How Do Americans Feel About The Courts? Let Hollywood Be The Judge

Mar 7, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 2:57 pm

Order in the court — but maybe not in movie theaters.

With all the talk lately about politics and the judiciary — fights over Supreme Court vacancies, the President complaining about "so-called" judges — I've been thinking about the judges I've seen on screen, and how their depiction might have intersected with public opinion through the years.

Certainly, there was a time when judges were held in high esteem. When a teenage Mickey Rooney had a problem in the Andy Hardy movies, he turned to his onscreen dad, Judge Hardy. In the first of those films, A Family Affair (1937), the judge was played by Lionel Barrymore, who sat patiently with the young star, explaining why he needed to justify his request for five dollars.

"Gee Pa, says the frustrated teen, "Sometimes I wish you weren't a judge, because it's kinda taking advantage of a guy to keep showing him two sides of a question."

Two sides of a question. In the 1930s, the fact that Judge Hardy was a judge made him virtually unassailable — thoughtful, wise, all-American rectitude made flesh. Somewhere along the way — in Hollywood at least — judges lost a bit of the rectitude.

The farce What's Up Doc? (1972) featured a judge who'd adopted the rhythms of vaudeville, a precursor of sorts for Fred Gwynne's small-town, accent-perplexed judge, who interrupts youth-defending attorney Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny (1992) to ask "what's a yute."

And they're both descendants of a comic tradition that goes back at least as far as the Marx Brothers ... Groucho having picked up a gavel in Duck Soup (1933), remember, to suggest that Chico be sentenced either to "10 years in Leavenworth or 11 years in Twelveworth."

Being held generally in high esteem, judges — like anyone on a pedestal — become targets to be knocked down, which is another way of saying Hollywood's depiction of judges has been just as complicated as the public's perception of judges.

Hollywood's version is easier to read, though, especially in terms of tone. When Groucho played a judge, no one thought he was mocking the judiciary. He was just being Groucho.

Something slightly different is going on in, say, Miracle on 34th Street (1947), when a judge caves to public opinion and recognizes the existence of Santa Claus. Still a joke, but this time it's a judge who's caving, not a comedian.

And something far more "judgmental" is happening a few decades later in The People Versus Larry Flynt (1996), about the rabble-rousing publisher of the adult magazine, Hustler. In that film, the producers gave the real Larry Flynt a cameo as an appellate judge. He got to sentence himself, as it were, in a film where the whole point was that the judiciary kept getting first amendment freedoms wrong.

Often, you can tell what filmmakers think of judges by looking at whom they cast as judges. In Anatomy of a Murder (1959), arguably the most riveting courtroom drama ever, the judge is played by real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch, famous off-screen for facing down Sen. Joseph McCarthy during his communist witch hunts with an impassioned, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?"

In Anatomy of a Murder Welch was just a non-actor surrounded by seasoned pros — prosecutor George C. Scott, defendant Ben Gazzara, and increasingly desperate defense attorney, Jimmy Stewart.

Director Otto Preminger knew the way to give his non-actor a big moment in that sort of company, was to pause in what was becoming a rush to judgment. Asked a rapid-fire question, the judge flips open his pocket watch, winds it, and with great deliberation, makes up his mind.

The pause encapsulates what judges are supposed to do — step back from the fray, look at things impartially, and render their considered judgement.

Anatomy of a Murder came out at a time when the federal judiciary was respected as much as it has ever been. Not universally, mind you. Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court had handed down a number of controversial decisions, including the one that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. That meant there were "Impeach Earl Warren" signs on many lawns, but it also meant that the power of the judiciary to change society was on vivid display.

Hollywood harnessed that power in early 1960s courtroom dramas — Inherit the Wind (1960) about the Scopes "Monkey" trial and evolution, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) about racial prejudice, and the classic Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), in which Spencer Tracy presides over a military court holding Nazis accountable for crimes against humanity.

The accused are themselves judges, guilty, as Burt Lancaster's Judge Janning notes on the stand, of being swept up in a national hysteria.

"There was a fever over the land," says Janning. "We were a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Only when you understand that, can you understand what Hitler meant to us. He said be proud to be German. There are devils among us, communists, liberals, Jews, gypsies."

It was the ancient story of the sacrificial lamb, he continues, going on to explain how judges, sworn to protect society from barbarism, convinced themselves that barbarism was the lesser of two evils:

"Why did we take part? Because we loved our country. What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? The country is in danger."

Other movie judges have been swayed by love of country, or love of God, rather than insisting on the primacy of the law. In A Man for All Seasons, which was released that same decade, Sir Thomas More, an English philosopher now venerated as a saint, challenges both his king and his church, eventually losing his head for arguing that the law must be paramount.

"What would you do?" he asks a prelate, "cut a great road through law to get after the devil?"

