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Ladies of the Jury

Ladies of the Jury(1932)

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teaser Ladies of the Jury (1932)

During the 1930s, a handful of matronly actresses enjoyed enough success and recognition on the silver screen to be bona fide stars, including Louise Dresser, Marie Dressler, and Edna May Oliver. Though they most often played character parts, each actress had a strong enough star image to land the occasional leading role. In 1932, Edna May Oliver portrayed the lead in Ladies of the Jury, making the most of her star turn as the protagonist of this courtroom comedy.

Oliver enjoyed her greatest success during the 1930s after a career on stage and in silent films. Born Edna May Nutter in 1883 in Massachusetts, she was proud of her New England heritage and claimed to be a descendent of John Quincy Adams. She appeared on stage for the first time in 1911 in Boston, working her way up to Broadway by 1917 in the play Oh, Boy. In 1923, she began her film career at the Famous Players Paramount studio in Astoria, Long Island, debuting in Wife in Name Only. Working in films in New York allowed her to continue acting on stage, and in 1927, she starred in the original Broadway production of Showboat as Parthy Ann Hawks, alongside Helen Morgan and Jules Bledsoe. Other stage successes included an appearance in the 1925 drama The Cradle Snatchers with Mary Boland, Gene Raymond, and a young Humphrey Bogart.

In 1930, Oliver moved to Hollywood to sign a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. Her stage experience and distinctive voice made her an asset to the talkies, and by year's end, she had appeared in her first film for RKO, Half Shot at Sunrise, a comedy with vaudeville team Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. She went on to costar in several Wheeler and Woolsey movies, establishing herself as a capable comic actress. In addition to these comic vehicles, she won acclaim in such high-profile features as Cimarron, a western that went on to win the Best Picture Academy Award for 1931. Oliver found herself in demand at RKO, appearing in five films that year and four the following year, including Ladies of the Jury.

Later in 1932, Oliver starred in The Penguin Pool Murder as female schoolteacher turned sleuth Hildegarde Withers, based on a character created by Stuart Palmer. The liberated and determined Miss Withers used her brain and intuition to solve local murder mysteries much to the chagrin of police inspector Oscar Piper, played by James Gleason. The role was perfect for Oliver, who liked to play self-reliant female characters with brains and confidence. The popularity of the film led to two more installments and could have launched one of the great detective film series, but Oliver signed with MGM after her RKO contract was up. At MGM, Oliver was cast in handsomely mounted literary adaptations, including David Copperfield (1935), A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and Romeo and Juliet (1936), her only opportunity to play Shakespeare on film. The high point of her film career occurred when she was loaned to 20th Century Fox to costar as the pioneer widow Mrs. McKlennar in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. Oliver played her last role in 1941 as Granny in Lydia (1941); she died the following year of an intestinal illness.

Oliver's training on the stage, her gift for accents and vocal inflections, and her plain appearance made her a natural for adaptations of the classics of American and British literature. Thin and ramrod straight, she exuded an aristocratic bearing and self assurance, which was underscored by her patrician accent. Her role as Aunt Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield provides a perfect example. Oliver had a long face, especially along the jaw line, leading biographers to describe her as "horse-faced." Because of her plain looks, she was often cast as spinsters, maiden aunts, or widows. However, there was a strength to these characters that defied pity. Despite her association with adaptations of literary classics at MGM, Oliver proved adept at comedy, revealing an acidulous wit and excellent timing. Most of her work in comedy occurred at RKO. Her films at MGM may have been more prestigious, but, in retrospect, her roles at RKO were more fun, including Ladies of the Jury.

In this courtroom comedy, Oliver stars as Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane, a society matron selected for jury duty in the trial of Mrs. Yvette Gordon, a French chorus girl accused of killing her wealthy husband. The unorthodox Mrs. Crane is accustomed to following her own path and has difficulties adhering to proper courtroom behavior. She interrupts the judge during jury selection, questions witnesses from the jury box during the trial, and tries to have her maid seated beside her in the jury box. Mrs. Crane decides that Yvette Gordon is innocent, despite damning evidence from the Gordons' maid, Evelyn Snow. During the first ballot of deliberations, all the jurors vote "guilty" except for Mrs. Crane, who sets out to persuade each of them to change their minds by playing on their prejudices, backgrounds, and personal experiences. By the fourth ballot, the vote is ten to two in favor of "not guilty." Through her maid, Mrs. Crane is able to hire a detective to investigate Evelyn Snow's connection to the murder. She requests that the jury be allowed to visit the Gordon mansion and recreate the murder. [Spoiler Alert] At the scene of the crime, the detective's information comes to light, and Mrs. Crane solves the murder, proving that Yvette is innocent.

