26 May 2004 | lawprof
Not Meant to be Howlingly Funny But It Is!
A number of films are entitled "Circumstantial Evidence." Director Charles Lamont's 1935 attack on the use of circumstantial evidence to send defendants to the electric chair might have been intended as a lesson for the "B" movie public but the end result is funny to viewers today and I doubt was taken seriously back then.
Circumstantial evidence is, simply, anything other than direct evidence, the latter being, usually, confessions and eyewitness accounts. Even fingerprints and - nowadays - DNA can be examples of circumstantial evidence since there may be varying explanations for their association with the crime, some quite exculpatory.
In this potboiler, an unusual one at that, ace reporter Jim Baldwin (the mezzanine idol Chick Chandler) is outraged at the onset of the story as a defendant is sentenced to death for murder based solely on circumstantial evidence (hardly a rare verdict then or now). Baldwin mulls over how to bring this grave injustice to public attention with his fiancee, the beautiful Adrienne Grey (the in-real-life beautiful Shirley Grey). Adrienne, a gal artist for the paper, is also being pursued by syrupy suave colleague Fred Stevens (Arthur Vinton).
Baldwin gets the bright idea to set up various scenes that will convince all that he may well intend to harm Stevens who will later disappear after being "murdered" at his home, the building consumed by fire. Stevens thinks this is a capital idea and agrees to leave town, his remains being an old skeleton to be found in the burnt house. Maybe one reason for his willingness to depart is his desire to end a torrid affair with the young and pretty Bernice Winters (Dorothy Revier), married to a guy much, much older than her. In 1935, this kind of adulterous liaison wasn't pointedly shown on the screen that often.
The fly in the ointment is that while setting fire to his home, Stevens is shot to death by an unseen assailant. His body is quickly identified.
Baldwin gets arrested, tried, convicted and whisked off to the Death House for an appointment with Old Sparky. The rest of the film is about Adrienne's effort, together with Baldiwn's faithful friends, to prove he didn't kill Stevens.
The acting is howlingly funny at points. In the newsroom, the courtroom and in his cell Baldwin declaims against the evil of circumstantial evidence, the politicization of the district attorney's office and the public's lack of compassion for defendants who deserve to be executed but who should be accorded some measure of sympathy rather than callous rejoicing at their fate.
It's a silly movie. Charles Lamont was an incredibly prolific director who went on to truly great movies such as "Ma and Pa Kettle" and several Abbott and Costello buffooneries.
5/10 (but it is fun to watch).