Assured that his opponent would "cut down every law in England" to do that, he responds, "And when the last law was down and the devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide with the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man's laws, not God's — and if you cut them down ... do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake."

The great Paul Scofield won an Oscar playing More. Not all movie magistrates live up to his standard, of course. Film genres require different approaches from say, an action hero like Judge Dredd, or a "toon," like Roger Rabbit's nemesis, Judge Doom.

But serious dramas still lean heavily on the probity and respectability of judges. In the movie Amistad (1997), when Steven Spielberg needed someone to read the Supreme Court verdict that set a slave-ship's passengers free, he called on a real Supreme Court justice: Harry Blackmun. (You can hear Blackmun's reading here.)

Judging judges is not in my brief, as it were, but in cinematic terms, there's little question that this guy's judicial bearing sounds like the real thing.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There has been drama in Washington lately over the judiciary. Take the political fight over the vacant Supreme Court seat or the president calling some in black robes so-called judges. All this has got movie critic Bob Mondello thinking about the judges he's seen in movies and how their depiction has intersected with public opinion through the years.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: When a teenaged Mickey Rooney had a problem in the Andy Hardy movies, he turned to his onscreen dad, Judge Hardy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FAMILY AFFAIR")

MICKEY ROONEY: (As Andy Hardy) I need $5.

LIONEL BARRYMORE: (As Judge Hardy) What for?

ROONEY: (As Andy Hardy) Well, for things.

BARRYMORE: (As Judge Hardy) Now, look, Andy. When you're earning your own money, you won't ever have to explain to anybody - theoretically, that is. But when you're spending someone else's, it's only fair to the partner that's supplying it to know where it's going.

ROONEY: (As Andy Hardy) Gee, Pa, sometimes I wish you weren't a judge.

BARRYMORE: (As Judge Hardy) Why?

ROONEY: (As Andy Hardy) Because it's kind of taking advantage of a guy to keep showing him two sides of a question.

MONDELLO: Two sides of a question - this was the 1930s, and the fact that Judge Hardy was a judge made him unassailable, thoughtful, wise, all-American-rectitude-made-flesh. Somewhere along the way - in Hollywood, at least - judges lost a bit of the rectitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT'S UP, DOC?")

LIAM DUNN: (As Judge Maxwell) They're a foul and depraved-looking lot, bailiff.

GRAHAM JARVIS: (As Bailiff) Those are just the spectators, your honor.

MONDELLO: The farce "What's Up, Doc?" in 1972 featured a judge who'd adopted the rhythms of vaudeville.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT'S UP, DOC?")

DUNN: (As Judge Maxwell) What are these people being charged with?

AUSTIN PENDLETON: (As Frederick Larrabee) They broke into my home.

DUNN: (As Judge Maxwell) That's breaking and entering.

PENDLETON: (As Frederick Larrabee) And they brought her with them forcibly.

DUNN: (As Judge Maxwell) That's kidnapping.

MADELINE KAHN: (As Eunice) They tried to molest me.

DUNN: (As Judge Maxwell) That's unbelievable.

MONDELLO: Call him a precursor of sorts for the small-town accent-perplexed judge in "My Cousin Vinny."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY COUSIN VINNY")

FRED GWYNNE: (As Judge Chamberlain Haller) Did you say yutes (ph)?

JOE PESCI: (As Vinny Gambini) Yeah, two yutes.

GWYNNE: (As Judge Chamberlain Haller) What is a yute?

MONDELLO: And they're both descendants of a comic tradition that goes back at least as far as the Marx Brothers, Groucho having picked up a gavel in "Duck Soup," remember?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUCK SOUP")

GROUCHO MARX: (As Rufus T. Firefly) I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.

CHICO MARX: (As Chicolini) I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll take five and ten in Woolworth.

MONDELLO: Being held generally in high esteem, judges, like anyone on a pedestal, become targets to be knocked down, which is another way of saying Hollywood's depiction of judges has been just as complicated as the public's perception of judges. Hollywood's version is easier to read, though, especially in terms of tone.

When Groucho played a judge, no one thought he was mocking the judiciary. He was just being Groucho. Something slightly different is going on in, say, "Miracle On 34th Street" when a judge caves to public opinion.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET")

JOHN PAYNE: (As Fred Gailey) Your honor, every one of these letters is addressed to Santa Claus. The post office has delivered them.

GENE LOCKHART: (As Judge Henry X. Harper) Since the United States government declares this man to be Santa Claus, this court will not dispute it.

