The Day Kingsfield Missed Class

Filmed January/February 1985

Question: What is the difference between a catfish and a lawyer?

Answer: One is a bottom-dwelling, garbage-eating scavenger. The other is a fish.

Did you hear about the new Sushi Bar that caters exclusively to lawyers? It’s called Sosumi.

Isn’t it sad to see such a noble profession descend to being the butt of burlesque derision? There was a time not that long ago when lawyers were held in high esteem, when some of our most revered and admired leaders were lawyers:

CLARENCE DARROW
ABRAHAM LINCOLN
GANDHI
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS
ALEXANDER HAMILTON

There was a time when lawyers were the heroic protagonists of some of our most admired and critically acclaimed movies:

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
ANATOMY OF A MURDER
INHERIT THE WIND
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION
THE VERDICT
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG
A FEW GOOD MEN
COMPULSION
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN
THE PARADINE CASE
THE PAPER CHASE

And there was a time when noble lawyers were welcomed into our home weekly on our television screens to entertain us:

PERRY MASON
THE DEFENDERS
MATLOCK
OWEN MARSHALL: COUNSELOR AT LAW
JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE
ARREST AND TRIAL
LAW AND ORDER
SAM BENEDICT
L.A. LAW
and (again)
THE PAPER CHASE

That was John Houseman’s Professor Charles Kingsfield seated in the car driving away, but the (dancing) legs that transported him to the car belonged to Tucker Smith. Tucker had played and danced Ice on Broadway and in the film WEST SIDE STORY, and he was John’s stand-in on THE PAPER CHASE. The legs’ film appearance was due to the fact that John’s 82-year old legs were 11 years older than when they carried him up to the podium in 1974 to accept the Academy Award for Best performance by an actor in a supporting role in the film version of THE PAPER CHASE. His legs no longer moved as sprightly as the character of Professor Kingsfield required.

The reason that law schools have been described as “a place for the accumulation of learning” is that first-year students bring some in, and third-year students take none out—so knowledge accumulates.

But that was not the case with Professor Kingsfield’s students. Or it hadn’t been. What had happened to the Socratic Charles Kingsfield, the tyrannical professor who demanded no less than perfection from his young students, but turned up missing his class a day before he was scheduled to give a mid-term exam?

Executive producer Lynn Roth had written a play that was being performed at a theatre festival in Ireland, so she was out of the country during my prep week. When we viewed the rushes in her office the day following our fourth day of filming at USC, when Mrs. Whitney’s chauffeur driven car appeared, she said, “What’s that?” With a comment like that I was happy she had been out of the country when I made the selection. With the entrance of the car I wanted to establish Mrs. Whitney’s character as old-world elegance. The car was similar to the one Beulah Bondi had owned. It was less ostentatious than the one Gloria Swanson’s Norman Desmond had driven onto the Paramount lot in SUNSET BOULEVARD, but it certainly didn’t look like a Toyota.

Irene Tedrow (Mrs. Whitney) was another in that pool of ‘I know the face but not the name’ character actors. This film was the only time I worked with her, but not for lack of trying. A year and a half later I was affiliated with Theatre 40, a company of professional actors producing plays in Beverly Hills (more about that in a moment). I was scheduled to direct a production of Lillian Hellman’s WATCH ON THE RHINE, and since Irene was a member of the company I wanted her to play the role of Fanny Farrelly. Unfortunately there was a conflict in her schedule, and she was unable to do it.

Larry Poindexter (Carter) had deep theatre roots. His father was H.R. Poindexter, a Tony Award-winning lighting and set designer. Larry was a member of Theatre 40, a group of professional actors performing on the campus of the Beverly Hills High School. I was well aware of that group. My dear friend, Adrienne Marden, had been very involved in the group’s formation years before, and I had attended many productions, especially ones she directed. Larry learned of my desire to direct a theatre production after more than two decades of abstinence and brought me together with the group’s current president. The result: after directing one more THE PAPER CHASE following the current one, I directed their production of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU.

Question: How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: How many can you afford?

It was so cold last week that I saw several attorneys with their hands in their own pockets.

Up until the financial debacle of CLEOPATRA, the main lot of 20th Century Fox was bordered on the north by a vast backlot. In 1961 the backlot was sold and developed into Century City. I had directed for 20th Century Fox in 1964-65 (12 O’CLOCK HIGH), but the films were shot on the old Fox lot at Sunset and Western in Hollywood. In 1965 I directed an episode of the studio’s THE LONG HOT SUMMER, but it was filmed on the MGM lot in Culver City. JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE in 1967 was the first time I filmed on the 20th Century Fox lot on West Pico Boulevard. I remember on entering the studio I made a sharp right turn for a very short distance and then a sharp left turn onto a very long stretch leading to the soundstages. That long stretch changed. In 1969 because of the loss of the old backlot it had been transformed into a magnificent street in Yonkers, New York where the BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY musical number was filmed. I mention all of this because after the parade passed by, the set remained. I had filmed on it several times for episodes of NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, and that was where Kingsfield chose to spend the day he missed class.

THE PAPER CHASE was the first time I worked with Betty Harford, but I had been aware of her it seems like forever. I remember thinking back to the early days, when I was still involved in the off-Vine Street theatre, of hearing and reading about a fantastic young actress, Betty Harford. I never met that young actress, but when I finally got to work with Mrs. Nottingham, she was everything and more of what I had heard.

I don’t know if it works for you, but Socratic debate sure seems to work for me (as long as someone else is doing the debating). Interestingly but I guess not unusual in our modern society, an anti-Socratic debate movement exists. One of its claims is that it is harmful to law school students. I’m not going to get involved in the debate. I just thought it should be mentioned.

Thirty years later I have discovered an editorial goof. In the classroom scene after Professor Kingsfield says, “Any comments?” and as the camera dollies right, listen closely (turn up the volume if necessary). As the camera is moving behind Tom Ford you will hear a voice saying, “Peter.” That is my voice cuing Peter Nelson to raise his hand.

The journey continues

 

 

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2 Responses to The Day Kingsfield Missed Class

  1. Vinnie Vinson says:

    Thanks, again, for more behind-the-scenes tales. I love them. It’s very kind of you to spend the time and effort to make these posts for your many fans.

  2. Lindy Marrington says:

    We are up at the cabin and enjoyed this episode thoroughly. Have never seen this show before. When Mrs. Nottingham opened her present and the music box, MC and I looked at each other and had tears in our eyes. 🙂 Thank you Ralph for another wonderful commentary… we must do a movie night soon.

    Lindy

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