27 February 2004 | critic-2
The very best of the post-1970's "Hallmark Hall of Fame" productions
In another review, I stated that the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" series was never as good during the last twenty years or so as it had been during its glorious days in the 1950's and '60's. There was one brilliant exception, however, and this is it. "Gideon's Trumpet" can stand up proudly alongside all the other "Hall of Fame" episodes of the past as one of the finest made-for TV films ever made.
It tells the true story of Clarence Earl Gideon, an ex-convict who, in the early 1960's, was accused of breaking into and robbing a convenience store in Florida. Claiming innocence, he was forced to serve as his own lawyer because states' laws at that time did not require an accused person to be automatically given a lawyer. Failing miserably at his own defense, he was sent to prison, where, as a model prisoner, he studied up on law and petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to be granted a lawyer.
This phrase has already become a cliché from overuse, but Henry Fonda, in one of his last performances, does not play Clarence Gideon--he IS Clarence Gideon. He inhabits the role so completely that we never believe we are watching Henry Fonda; we believe we are seeing a poor, inarticulate, awkward, somewhat cranky, but basically kind man named Clarence Gideon. Fonda utterly lives the role in a way that he seldom does in his other films (although he was an excellent actor).
The other actor who gives a memorable performance is José Ferrer, as Abe Fortas, who pleads Fonda's petition before the Supreme Court. As Fortas, Ferrer gets to do one of the things he does best, and which he had not done to my knowledge since playing "Cyrano de Bergerac"--deliver a long, impressive speech. I don't know how much of the speech was actually taken from the Court hearing and how much was written by the excellent screenwriters, but there are few things as satisfying as an actor who not only gives a great performance, but also delivers a long speech beautifully. The thrill of hearing Ferrer's rich, beautiful voice argue a case before the Supreme Court is enough reason for me to tune in to this film every time it is shown on TV.
There is also a cameo from Fay Wray, as Fonda's longtime landlady, and the other Justices of the Court, all of whom are also excellent, consist of such familiar faces as John Houseman, Sam Jaffe, Dean Jagger, and other familiar character actors from television.
This great production might strike some viewers brought up only on action films as boring--there is no action at all in it; it's like watching a filmed play--but, believe me, there is not a single boring moment in it, if you appreciate well-written characters and dialogue. And this film avoids all of the drippy sentiment that has plagued "Hallmark Hall of Fame" over the last six years or so. If only this anthology series had stayed on the level of "Gideon's Trumpet".