Recently I have become rather obsessed with ‘courtroom drama’. This was partly due to the paper I presented on American drama 1949-1954 early this year at the Musical Theatre Educators Alliance (MTEA) international conference at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), in Perth, WA. This period produced some of the greatest masterworks of American drama in theatre, film, radio and musical theatre, including Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. What soon became apparent was the number of courtroom dramas were produced in this period, which again includes The Crucible and also works from other domains, as diverse as the film Witness for the Prosecution and the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Subsequently, I have started to look at the wide range of ‘courtroom drama’, with the only prerequisite that there was at least one scene, or act, set in a courtroom.
‘Courtroom drama’ is actually one of the oldest forms of drama, and has existed in numerous cultures and civilizations. One can argue that Aristophanes’ The Frogs is a type of classical Greek comedy ‘courtroom drama’. Shakespeare and other Elizabethan-Jacobean playwrights were strongly influenced by contemporary legal practices and affairs, partly because of the tradition of oratory and rhetoric but also because their audiences was made up by a considerable number of lawyers and law clerks, as well as courtiers, to whom the art of persuasion was part of everyday life. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale and Henry VIII are plays that contain pivotal courtroom scenes of a ‘life or death’ nature. In the modern world there have been films such as The Accused, A Few Good Men and In the Name of the Father, as well as popular television shows such as Law and Order.
There are many reasons why mankind has been fascinated with ‘courtroom drama’ – truth, justice, freedom of speech, crime, corruption, murder, greed, politics, romance, satire, and sex – the list goes on; in fact, courtroom drama has the lot. The American courtroom dramas of the 1950s were primarily reactions to McCarthyism and the anti-Communist investigations by the House of Un-American Committee. One reason may have to do with the various actors who have excelled in playing roles in courtroom dramas, as either lawyers, judges, members of a jury, plaintiffs and defendants – such as Spencer Tracey, Henry Fonda and Charles Laughton. One film I recently watched was Judgement at Nuremberg, which contains two extraordinary performances by Judy Garland and Montgomery Cliff – raw emotion – harrowing – brilliant and unforgettable. Another reason may be because of the number of master directors and writers who have produced courtroom dramas, including Fritz Lang, Stanley Kramer, Sidney Lumet and Alfred Hitchcock. Within the genre Hitchcock in his famous interviews with Truffaut makes the distinction between ‘who-done-its’ and other more complex drama; complex because of the characters and the specific situation, which doesn’t make the outcome so back and white. The Crucible is an example of a greater complexity – John Proctor is found guilty, and truth and justice is tarnished and the guilty go relatively unpunished. Whilst Hitchcock preferred those stories that involved complexity, I am not going to make such a preference; nor am always I going to fully explore the reasons why courtroom drama has occupied such a continuos position in world drama. I simply wish to present the extraordinary range and diversity of courtroom drama with the hope that it may trigger a desire to watch a particular film, and/or read a particular play. I have already posted on my Facebook page a number of short critiques of the courtroom dramas I have already watched, including Judgement at Nuremberg, Love Among the Ruins, Inherit the Wind, The Paradine Case, The Letter and Witness for the Prosecution. Whilst all of the films I have watched so far have been terrific, or in a couple of cases – less than terrific – if there was one that has stood out for me as being unique and quite unconventional, not at all what I was expecting, it would be Bryan Forbes’ version of Jean Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Chaillot with Katherine Hepburn heading a truly wonderful company of actors. OK – it is not a goof ‘film’; however, what it is about and the ending is particularly complex and unsettling.
On the urging of friends and family that what I am posting should really be on my WordPress blog site I will from henceforth endeavour to post my up-dates in regard to the courtroom dramas I have watched on this site – beginning with tonight’s courtroom drama – THE CAINE MUTINY (1954).
THE CAINE MUTINY is a 1954 film, based on Herman Wouk’s 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The film was produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dymtryk, with Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, Jose Ferrer, E. G. Marshall, Lee Marvin and Robert Francis. The screenplay was by Stanley Roberts and Michael Blankfort, cinematography by Franz Planer, music by Max Steiner, and ‘Gowns’ by Jean Louis – yes ‘Gowns’, which I think is primarily a credit for the dresses the female characters wear in the film.
There a number of interesting things about this film. The film took quite a long to time to get up, mainly due to the perceived need for the US Navy’s approval and involvement. Virtually at the same time that the film went into production in late 1953, Herman Wouk adapted his novel as a play, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, which was eventually successfully produced on Broadway in January 1954, directed by Charles Laughton, with Henry Fonda in the cast – both actors, as previously mentioned, very familiar with courtroom dramas. The film’s director, Edward Dymtryk was one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’, who refused to speak to the HUAC and was jailed with the others – until he changed his mind and did inform on some of his colleagues. The Caine Mutiny was his first film after his release from prison, and his most successful. The film is very different from the book and stage-play, although the court-martial is the major part of all three. The book’s main character is Ensign Keith and there is a lot more in the book about Keith’s life. In the film Ensign Keith is played by the very handsome Robert Francis, who only made four films, The Caine Mutiny being his last before he was tragically killed in an plane accident in 1955 – he was only 25. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about the film, however, is the performance of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg. Bogart is truly fantastic in this film, playing this complex character who may or may not be mentally ill. There is, however, in the court-martial, no doubt about Queeg’s mental health, and Bogart is superb, playing with a pair of ball-bearings, which is a wonderful example of the use of a ‘psychological gesture’ (and props) to convey the inner workings of a character – essential viewing for any young actor. It is not surprising that Bogart was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, losing out to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.
There is one other small but interesting little fact about The Caine Mutiny that is worth re-telling. A young actor called Maurice Micklewhite was using the stage name of Michael Scott until one night when he was in a telephone booth in Leicester Square, London, he was told by his agent that he had to change it as that name was already being used by another actor. He looked around and noticed that The Caine Mutiny was playing at the Odeon Cinema – and that is how Michael Caine became Michael Caine – true story.
The Caine Mutiny is a very good courtroom drama. What is particularly interesting is its study of a man who was once a highly respected and admired captain who due to the toll of service during wartime is a shattered man. This is, however, not necessarily apparent or stated until the end of the film when Jose Ferrer as the defending lawyer of the so-called mutineers lets them have it at their victory celebration, particularly Fred MacMurray’s character; Fred MacMurray once again playing a rather feckless and ethically dubious character who covertly undermines and lies and is quite treacherous. This scene is one of the highlights of the film, particularly because of the acting. However, even though the film is rated very highly I can’t help feeling that the play is better. This is because it is focused directly on the court-martial whereas the film endeavours to be more faithful to the book in expanding the narrative. Edward Dymtryk was not happy with the final result; he wanted it to be much longer. Harry Cohn, Chief Executive of Columbia Pictures who distributed the film, wanted it to be under the two-hour limit that was the convention for American films at that time. Subsequently, there are aspects of the film that, to me, seem a little uneven, and more like padding; for example, Ensign Keith’s troubled personal life with mother and girl-friend is not that interesting despite good performances – and the glorious ‘gowns’ by Jean Louis.