Oliver's star image as the regal-sounding matron with an aristocratic bearing was perfect for the role of Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane. She exaggerated her patrician accent to make the dignified dowager even more indomitable, so it is completely believable when she wrests control of her interview during jury selection. The judge continually admonishes her to follow the rules of his courtroom, answer the questions she is asked, and to stop talking directly to the defendant, but to no avail. At the end of her interview, she unconsciously picks up the judge's gavel, holding it carelessly as she chatters on. The gesture indicates that she is neither intimidated nor impressed with the authority figures in the room, especially when she notices her faux pas and remarks, "Oh, so sorry. I have your little thing."

Throughout the trial, Mrs. Crane continues to disrupt the proceedings, oblivious to courtroom rules and customs. She disrupts the lawyers' opening remarks, and when the witnesses take the stand, she interrupts the lawyers' questions with remarks and queries of her own. Often her questions are more insightful than those of the lawyers. During deliberations, she cleverly manipulates the other jurors into changing their votes. In effect, Mrs. Crane subverts a sexist justice system, which is about to railroad an innocent woman because her French accent and lowly profession as a chorus girl falsely brand her as a gold digger-every rich man's nightmare. Even the mendacious maid, Evelyn Snow, is a casualty of male dominance, because she was bribed to lie on the stand by the victim's nephew who stands to inherit a fortune. It may be a man's world, but Mrs. Crane's feminine intuition and keen understanding of human nature are there to balance the scales of justice.

Ladies of the Jury was shot in October 1931, only four years after The Jazz Singer (1927) introduced the talking film, and this courtroom drama makes full use of synchronized sound. The storyline is driven entirely by dialogue, and vocal inflections, accents, and verbal humor are used to their best advantage. In addition to Oliver's upper-crust tone, Mrs. Gordon speaks French or English with a French accent, one of the jurors is Irish, another has a heavy New Jersey accent, and one of the witnesses stutters. While modern audiences take sync sound for granted, audiences in 1932 would have noticed and appreciated hearing diverse accents and voices.

The humor is primarily verbal, including double meanings, one-liners based on topical events, and misunderstandings. During the trial, a lawyer asks a witness if he knows the name of the Gordons' maid. He responds, "Yes, Snow," but it sounds like "Yes, no," leading the exasperated lawyer to demand, "Well, which is it?" "Yes, no," the witness yells. Later, when Yvette is explaining her version of what happened to her husband, she is interrupted. When she is asked to resume, the judge sums up the story to that point by reporting, "Mrs. Gordon has just told her husband where to go." Ken Murray, a veteran of blackout skits in vaudeville, costars as wisecracking juror Wayne Dazy. He constantly spews vaudeville-style one-liners and jokes, with Mrs. Crane sometimes acting as straight man. "I hear you were in real estate," she says with a straight face, with Wayne replying, "If the tide stays out till Thursday, I will be worth a million," referring to the many fraudulent real estate scams of the Jazz Age in which innocent customers were sold land under water or in swamps.

In the starring role, Edna May Oliver anchors Ladies of the Jury with a skilled comic performance. Her success in this film helped convince RKO to cast her in The Penguin Pool Murder as Hildegarde Withers, which led to a brief series. These films prove that Oliver, while primarily a character actress, could also carry a film when cast as the lead.

Producer: William LeBaron
Director: Lowell Sherman
Screenplay: Marion Dix with dialogue by Salisbury Field, based on the play by John Frederick Ballard
Cinematography: Jack Mackenzie
Editor: Charles L. Kimball
Art Director and Costume Designer: Max Re
Cast: Mrs. Livingston Baldwin Crane (Edna May Oliver), Mrs. Yvette Gordon (Jill Esmond), Andrew MacKaig (Rosco Ates), Wayne Dazy (Ken Murray), Mayme Mixter (Kitty Kelly), Miss Lily Pratt (Cora Witherspoon), Judge Henry Fish (Robert McWade), Jay J. Presley (Charles Dow Clark), Steve Bromm (Guinn Williams), Evelyn Snow (Helene Millard).

by Susan Doll

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