Roxie Hart and The Big Hangover
by Michael Asimow, UCLA Law School (November, 1997)
This commentary focuses on two older courtroom comedies--Roxie Hart and The Big Hangover. Both films are available on video. If your local store doesn't have them, you can rent or buy them from reel.com. One film is great, one is lousy, but both of them are full of interesting insights about law, lawyers, and the legal system.
Roxie Hart (1942) is one of the best and funniest legal comedies every made. The Kander & Ebb musical "Chicago" (currently in revival on Broadway) is based on the film. Ginger Rogers plays Roxie Hart, a gorgeous showgirl on trial for murder. In fact, Roxie is innocent but decides to stand trial anyway because the publicity will be good for her career. Adolphe Menjou plays her lawyer, Billy Flynn, who specializes exclusively in representing women who have killed their husbands or lovers. In Chicago, juries adore these women and they are never convicted.
For those interested in lawyer portrayals in the movies, Flynn is the classic shyster lawyer. He concocts a purely fictitious press bio for Roxie and makes up an equally bogus defense for her to use at trial. The use of perjured testimony is taken for granted.
The media coverage of the trial is particularly funny; it's broadcast on the radio with commercials at every opportunity. Whenever anything good happens in the trial, photographers rush forward to take pictures. The judge always gets into the picture because he's running for re-election and the publicity couldn't hurt. And the dance scenes in jail, featuring the classic "black bottom," are just out of sight.
The Big Hangover (1951), which ran recently on Turner Classic Movies, is a loser. It's an unfunny comedy about a young lawyer, David Malden (Van Johnson), who has a neurotic aversion to alcohol. The slightest sip of the stuff triggers truly bizarre behavior. This resulted from his almost drowning in a cellar-full of brandy during the war. In this respect, Malden is like a recovering alcoholic who is always just one drink away from falling back into the gutter.
Malden is first in his law school class and thus gets hired at a silk-stocking law firm. Elizabeth Taylor (in a role she'd probably rather forget) is the senior partner's daughter; she falls in love with Malden and tries to help him deal with his alcohol problem.
Like many otherwise mediocre films about law, The Big Hangover has some interesting bits. One concerns a Chinese doctor who has been denied an apartment on racial grounds. The City Attorney is trying to force the owner to let him move in. I was surprised to learn that there were any housing anti-discrimination laws or ordinances back in 1951. Such an ordinance was a huge political issue in Berkeley in 1964.
Of course the apartment owner is a client of Malden's firm. The idealistic young lawyer is horrified to see the dirty tricks the senior partners play to thwart the City Attorney and keep the doctor out of the apartment. Like many heroic film lawyers, Malden betrays his client (the apartment owner) for a greater good (getting the doctor into the apartment). The audience loves it, but lawyers cringe at the violation of ethical canons demanding loyalty to the client.
The Big Hangover has some quaint material about how law students got jobs back then. You signed up on a clipboard in the hallway, giving your name and your class ranking! Today, of course, most law schools have abandoned class rankings entirely; if rankings exist at all, their secrecy is carefully guarded.