William Powell … William Foster
Kay Francis … Irene Manners
Scott Kolk … Defoe
William B. Davidson … Dist. Atty. Stone
John Elliott … McGann
Thomas E. Jackson … Daly
Harry Walker … Miller
James Finlayson … Parrott
Charles West … Joe
Charles Sullivan … Charlie (Foster’s chauffeur)
Ernie Adams … Eddie Withers
Bertram Marburgh … Judge Evans
Edward LeSaint … Judge at first trial
Directed by John Cromwell.
Produced by David O. Selznick.
Based on the story by Jules Furthman.
Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett.
Cinematography by Charles Lang.
Film Editing by George Nichols Jr..
A Paramount Picture.
Released July 19, 1930.
For the Defense was the third collaboration between producer David O. Selznick, William Powell, and Kay Francis, whose previous efforts included the underrated Behind the Make-Up and Street of Chance (both 1930).
The unique pairing of Kay Francis and William Powell was a genius move by Selznick; both stars had been typecast as second-billed villains opposite big stars like Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, and Clive Brook. In those movies, Powell and Francis had stolen the spotlight from their loveable costars with their dark, provocative portrayals of characters like “Zara Flynn” and “Jack Harrison.”
Francis and Powell were both physically and mentally different than their contemporaries. Kay was more glamorous and beautiful than the other vamps of the period—Theda Bara, Pola Negri, or Barbara LaMarr. She also brought the vamp out of the distant, exotic locations and into the typical American life. It was one thing for moviegoers to watch Bara as Cleopatra vamping out Fritz Leiber, Sr. as Caesar in Ancient Egypt, but to imagine that dark and dangerous women like Myra May of Gentlemen of the Press could destroy men by simply doing their secretarial work was a whole new concept with talking films—and Kay Francis.
William Powell, on the other hand, before he became the loveable Nick Charles, was equally adept (and even a little scary) in his villainous character portrayals for silent movies made for Paramount and other studios. His stone-cold face, like Kay’s, appeared to be completely blank of emotion.
But unlike the other villainous lovers of silent films, Powell wasn’t really attractive. He had a big nose and forehead, with a wide frame and skinny arms. One thing that he had that the others did not was an undeniable presence. When he was showing his inner-beast to his leading ladies onscreen, he seemed to have no concept of right or wrong; he could easily kill these beautiful, naïve young girls and quickly forget their existence.
Audiences of the time ate this stuff up, but that made life interesting for Francis and Powell only in a handful of movies before it just got old and tiresome. Their only relief for character departure was to be paired opposite each other, which is why their movies together are among the best of both actor’s accomplished careers.
Together on screen, Powell and Francis were given more complicated roles which allowed for them to showcase their dramatic ability. Not only this, but it took the two away from supporting parts, and made them the leading stars of good films. This is all because of David O. Selznick, who expressed belief in the two from day one, while Paramount dismissed both Powell and Francis altogether.
Powell’s corrupt lawyer and Kay’s sneaky but honest girlfriend who brings upon his downfall provided both actors with two of the best parts of their careers, thus far. They’re not good people. They’re not bad people. They’re just people, who do what they have to to make it in the world.
Later that year, while William Powell vacationed in England, Kay completed a film, Raffles (1930), which would have been a perfect vehicle for them. While Ronald Colman was excellent in the title role, it was the ideal property for a team like Francis and Powell.
Bill Foster is one of the most successful lawyers in New York City. While he has made many allies defending some of the city’s harshest criminals, he has equally ruffled the feathers of law enforcement officers who hate seeing what they see as the scum of the earth roam free.
He is known for taking his cases to the extreme to prove his client’s innocence. In such a case he throws a bottle of what everyone believes is nitroglycerin on the floor. As everyone takes cover, expecting an explosion from the only evidence the district attorney has, he proves to everyone that the state’s only evidence against his client was bogus.
On Bill’s arm is girlfriend Irene Manners, a stage actress. She credits Bill for everything, including her career, and she loves him enough to marry him, though he tells her he is not the marrying kind. This encourages Jack De Foe to pursue Irene.
Driving with a drunken Jack at five in the morning, Irene hit’s a man on the road and kills him. As another car pulls up, Jack tells her to flee the scene, and he’ll take to credit for everything. For this, she promises Bill’s attention to the case.
When she sees Bill in his office, he asks her if there is anything going on between Jack and Irene, but she insists that there’s nothing. He tells her that if he ever finds out about her being unfaithful, he’ll push her out the door and never come back.
As the case proceeds underway, Bill quickly catches on that there is a piece of Jack’s story missing. That piece is located in court.
