Oscars love legal eagles: Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, …

The verdict is in. If you want to have success in awards’ season go to court. Over the decades, a caseload of legal movies have been judged to be Oscar worthy. And for good reason. The genre is rich with emotions, betrayals, manipulations, love, hate, violence and redemption. Who doesn’t remember Humphrey Bogart’s brilliant Oscar-nominated turn as Captain Queeg slowly losing his mind on the stand as he recounts his obsession with missing strawberries in 1954’s “The Caine Mutiny”?

“A Free Soul” (1931)
Lionel Barrymore won his only Academy Award for for his delicious over-the-top turn as a wily alcoholic attorney who gets a ruthless gangster (Clark Gable) off for murder in this juicy pre-code melodrama. Though his free-spirited daughter (Norma Shearer), who wears the slinkiest of gowns, has a boyfriend (a staid Leslie Howard), she soon realizes she loves bad boys and leaves Howard for Gable. It’s a big mistake. Barrymore’s 14-minute courtroom speech at the finale earned him his Oscar gold. Shearer and director Clarence Brown both received Oscar nominations. And though he didn’t get a nod, the film certainly was a boost to the career of the young Gable.

“The Letter “(1940)
Two years after William Wyler directed Bette Davis to her second Oscar in 1938’s “Jezebel,” the former lovers reunited for this superb adaptation of the Somerset Maugham tale set in Malaya. Davis gives one of her greatest-if not her greatest-performance as the wife of a rubber plantation manager (Herbert Marshall) arrested for murdering a man who was her lover. Davis’ Leslie insists that he tried to “make love” to her and shot him to save her honor. Though acquitted of murder, her attorney (James Stephenson) believes there’s something more to the shooting. And he learns the truth, when he is presented with a letter Leslie wrote her lover the day she shot him insisting he come to the house that evening because her husband was away. Needless to say, things do not end up going well for Leslie. The film earned seven Oscar nominations including best film, director, actress (Davis lost to Ginger Rogers for “Kitty Foyle”) and supporting actor for Stephenson. Sadly, Stephenson died of a heart attack in 1941 at the age of 52 just a few months after the Oscar ceremony.

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“12 Angry Men” (1957)
After he served on a jury in the early 1950s, Reginald Rose was inspired to write “12 Angry Men,” a riveting drama about a dozen jurors from every walk of life deliberating a death-penalty case involving a young Latino man accused of murder. Emotions run high in the deliberation room before the decision is finally made. The hour-long version of “12 Angry Men” premiered live in 1954 CBS’ “Studio One,” winning Emmys for Rose’s teleplay, actor Robert Cummings and director Franklin J. Schaffner. Three years later, Rose expanded his teleplay and was nominated for an Oscar for his sharp, insightful screenplay for the lauded feature version which marked the feature directorial debut of Sidney Lumet, who earned an Oscar nomination. The classic, which was produced by star Henry Fonda and Rose, also was nominated for Best Picture.

“Witness for the Prosecution” (1957)
Vastly entertaining Billy Wilder flick based on Agatha Christie’s wickedly fun courtroom thriller that’s filled with twists and turns that will keep you guessing. Wilder has a wonderful cast including Charles Laughton as a caustic veteran London barrister who has returned home after a near fatal heart attack taking on case in which a World War II vet (Tyrone Power) is accused of a stabbing death of a wealthy widow. The best scenes are between Laughton and his real-life wife Elsa Lanchester who plays his overbearing nurse. And we certainly can’t forget Marlene Dietrich as Power’s wife.“Witness” earned six Oscar nominations including film, director, actor for Laughton and supporting actress for Lanchester.

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“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959)
Director Otto Preminger always pushed the envelope running into issues with the Production Code and even the Catholic Church; his 1953 comedy “The Moon Is Blue” was condemned by the Church because the word “virgin” is mentioned. And he certainly made a few eyebrows raise with this pulsating murder mystery that frankly discusses taboo subjects as “panties,” “semen” and “rape” during the murder trial of a soldier accused of murdering a bartender who allegedly raped his sexpot wife. It was a bit disconcerting for his fans to hear Jimmy Stewart utter those words as a small-town Michigan attorney who’d rather be fishing or playing jazz than in the courtroom. Clocking in at just under three hours, “Anatomy of a Murder” moves like a dream and has a dream of a score by Duke Ellington who also appears in a great scene with Stewart. The film went on to earn six Oscar nominations including film, best actor Jimmy Stewart and supporting actor Arthur O’Connell as Stewart’s good friend, an alcoholic attorney.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)
Gregory Peck won a richly deserved Academy Award as Atticus Finch, a kind, noble small-town Southern attorney during the 1930s. In this sensitive adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel, Finch takes on the case of a black man (Brock Peters) unjustly accused of raping a white woman,. A widower, Atticus also has to look after this two young children Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford).  You’ll need a few hankies for Atticus’ poignant scenes with Scout and Jem. Besides best actor, the film won Oscars for Horton Foote’s adaptation and art direction/set decoration (black-and-white). “Mockingbird” was also nominated five more Oscars including film, supporting actress for Badham, director for Robert Mulligan and music for Elmer Bernstein.

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