MONDELLO: Still a joke, but this time it's a judge who's caving, not a comedian. And something far more judgmental is happening a few decades later in "The People Vs. Larry Flynt" about the rabble-rousing publisher of the adult magazine Hustler. In that 1998 film, the producers gave the real Larry Flynt a cameo as an appellate judge. He got to sentence himself, as it were, in a film where the whole point was that the judiciary kept getting First Amendment freedoms wrong. Often you can tell what filmmakers think of judges by looking at who they cast as judges. In "Anatomy Of A Murder," arguably the most riveting courtroom drama ever...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANATOMY OF A MURDER")

JOSEPH N WELCH: (As Judge Weaver) And now the last-minute witness is being brought dramatically down the aisle. The whole thing has obviously been rigged.

MONDELLO: ...The judge is played by real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch, famous off-screen for facing down Senator Joseph McCarthy during his communist witch hunts with an impassioned, have you no sense of decency, sir? But in "Anatomy Of A Murder," Welch was just a non-actor surrounded by seasoned pros George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara and increasingly desperate defense attorney Jimmy Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANATOMY OF A MURDER")

JIMMY STEWART: (As Paul Biegler) That's like trying to take the core from an apple without breaking the skin. I beg the court to let me cut into the apple.

BROOKS WEST: (As Dist. Atty. Mitch Lodwick) Our objection still stands, your honor.

MONDELLO: Director Otto Preminger knew the way to give his non-actor a big moment here was to pause in what was becoming a rush to judgment. The judge flips open his pocket watch, winds it and, with great deliberation, makes up his mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANATOMY OF A MURDER")

WELCH: (As Judge Weaver) Objection overruled.

MONDELLO: That pause encapsulated what judges are supposed to do - step back from the fray, look at things impartially and render their considered judgment. "Anatomy Of A Murder" came out at a time when the federal judiciary was respected as much as it has ever been - not universally, mind you.

Under Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Supreme Court had handed down a number of controversial decisions, including the one that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. That meant there were impeach Earl Warren signs on many lawns, but it also meant that the power of the judiciary to change society was on vivid display.

Hollywood harnessed that power in early 1960s courtroom dramas "Inherit The Wind," "To Kill A Mockingbird" and the classic "Judgment At Nuremberg" where Spencer Tracy presides over a military court holding Nazis accountable for crimes against humanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG")

SPENCER TRACY: (As Chief Judge Dan Haywood) This trial has shown that under a national crisis, even able and extraordinary men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination.

MONDELLO: The accused are themselves judges, guilty, as Burt Lancaster's Judge Janning notes on the stand, of being swept up in a national hysteria.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG")

BURT LANCASTER: (As Dr. Ernst Janning) There was a fever over the land. We had a democracy, yes, but it was torn by elements within. Only when you understand that can you understand what Hitler meant to us. He said be proud to be German. There are devils among us, communists, liberals, Jews, gypsies.

MONDELLO: It was the ancient story of the sacrificial lamb, says Janning, who goes on to explain how judges who are sworn to protect society from barbarism convinced themselves that barbarism was the lesser of two evils.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG")

LANCASTER: (As Dr. Ernst Janning) Why did we take part - because we loved our country. What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? The country is in danger.

MONDELLO: Other movie judges have been swayed by love of country or love of God rather than insisting on the primacy of the law. In "A Man For All Seasons," which was released that same decade, Sir Thomas More, an English philosopher now venerated as a saint, challenges both his king and his church, eventually losing his head for arguing that the law must be paramount.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS")

PAUL SCOFIELD: (As Thomas More) What would you do, cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

CORIN REDGRAVE: (As Roper) Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that.

SCOFIELD: (As Thomas More) Oh, and when the last law was down and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide with the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's. And if you cut them down, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? I'd give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety's sake.

MONDELLO: The great Paul Scofield won an Oscar playing More. Not all movie magistrates live up to his standard, of course. Film genres require different approaches from, say, an action hero...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDGE DREDD")

ADRIENNE BARBEAU: (As Central) The DNA is a perfect match for Judge Joseph Dredd.

SYLVESTER STALLONE: (As Judge Dredd) It's a lie. I never broke the law. I am the law.

MONDELLO: ...Or a cartoon like Roger Rabbit's nemesis, Judge Doom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT")

CHRISTOPHER LLOYD: (As Judge Doom) When I killed your brother, I talked just like this.

MONDELLO: But serious dramas still lean heavily on the probity and respectability of judges. In the movie "Amistad," when Steven Spielberg needed someone to read the Supreme Court verdict that set a slave ship's passengers free, he called on a real Supreme Court justice, Harry Blackmun.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AMISTAD")

HARRY BLACKMUN: (As Associate Justice Joseph Story) It is the court's judgment. That the defendants are to be released from custody at once.

MONDELLO: Judging judges is not in my brief, as it were. But in cinematic terms, I'd say this guy's judicial bearing looks a lot like the real thing. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERICH KUNZEL AND THE CINCINNATI POPS ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF WILLIAMS' "THE LONG ROAD TO JUSTICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.