The Paper Chase (film)
|The Paper Chase|
|Directed by||James Bridges|
|Produced by||Rodrick Paul
Robert C. Thompson
|Written by||James Bridges|
|Based on||The Paper Chase
by John Jay Osborn, Jr.
|Music by||John Williams|
|Editing by||Walter Thompson|
|Distributed by||20th Century Fox|
|Running time||111 minutes|
|Box office||$3,600,000 (rentals)|
Based on John Jay Osborn, Jr.'s 1970 novel, The Paper Chase, it tells the story of James Hart, a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, and his experiences with Professor Charles Kingsfield (played by Houseman in an Academy Award-winning performance), a brilliant, demanding contract law instructor whom he both idolizes and finds incredibly intimidating. Houseman later reprised his role in a TV series of the same name that lasted four seasons.
James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) starts his first year at Harvard Law School in a very bad way. In his contract law course with his idol, Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), he assumes the first class will be an outline of the course. When Kingsfield immediately delves into the material using the Socratic method and asks him the first question, he is totally unprepared and feels so utterly humiliated that, after class, he throws up in the washroom.
Hart is invited to join a study group with five others:
- Frank Ford (Graham Beckel), the fifth generation of Fords at Harvard Law School
- Kevin Brooks (James Naughton), a married man with a photographic memory, but no analytical skills
- Thomas Anderson (Edward Herrmann)
- Willis Bell (Craig Richard Nelson), an abrasive individual who is devoted to property law
While out getting pizza, he is picked up by an attractive blonde, Susan Fields (Lindsay Wagner). On their second date, they end up in bed. Their relationship is complex; she resents the time he devotes to his studies, while he is unable to get her to make a firm commitment. When Hart and his classmates are invited to a cocktail party hosted by Kingfield, he is stunned to discover that Susan is Kingsfield's married daughter. (She is, however, separated from her husband and eventually gets a divorce.) She and Hart break up and get back together several times.
Hart divides the class into three groups: those who have given up; those who are trying, but fear being called upon in class to respond to Kingsfield's questions; and the "upper echelon". As time goes on, he moves from the second classification to the third.
The mounting pressure, as the course nears its end, gets to everyone. When Hart gives Kingsfield a flippant answer, the professor gives him a dime and tells him to telephone his mother with the news that he is not likely to become a lawyer. Hart calls Kingsfield a "son of a bitch" and starts to walk out; surprisingly, Kingsfield agrees with his assessment and invites him to sit back down, which he does. Brooks makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt, then drops out. The study group is torn apart by personal bickering. With final exams looming, Hart and Ford take a hotel room and prepare feverishly for three days.
The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of the novel, but it adds two revelations not in the book: Hart's first name and middle initial, and the final grade that Hart gets in contract law (James T.; and 93, an A). In both the novel and the film, Hart makes a paper airplane out of the unopened letter containing his grades and sends it sailing into the Atlantic Ocean.
- Timothy Bottoms as James T. Hart
- Lindsay Wagner as Susan Fields
- John Houseman as Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr.
- Graham Beckel as Franklin Ford III
- James Naughton as Kevin Brooks
- Edward Herrmann as Thomas Craig Anderson
- Craig Richard Nelson as Willis Bell
- Bob Lydiard as O'Connor
- Lenny Baker as William Moss, Tutor
- David Clennon as Toombs
- Regina Baff as Asheley Brooks
- Blair Brown as Miss Farranti
Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr.
There are several possible inspirations for the character. Retired Harvard Law professor Clark Byse is said to have been the inspiration for the character's position at Harvard Law School, though not the character's personality.  According to John Houseman, the inspiration for Kingsfield was crusty professor Edward "Bull" Warren, also reflected in the Boston Globe in 2004. Houseman noted that Kingsfield's behavior is actually a toned-down version of Warren's famous classroom rudeness, as enshrined in classroom lore, and recounted several examples of the professor's putdowns.
James Bridges had originally earmarked James Mason for the Kingsfield role, but Mason was unavailable. After failed attempts to cast Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield and other famous actors in the role, Bridges offered it to Houseman, who agreed to fly to Toronto — where the film's interior sequences were to be shot — for a screen test. Bridges called it "fabulous," and Houseman accepted the part, thus launching his acting career. He had seldom acted before but had known Bridges from the time he had been a stage manager in Houseman's UCLA Professional Theater Group. Houseman had then recommended Bridges as a writer for the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for which Bridges wrote eighteen teleplays before establishing himself as a motion picture writer-director.
