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Criminal Lawyer (1937 film)

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Criminal Lawyer
Theatrical poster for the film
Directed byChristy Cabanne
Edward Killy
Jimmy Anderson (assistant)
Produced bySamuel J. Briskin
Cliff Reid
Screenplay byGladys Atwater
Thomas Lennon
Story byLouis Stevens
CinematographyDavid Abel
Edited byJack Hively
Release date
  • January 26, 1937 (1937-01-26) (Premiere-New York City)[1]
  • January 29, 1937 (1937-01-29) (US)[1]
Running time
72 minutes
CountryUnited States

Criminal Lawyer is a 1937 American drama film directed by Christy Cabanne from a screenplay by G. V. Atwater and Thomas Lennon, based on a story by Louis Stevens. The film stars Lee Tracy, Margot Grahame and Eduardo Ciannelli. RKO produced the film and premiered it on January 26, 1937 in New York City, with a national release a few days later on January 29. It was the second time Stevens' story had been used for a film, the first being 1932's State's Attorney, starring John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees, directed by George Archainbaud, and also produced and released by RKO.


Barry Brandon is an unscrupulous defense attorney. He will use any means necessary to win his clients' cases. While in court defending one of his criminal clients, Gene Larkin, he sees a young woman on trial for prostitution, Madge Carter. Believing her to be framed for the activity, he defends her for free, winning her acquittal, after which he gives her a job as his secretary.

Cianelli and Tracy
Cianelli and Tracy

Larkin, thinking that he can control Brandon, uses his influence to get Brandon elected to the district attorney's office. Once there, Brandon tells Larkin that he no longer will work for him, that he intends to take the D.A. job seriously. His zeal for his new position pays off, and soon he is the district attorney. With eyes on the governorship, he becomes romantically involved with Betty Walker, whose father has deep political connections, even though Brandon is in love with Madge. After a night of heavy drinking, Brandon wakes up to find out that he has been married to Betty.

Crushed, Madge goes to Larkin's office to discuss something with him, and sees him shoot a rival gangster. When Larkin is arrested for murder, he attempts to use his influence with Brandon to get released. When that fails, and Brandon begins to prosecute him, Larkin blackmails Madge to lie on the stand and cover for him, threatening to expose Brandon's earlier nefarious tactics as an attorney. As Madge is testifying, Brandon realizes what is happening, and confesses in open court to his past underhanded and illegal tactics as a defense attorney, throwing himself on the mercy of the court.

Larkin is convicted, and as they leave the court, Brandon explains to Madge what happened with Betty, and that he is getting the marriage annulled, since it was never consummated. So now the two of them can be together.


(Cast list as per AFI database.[1])


In 1932, RKO had produced a film titled State's Attorney, starring John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees. The story was written by Louis Stevens, with a screenplay by Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown.[2] In 1937, the studio decided to remake the film, and this time gave Stevens' story to Thomas Lennon to write the script. At the same time they announced that Cliff Reid had been assigned as the supervising producer. Walter Abel was originally slated to have the leading role in the film, when production was announced in August 1936.[3] In October 1936, it was announced that Lee Tracy would be replacing Abel in the lead, and that Katherine Marlowe would appear opposite him. It was also noted that Gladys Atwater would be assisting Lennon on the screenplay.[4][5] Shortly after this, on October 3, 1936, RKO announced that it would shortly start production on the film.[6] On October 6, Marlowe was replaced in the cast as the female lead by Margot Grahame;[7] Aileen Pringle joined the cast less than a week later,[8] with Chevret and Lucas also announced to the cast shortly after. At that same time, Francis McDonald was also announced to be included in the production. However, according to the AFI Database, his participation in the film has not been confirmed. Production on the film began in early October,[1] and was completed by November 7.[9]

In January 1937, it was announced that Erik Rhodes would be singing "Tonight, Lover, Tonight", which was penned by Jack Stern and Harry Tobias.[10] Right after the New Year, the film's release date was announced as January 29, 1937.[11] The film opened on January 29.[12] The National Legion of Decency graded the film class "A-1", making it suitable for general audiences.[13]


The Film Daily gave the film a favorable review, calling it logical, exciting, and swiftly paced. They complimented the acting, highlighting the performances of Tracy, Grahame, Ciannelli, and Lawford. The also highlighted Cabanne's direction, as well as Abel's cinematography.[14] Harrison's Reports also enjoyed the film, calling it a "fair melodrama, with a good sprinkling of comedy". They favorably pointed out Tracy and Grahame's acting.[15] Motion Picture Daily said that the picture "...effectively combines drama, romance and comedy ...", and were particularly enthusiastic about Tracy's performance, saying the film was "incredibly enhanced by the quality" of his performance, which was likely to send the movie-goers away talking. The magazine also mentioned the quality of the performance of the other players in the film, including Grahame, Cianelli, Lawford, Rhodes, Thomas, Lucas, and Stack. They felt the script by Lennon and Atwater was "well knit", and that Cabanne's direction kept the film moving and suspenseful.[16] The Motion Picture Herald felt the picture had a "powerful dramatic quality," which built to a "smashing climax."[17]


  1. ^ a b c d "Criminal Lawyer: Detail View". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on April 2, 2014. Retrieved September 11, 2014.
  2. ^ "State's Attorney: Detail View". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on September 27, 2014. Retrieved September 16, 2016.
  3. ^ "Little from Lots". The Film Daily. August 22, 1936. p. 4. Retrieved January 7, access
  4. ^ Wilk, Ralph (October 2, 1936). "A "Little" from "Lots"". The Film Daily. p. 11. Retrieved January 7, access
  5. ^ "Out Hollywood Way". Motion Picture Daily. October 1, 1936. p. 12. Retrieved January 7, access
  6. ^ "Six Films to Start at RKO Radio Studio". The Film Daily. October 3, 1936. p. 1. Retrieved January 7, access
  7. ^ Wilk, Ralph (October 6, 1936). "A "Little" from Hollywood "Lots"". The Film Daily. p. 15. Retrieved January 7, access
  8. ^ Wilk, Ralph (October 10, 1936). "Little from Lots". The Film Daily. p. 7. Retrieved January 7, access
  9. ^ "The Hollywood Scene". Motion Picture Herald. November 7, 1936. p. 41. Retrieved January 7, access
  10. ^ Wilk, Ralph (January 15, 1937). "A "Little" from Hollywood "Lots"". The Film Daily. p. 7. Retrieved January 7, access
  11. ^ "Release Schedule for Features". Harrison's Reports. January 2, 1937. p. 3. Retrieved January 7, access
  12. ^ "Titles Delivered By 11 Companies". Motion Picture Herald. February 20, 1937. p. 14. Retrieved January 7, access
  13. ^ "Legion Approves 21 of 24 New Pictures". Motion Picture Daily. December 21, 1936. p. 2. Retrieved January 7, access
  14. ^ "Reviews of the New Films: "Criminal Lawyer"". The Film Daily. January 28, 1937. p. 8. Retrieved January 7, access
  15. ^ ""Criminal Lawyer" with Lee Tracy and Margot Grahame". Harrison's Reports. January 23, 1937. p. 15. Retrieved January 7, access
  16. ^ "Motion Picture Daily's Hollywood Preview: "Criminal Lawyer"". Motion Picture Daily. December 7, 1936. p. 4. Retrieved January 7, access
  17. ^ "The Cutting Room: Criminal Lawyer". Motion Picture Herald. October 31, 1936. p. 51. Retrieved January 7, access
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Criminal Lawyer (1937 film)
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