you are actually a defendant, since any attorney ( a good one) will tell you that the object of the criminal defense is to prevent the state from making their case, not to give them openings for making you look guilty. However, her testimony largely turns into a soliloquy that is fairly effective and shows the beginnings of what will be much better acting in such films as "The Divorcée" and "A Free Soul". She overacts some, and does come close to chewing scenery, but in the end resists the urge. Raymond Hackett, whose film acting career would last only a couple of years more, gives a fine performance as Mary's brother and second defense attorney.
What has always made me a fan of the early talkies is their experimental nature, the fact that everyone seemed to forget how to talk and behave naturally even though this is what people did whenever the cameras weren't running, and that everything becomes subservient to the tyranny of the microphone. This film is no exception. For example, there are a number of witnesses who seem to be given an opportunity to testify for no other reason than to launch a mini-vaudeville act without the pesky movement that was so troublesome to deal with in early talking film - Lilyan Tashman's turn on the stand being particularly amusing. When one witness says something unintentionally humorous one trial attendee bursts out laughing for a full five seconds before everyone else in the room joins in. One can only wonder what the purpose of this awkward silence was. And then there is the judge. He largely just sits there while the D.A and defense attorney stand next to each other smirking and making jabbing remarks like a couple of fans of rival football teams. Only when an attorney makes a formal objection does the judge reluctantly take charge.
Note that this film is largely precode, since although Mary has lived the life of a fallen woman, she is allowed a happy ending. After the Breen era of the motion picture code begins in 1934, if such a film as this were allowed to be made and exhibited in the first place, it would have to end with a meteor landing on Mary and thus show her paying for her sins, or some other such nonsense.
And now this American peasant must take her leave since all this talk of trials has made me hungry for a TV dinner and some Court TV.
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