Law and the Cinema II

by Mark Toffoli

In previous musings my colleague, Morgan Dodd, and I have discussed the intersection of the law with the fields of literature and the cinema. Continuing with the thread of law and the movie screen as first weaved by my colleague, I decided to further review how the law/legal profession has been portrayed by notable screen actors. Mr. Dodd had mentioned in his blog the actor Raymond Burr and his portrayal of Perry Mason. Those of us of sufficient vintage will recall that Mason’s long-suffering opponent was District Attorney Hamilton Burger, played by William Talman; long-suffering because when opposed by Mason, Burger inevitably was prosecuting the wrong individual. And while these two noble adversaries always conducted themselves with the highest regard one for the other, I instead am writing today of an actor who portrayed attorneys in an entirely different light, a somewhat less-flatteringly light. To wit, one Julius Henry aka “Groucho” Marx.  

The following exchange from the 1931 movie Monkey Business, probably best-encapsulated Groucho Marx’s views on the legal profession:

Woman: I didn’t know you were a lawyer.

 You’re awfully shy for a lawyer.

Groucho: You bet I’m shy.

I’m a shyster lawyer.

And this exchange from the 1935 movie A Night at the Opera, in which Groucho is attempting to negotiate a contract to employ a singer represented by Chico Marx, can be appreciated by any layperson required to wade through a document replete with “legalese”:

Chico: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?

Groucho: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.

Chico: Well, I don’t’ know….

Groucho: It’s all right. That’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.

Chico: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me.

 There ain’t no sanity clause!

Now fast-forward to his later years when Groucho offered this:

The world is full of people who think they can manipulate the lives of others merely by getting a law passed.

When considering his arc as having been acknowledged as one of the world’s great comedians and his well-deserved anti-establishment persona, this last comment reveals a far deeper philosophical side which, given today’s social and political climate, especially resonates.

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