The witness who approached the scene of the accident says that a woman had fled from the scene, and the district attorney reveals a ring that Bill recognizes as one he had given Irene. Bill becomes aware that Irene was the woman in the car, though he does not say anything, only pretending to be ill, and asking if the case can be postponed until the following morning.
Jack tells Bill that it was his fault. He tried to get Irene to marry him and she refused. He doesn’t believe Jack, or Irene when she confronts him. And just when everyone suspects Bill will throw the case out of spite, he secretly bribes a juror to hang the case.
Unfortunately, word of this gets out. Irene tries to tell everyone the truth, but no one will listen. Too many people in the city have been waiting for Bill to go under, and now is their big chance. As he is going to prison in Ossining, Irene walks up to the car, and asks Bill if she waits for him to get out, would he like to return to her.
Realizing Irene really loves him, of course he agrees.
This is a star film, custom made for William Powell. Of the three most famous character types he is best remembered for, I like him in this kind of mold best. He’s the corrupt businessman. Though he is in the law practice, he still goes about running his cases as if he is running a business, taking client after client, caring only about himself, though at one point in the film he does say to Kay that he would rather defend the poor who can not afford a good trial.
Aside from Kay’s Irene Manners, he does not trust or care for anyone. This is why he is so emotionally wrecked when he finds out that she was in the car with Jack the night of the accident. But throughout the movie Powell is natural and well-mannered, setting him so different than the other actors of his time. He wasn’t a pretty boy, he was just a good actor, and little movies like this really allowed him to show his stuff.
Obviously Paramount went all out for him here, even giving him Kay again. They had appeared in two movies together before this, and the public apparently caught on that there was something special between them.
As a screen team, their biggest scene together is the one at the speak easy. Unfortunately, it’s oddly set up, with constant shifts of the camera and a failure to link the shots. (For instance, Kay has her arm on the table, cigarette in hand, camera shifts and the cigarette is in her mouth, then it shifts back). But their chemistry is great, and they look perfect next to one another.
When they discuss their relationship, Kay gets her hopes up with the thought of marrying him, and when she gets rejected by him she is obviously upset. He comes to realize this later, realizing he has made a mistake.
Their second big scene together is obviously the final one, but it is so brief it doesn’t have much. This just shows us that they’re going to be together forever, allowing us to know the progress of what their relationship will be some years later.
Scenes like this are reasons I like Paramount movies. A Metro Goldwyn Mayer picture would have gone on and on, progressing from Bill’s time in prison, release, and the wedding. Paramount, like Warner Brothers, cut right to the point with their movies.
Time wasn’t wasted back then.
John Cromwell was one of Kay’s best directors. He gives us a genuine New York City feel, and sincerity in these characters that’s unforgettable. These don’t come across as characters, but actual people in actual predicaments.
Written by Mordaunt Hall.
Published July 27, 1930 in the New York Times.
It is not often that an attorney who has won fame and fortune by keeping his constituents out of “the big house” takes the train up the river himself. If last week’s screen contributions did nothing else, they showed that even that satiation is possible. The pictures, like life, are making an ado about cleaning up the bar.
The films of the week just over were not startling save in a fashion that was not to their advantage. For that reason, perhaps, “For the Defense” is apt to stand out like a neat bit of lettering. Perhaps it would stand out just a little in any week, although certainly to no such extent. It is good entertainment—even for those who are not lawyers.
William Powell, who has by now pretty well run the gamut of all things appertaining to the underworld, is its star performer. He goes through the picture with the Powell manner of suave abandon. Calmness is the attitude of William Foster, noted criminal lawyer, a blandness that is not shattered even when he is pleaded guilty to the crime of jury bribing. It is for this, of course, that he is sent to join his former clients at Ossining.
“For the Defense” is perhaps designed for the New York field—at least for those who are acquainted with its various spots. The picture opens with a short portrayal of the famous Bridge of Sighs, and later on there are moments of Broadway, the criminal courts and Tombs. Finally there is a scene at the door of the prison up in Westchester.
The story is of an attorney who stubbed his toe now and then but never fell. He was able to get his clients off, even against the weight of evidence. The underworld was, collectively, his friend, and individually his life’s work. His main failure was a nervous desire for stimulant—the only was he could “keep going in this racket.”
Everything went well until his girl got into an affair and the other member of the triangle went on trial for manslaughter. Foster was a defense attorney, or course. A ring was introduced, a ring that the lawyer recognized as his own. He sought the cup that cheers, and then acced to the jury-bribing. Placed on trial himself, he pleaded guilty in order to save his friends. And so—up the river.
Besides Mr. Powell, others in the cast are Kay Francis and Scott Kolk.