“The Law in Her Hands”
Directed by William Clemens. Cast: Margaret Lindsay, Glenda Farrell, Warren Hull, Lyle Talbot, Dick Purcell, Eddie Acuff, Al Shean, Addison Richards, Joseph Crehan, Matty Fain, Milt Kibbee, Eddie Shubert. Released May 16, 1936. Warner Brothers/First National. 58 minutes.
“The Law in Her Hands” presents Margaret Lindsay as Mary and Glenda Farrell as Dot, two fast-talking, smart cookie, dame stereotypes of the period as lawyers who are sworn in at the outset of the movie and open their own practice.
After they witness an attempt at a shakedown by racketeers attempting to force a restaurant owner to pay for protection, they testify in court at the violent action the racketeer exhibits and get him locked up. Rather than seek revenge, the head racketeer is impressed. He wants to hire the women to work for him, stating “I could throw a lot of things your way.” Despite their struggling in finding cases to try, they refuse to work for a racketeer. Meanwhile, a district attorney has fallen for Mary, and wants ther to quit being an attorney and settle down to be his wife.
Therein lies the conflict. After losing a case, DA steps up his attempts to woo Mary away from her practice. A prosecutor, he even gets confessions from her clients before the case can go to trial. Mary and Dot finally throw in the towel and agree to work for the racketeer. The result is a series of successful defense trials, success for the women, and chagrin from the DA boyfriend. Mary likes the retainer fee she is receiving, and Dot is happy to instruct witnesses how to act on the stand (when to cry, when to speak up) to help win cases. Of course it finally gets to the point where Mary refuses to defend the racketeer when the crimes include murder.
It is interesting to see women presented in leading roles and as characters who are lawyers with their own practice; something that occurred rarely in films from this period. While Glenda Farrell is great in her role, Margaret Lindsay comes off as a bit too refined to be believable as a fast-talking tough type. Still, she holds her own, and is supported by the likes of Warren Hull as the DA and Lyle Talbot as the head racketeer. Eddie Acuff is fun in a running gag as a process server who comes to see Dot wearing any number of bandages from scuffles he endures on the job.
Running just under an hour, “The Law in Her Hands” is typical of the Warner Brothers B unit during the 1930s – a quick pace, a compelling narrative, action, suspense, and great performances. Director William Clemens, helming only his second film, frames each scene nicely, effectively cutting away to close ups to enhance the dramatics (the shot of a court stenographer to break up the camera’s hold on the DA’s opening statement is just the type of seconds-long edit to enhance the rhythm of the narrative). Clemens would go on to directed B movies from The Dead End Kids to the Nancy Drew movies, to films from the Torchy Bland and Philo Vance series. In only his second film, his choice of shots, editing, and pacing are shown to be perfectly effected for a tight, entertaining B drama.