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The Man who Set the Pattern for Movie Attorneys

by John Aquino on 10/04/18

William J. Fallon is not a household name like those of attorneys of my youth--F. Lee Bailey, Marvin Belli--used to be, but he served as a model for attorneys in early sound movies and that set a pattern for later film and television attorneys that persists today. 

Fallon was born in New York City in 1886, earned his law degree from Fordham Law School  and became a prosecutor in Westchester County, New York. But after three years, he left the prosecutor's office, reportedly because he had sent an innocent man to his death by execution. He started his own law firm that defended big paycheck clients such as stock manipulators and gangsters, including Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series, and Nicky Arnstein, a gambler whose marriage to the Broadway star Fanny Brice is the plot for the musical and movie Funny Girl. Fallon was the attorney for 120 homicide defendants, and none were convicted.  He had a reputation for rhetorical brilliance--he was trained by Jesuits at Fordham, for courtroom theatrics and for being able to hang juries. He was accused of jury tampering, defended himself, and was acquitted. He became an alcoholic--when a judge asked if he had been drinking, he said, "If your honor's sense of justice is as acute as your sense of smell, my client need have no fear in this court"--and died in 1927 at the age of 41.

But his legend continued. In 1926, the play Chicago by Maurine Dallas Watkins debuted on Broadway. Its character of the attorney Billy Flynn, who gets two murderesses off, was partly based on Fallon. In 1931, Fallon's friend, the journalist and biographer Gene Fowler, published The Great Mouthpiece: A Life Story of  William J. Fallon. Commentators noted that the book was titled "A Life Story" rather than "The Life Story," indicating Fowler's tendency to embellish and fabricate. In the next 12 months, there were four Hollywood movies about a William J. Fallon-like attorney: The Mouthpiece, Lawyer Man, State's Attorney, and Attorney for the Defense. In March 1933, Erle Stanley Gardner published The Case of the Velvet Claws, the first of his novels about Perry Mason, a never-lose criminal attorney who liked to bend the rules and was at least partly based on Fallon. The first of six Perry Mason movies premiered in 1934 as The Case of the Howling Dog. In 1957, a CBS Perry Mason television series starring Raymond Burr debuted and ran until 1966, totaling 271 episodes. In 1985, Burr revived the character for 26 television movies. A musical version of Chicago debuted on Broadway in 1975. The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb has Billy Flynn sing the song "Razzle Dazzle" in which he describes the way he influences a jury. The movie version of the musical won the best picture Oscar in 2002.

And so, attorney characters based on Fallon have permeated the American cultural mind. It is true there have been less flamboyant and more human portraits of attorneys on film (Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, the ideal lawyer for all lawyers) and television (the attorneys in Law and Order and its spinoffs). But on television, before and after Law and Order, attorneys included the wily southern lawyer Benjamin Matlock and most of the lawyers on L.A. Law, Boston Legal, and The Good Wife, all of who bore traces of William J. Fallon. It's not an overstatement to say that Fallon has played a strong role in the image of attorneys that the public has from movies and television.

Looking at the four Fallon-inspired 1932 movies, we can see the variations in the Fallon image. State's Attorney starred John Barrymore and was co-written by Gene Fowler, friend and biographer of both Barrymore and Fallon. The film was made the same year as Grand Hotel in which the still thin 50-year-old Barrymore showed he was still able to play a romantic lead. As his attorney portrayal the next year in Counselor at Law showed, he remained capable of a coherent, nuanced and well-rounded film portrayal, even one full of lengthy courtroom arguments. The film reverses Fallon's story, beginning with Barrymore's Tom Cardigan as a gangster's attorney and ending with his prosecution of gangsters. State's Attorney capitalizes on Barrymore's theatrical training and evidences Fowler's familiarity with Fallon's methods as Cardigan stalks the courtroom in silence for effect, brings the bed on which the victim was murdered into the courtroom and taps the lead club that was the murder weapon on the metal bed frame to unnerve the victim's wife who reacts nervously on the witness stand. It ends with Cardigan resigning as district attorney, vowing to only defend the innocent and those in need in the future, and walking out with his love on his arm. Lawyer Man starring William Powell (who played "William B. Foster," a Fallon clone in 1930's For the Defense) also shows the attorney's conversion from mob attorney to district attorney and ends happily with his walking off with his true love. The Mouthpiece, starring Warren Williams who was an actor who resembled Barrymore in looks and manner. isn't based on Fowler's biography but on a 1929 play by Frank J. Collins. It repeats the Fallon story of a prosecutor who resigns after he finds he sent an innocent man to the electric chair and becomes an attorney for criminals who can pay him well. Williams also displays Fallon-like courtroom tricks--he takes the bottle of poison from the evidence table, drinks it, rests his case, and then sits at the defense table for a half an hour doing work; when the jury, after peering out to see if his is still alive, find the defendant not guilty, Williams calmly walks across the street and has his stomach pumped, having discovered that the poison takes 45 minutes to take effect. But in the end, he sees the error of his ways, and when he turns against the mob he is gunned down. Attorney for the Defense, starring Edmund Lowe, also progresses, as Fallon's life did, from a  prosecutor repenting from a wrongful conviction to his becoming a mob attorney. The attorney, who is named Burton, uses his mob and corporate payoffs to take care of the convicted man's family and goes to prison, taking the rap for the convicted man's son.

As I wrote in my blog on the Perry Mason television series, Mason in the early episode is more wise-cracking, more willing to bend the rule, eager to plant or hide evidence, willing to hide witnesses, in short, more in the Fallon mode than in later episodes when Mason became more a part of the legal establishment.

Why is it that a Fallon-like attorney is so prevalent in film and television portrayals of attorneys? Courtroom theatrics obviously are more entertaining that the dogged plodding that lawyering really is. In our hearts, we may want an attorney who will pull out all stops, even cross the line when it comes to the rules in order to get us or our loved ones off. Atticus Finch is a noble example of what a lawyer should be. But, dramatically speaking, he loses his case and his client dies. It's sad, though understandable, that those making films and television shows have leaned toward the Fallon image of a lawyer rather than that of Atticus Finch. There have been Atticus Finches who have won their cases.

Copyright 2018 by John T. Aquino

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