Monday, October 3, 2016

Movie Quote of the Day (‘First Monday in October,’ on Group Shots of the Supreme Court)

[The Justices of the Supreme Court are posing for a group photograph.]

Ruth Loomis [played by Jill Clayburgh]: “Should we smile a little?”

Justice Dan Snow [played by Walter Matthau]: “Good God, no. Who'd trust a happy Justice?”— First Monday in October (1981), screenplay by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, based on their play, directed by Ronald Neame

Starting in 1917, federal law mandated that the U.S. Supreme Court term would start each year on the first Monday in October. That time of year has rolled around again, so I thought it might be interesting to review how an unusual turn of events took place related to that tradition.

As I discussed in a recent post, Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed 35 years ago last month as the first female Justice of the Supreme Court. Her nomination threw into turmoil the best-laid plans of Paramount Pictures to release in 1982 a movie that paralleled her situation: a female conservative breaking the all-male monopoly on America’s highest court of appeals.

Instead, to capitalize on the appointment, Paramount ended up moving up the release to late August 1981, before O’Connor began the term on the first Monday in October. The reshuffling didn’t really work: late summer, then as now, is a graveyard for movie releases, particularly those that aspire to reach an audience at least somewhat more serious audience than turns out for summer blockbusters. First Monday in October not only didn’t attract audiences, but even director Ronald Neame regarded it as a case of bad star chemistry between stars Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh.

As it happened, that wasn’t the only case of bad star chemistry as it related to this property. The same disease nearly killed the original play at birth.

In writing this post, I found in a local library The Selected Plays of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, an anthology by the playwrights responsible for Inherit the Wind and Auntie Mame that also includes First Monday in October. Idly looking through the production notes of the play, I discovered that, before it opened on Broadway in October 1978 or even at the Kennedy Center in Washington nearly a year before, the play had premiered at the Cleveland Play House in October 1975, with none other than Jean Arthur playing trailblazing justice Ruth Loomis.

“What were they thinking in casting her?” I wondered.

Let me explain. Arthur, along Irene Dunne, Claudette Colbert and Katharine Hepburn, formed a quartet of actresses who took the romantic comedy to its zenith in films of the Thirties and Forties. She especially worked well under director Frank Capra, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where her pert blond locks and what has been called her “carbonated” voice made her the embodiment of the wised-up career woman who falls for the dewy-eyed male idealist. She received an Oscar nomination for The More the Merrier, and probably deserved even more recognition from Hollywood. Many people—myself very much included—regard her as among the shining talents of her time, and can sit back happily when one of her films comes on, confident that a great performance is coming.

Uncomfortable with Hollywood’s publicity machine, which called for interviews and red-carpet appearances, the reticent Arthur was even worse onstage. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra discussed how her stage fright was so acute in the mid-1940s that it forced her to leave the Garson Kanin comedy Born Yesterday in its out-of-town tryout, allowing Judy Holliday to assume the role that made her famous.

Arthur appeared in her last film, Shane, in 1953, and a short-lived TV comedy, The Jean Arthur Show, in 1966. So far as I knew, she never had taken on another role until her death in 1991.

So, with these rare stage appearances—and even those enough to give pause—what was Arthur doing (and in her mid-seventies, at that) in a role written with her in mind? The answer is that Lawrence had gotten to know and like her, and however much due diligence he had performed (including with Capra and Kanin), it wasn’t enough to disabuse him of this impression. Only close work with her could do that.

It did. To her credit, Arthur came to rehearsals with her lines memorized. But that only angered her all the more when aging and ailing co-star Melvyn Douglas (with whom she had worked in the 1940 romantic comedy Too Many Husbands) needed more time to master his lines and character.

Nevertheless, the pairing of these two old pros from Hollywood’s golden era was enough to produce sell-out audiences for the play’s opening. If only that could have eased Arthur’s mind!

But reviews were not particularly kind about her performance, and her longtime anxiety about performing in public manifested itself again. Altogether, it was probably a blessing to cast and crew that the show’s producers announced that Arthur would leave the production before the end of the run due to a “viral infection.”

Despite the debacle related to Arthur, producer Roger L. Stevens thought the play still worthwhile to mount at the Kennedy Center. Arthur’s departure actually freed Lawrence and Lee to rethink the role of Justice Loomis. Casting a considerably younger actress in the role would deepen the conflict with the curmudgeonly liberal Justice Dan Stone (modeled in part on the long-serving justice William O. Douglas). Jane Alexander—more than three decades Arthur’s junior—brought a dimension to the role that Arthur simply couldn’t, and her pairing with Henry Fonda, though in a brief run, brought the two actors considerable acclaim. 

The play continues to be performed in regional theaters, where it gives its lead actors plum roles--and audiences the hope that the growing respect between the play's two ideologically opposed fictional justices could actually occur in our terribly divided political environment.

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