In modern parlance, law students are quick to compare their most challenging professors to Kingsfield.
The exterior shots of Harvard Yard were filmed on the Harvard campus, and the library shots were filmed in the Harvard Andover library at the Harvard Divinity School; all interiors were shot on stages in Toronto; in a 1999 interview, Gordon Willis said production designer George Jenkins "reproduced the Harvard Law School in The Paper Chase beautifully." The hotel scene was filmed at the Windsor Arms Hotel.
Willis shot The Paper Chase in anamorphic format due to the "schoolroom and the graphics in the film"; he also commented on the cinematography, noting that the composition of the scenes with Houseman and Bottoms "related to who had command of the situation. We used huge close-ups of John, and demeaning shots of Timothy. Then as the movie goes along and Timothy begins to get on top of it, you'll notice the shot sizes begin to diminish on John and begin to get a little bit bigger on Timothy—until finally they are equal partners shooting back and forth.
Vincent Canby wrote the film "goes slowly soft like a waxwork on a hot day, losing the shape and substance that at the beginning have rightfully engaged our attention"; he concludes "it takes a long while for The Paper Chase to disintegrate, and there are some funny, intelligent sequences along the way, but by the end it has melted into a blob of clichés." Jay Cocks called it a movie of "some incidental pleasures and insights and a great deal of silliness":
- "What [writer/director] Bridges catches best is the peculiar tension of the classroom, the cool terror that can be instilled by an academic skilled in psychological warfare. His Ivy League Olympian is Kingsfield, a professor of contract law who passes along scholarship with finely tempered disdain. In an original bit of casting, Kingsfield is played by veteran theater and film producer John Houseman. It is a forbidding, superb performance, catching not only the coldness of such a man but the patrician crustiness that conceals deep and raging contempt."
Houseman was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the 46th Academy Awards and the same award from the National Board of Review. Bridges was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, losing to William Peter Blatty, who won for adapting his novel into the screenplay for The Exorcist. Donald O. Mitchell and Larry Jost received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound. In spite of Houseman's awards, the University of Chicago Law School calls his rendition of the Socratic method "over-the-top", telling prospective students:
- "John Houseman may have won an Oscar for his impressive performance, but if anyone ever did teach a law school class like his Professor Kingsfield, no one at Chicago does today. Instead, our students discover quickly that the Socratic Method is a tool and a good one that is used to engage a large group of students in a discussion, while using probing questions to get at the heart of the subject matter. The Socratic Method is not used at Chicago to intimidate, nor to "break down" new law students, but instead for the very reason Socrates developed it: to develop critical thinking skills in students and enable them to approach the law as intellectuals."
Over three decades later, the American Film Institute included the film in its AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers list.
"Mister Hart, here is a dime. Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer." - Kingsfield
- Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p232. Please note figures are rentals accruing to distributors and not total gross.
- TV Guide, August 9, 1986
- Houseman, John, Unfinished Business: Memoirs 1902-1988, New York, Applause Theatre Books, 1989, p. 459-460.
- LoBrutto, Vincent (1999). Principal Photography: Interviews with Feature Film Cinematographers. ABC-CLIO. p. 248. ISBN 0-275-94955-9. Retrieved 2011-09-02.
- Fleischer, David (July 27, 2011). "Reel Toronto: Quality Cinema Grab-Bag". Torontoist. Retrieved 2011-09-02. "Toronto locations are next to impossible to spot, but there’s one scene where a couple of the law students lock themselves in a hotel room to cram for finals. It was shot at the Windsor Arms..."
- Canby, Vincent (October 17, 1973). "Paper Chase: Adaptation of Osborn Novel Is at Columbia I". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-01.
- Cocks, Jay (October 29, 1973). "Hells of Ivy". Time. Retrieved 2011-09-01.
- "The 46th Academy Awards (1974) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-02.
- "Prospective Students : Studying Law at Chicago : The Socratic Method". University of Chicago Law School. October 17, 1973. Retrieved 2011-09-02.
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