Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick, where Karen of Shadows & Satin and I each choose a gem from this era you can watch on TCM.
This month I’m picking a fun little mystery that’s just like 12 Angry Men, if the Henry Fonda character was a smart, steely and sassy society dame. Mrs. Crane (the delightful Edna May Oliver) sweeps into court and ruffles feathers as the last juror selected for the sensational murder trial of a French chorus girl, Mrs. Gordon (Jill Esmond) accused of killing her rich husband. Crane’s frank, perceptive, inquisitive, authoritative and magnetic nature command the courtroom. The judge loses control of the proceedings, has to grab back the gavel (“his little thing” Crane calls it), and rolls his eyes at this woman’s impertinence. Crane isn’t deterred in the least, and continues to interrupting proceedings to ask for clarification, to speak French to get a better sense of Mrs. Gordon, and asks better questions of witnesses on the stand than either defense or prosecution.
In the deliberation phase, Crane has no patience for the hasty conclusions and prejudices expressed by other jurors, such as: the defendant is a foreigner with a heavy accent and therefore suspicious and unwelcome; she’s much younger than her husband and therefore an obvious gold-digger; she’s a former show girl and so she must have no morals. With a gentle outrage, unshakable fairness, genuine charm, and quick wit that are a joy to watch, and quite against the behaviour you might expect from such a character, Crane points out the flaws of those arguments, secures valuable allies, and works on each juror’s ego, conscience and pet biases until enough of the jurors are willing to admit there actually isn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Helpfully, the story serves up some jurors ripe for these necessary eureka moments. One is a showgirl who bristles and defiantly flips her verdict when judged harshly by her sanctimonious fellow jurors. Another (Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) conveniently has a French wife and jumps across the table raring for a fight when the reputation of the nation’s women is besmirched. Two of the jurors fall in a comically passionless sort of love, so they seem predisposed to a generous outlook on the defendant, one is a hammy salesman (Ken Murray) who respects Crane, helps her argue and work the room, and the others all have their distinct backstories, quirks and tics to keep things fun.
Crane manages to sneak out a note to her maid, instructing her to call on a private detective regarding her hunch about false testimony and a greedy heir. The resulting findings arrive in the nick of time, just as the jury is visiting the murder scene (also Crane’s idea, naturally) where they further question their initial conclusions about the shooting. Crane may annoy the heck out of the “powers that be” with her incessant questions, her insistence on truth and objectivity, and just by her presence and gall, but thank goodness for ladies like her, who refuse to be a heartless, mindless cog in a system, who refuse to accept any old story or back down when told it’s neither proper nor their place, who are willing to bend and break some rules to get justice for the innocent.
Watch Ladies of the Jury on TCM September 28th, and be sure to see Karen’s pre-Code pick for this month.