Common Law (1931)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Melodrama  |   Run Time - 72 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Common Clay is an unexpectedly forward-looking social drama, based on a play by Cleves Kinkead. It intersects with notions of modern feminism, and also manages to criticize the entrenched class system in America, which, as depicted here, holds almost all the cards in legal and economic terms -- and it does so through a refreshingly modern female lead portrayed by Constance Bennett. One only wishes that it could have been made slightly later, so that the cinematic techniques in use would have been a little less clunky, and that director Victor Fleming and screenwriter Jules Furthman had done some judicious pruning of a few lines that telegraph too much of what is to come in the denouement. The script problems only make the movie a little less dramatically effective than it would otherwise have been, but the primitive technical state of the production does mar some otherwise fascinating and well-played segments. There are some lively, energetic performances here, by Bennett and Lew Ayres, Beryl Mercer, Matty Kemp (playing a memorable creep), and Tully Marshall, but a little too much else in the way of performances has that stilted look that often afflicts early talkies, as though some of the actors are a beat off or too slow, treating the camera and the audience to come as needing time to absorb lines and their meanings. And some of this isn't so bad; the work of Hale Hamilton as an attorney who discovers an unexpected personal stake in the case he's handling preserves a brand of acting that was highly regarded in the 1920s. Another problem for modern viewers will be the lack of music. Except for a few brief moments when source music is present on the soundtrack, there's no music in the movie, and that is a drawback. Coupled with the reliance on intertitles for changes in scene -- a throwback to the silent era -- this factor makes Common Clay, for all of its modern sensibilities, creak at the edges; it did in 1930, when the "talkies" often seemed to talk endlessly, and it does worse today. Still, there's enough here to interest viewers eight decades later, and when Bennett is center stage, her work is absolutely bracing to watch.