The best television drama these days mostly comes in serialized form, with shows such as Breaking Bad, Masters of Sex and Mad Men vying for top industry honors and critical huzzahs. But there was a time – a stretch of 20 years or so, beginning around 1974 – when weekly series were mostly formulaic and unchallenging and the serious money and ideas went into original TV movies. The “made-fors” addressed historical events and social issues considered too complicated or controversial to be plot fodder for a Marcus Welby, M.D. or a Dallas.
Gideon’s Trumpet, screening Tuesday, November 19, at the University of Georgia as part of the Peabody Decades series, is as good as they got. It won a Peabody Award in 1980.It was also nominated for an Emmy but lost to a remake of The Miracle Worker in a field that also included Amber Waves, also a Peabody winner, and Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones, the movie that launched Powers Boothe’s career. It was a very good year.
David Rintels adapted his script from journalist Anthony Lewis’ 1964 book about a Florida convict, Clarence Earl Gideon, whose handwritten appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court led to the ruling that guaranteed legal counsel to anyone person accused of a crime. Gideon, an itinerant handyman who’d been jailed before, was charged in 1961 with breaking into a Panama City pool hall. Indigent and claiming innocence, Gideon asked the judge to appoint a lawyer for him. The judge declined, citing Florida law that provided counsel only in capital cases. Gideon defended himself and was convicted. He was sentenced to five years at the state prison at Raiford.
Gideon took to visiting the prison library almost as soon as his incarceration began, boning up on the law in preparation for petitioning the Supreme Court for a new trial. He mailed it in 1962. The court agreed to hear the case and appointed attorney Abe Fortas, a justice-to-be, to represent Gideon before them. The court in found in Gideon’s favor, setting a precedent by ordering Florida to give him a new trial.
If this sounds cut and dried, don’t be misled. Executed with restraint and precision, Gideon’s Trumpet is at once compelling drama, a lesson in recent history and a rare glimpse at the machinations of the Supreme Court.
Rintels’ script is direct and economical. Not a scene is wasted. Nary a line rings false. Robert Collins’ straight-forward, documentary-like direction, complete with talking heads, suits the material perfectly.
Rintels made no attempt to explore Gideon’s past or to make him sympathetic. Gideon is what he is: a loner, a stubborn, ornery cuss. His determined effort to obtain justice is rooted firmly in self-interest. But if Rintels didn’t make Gideon terribly likable, let alone heroic, he did, with star Henry Fonda’s help, make him a fascinating, enigmatic character.
Gideon stands with Fonda’s best and most subtle work. The actor himself considered it one of his finest late-career roles, right up there with the celebrated defense attorney Clarence Darrow, whom he played in a one-man show also written by Rintels. Savor especially the scene in which Fortas phones Gideon to tell him he’s getting a new trial only to have the convict, far from overjoyed, try to argue that it would constitute double jeopardy.
Wiry, cranky and a little frail, Fonda dominates Gideon’s Trumpet, but the acting is on a high plane throughout. José Ferrer makes a strong impression as Fortas. John Houseman, who was also executive producer, is convincing as the unnamed Chief Justice. Fay Wray (she did get away from King Kong, you know) does a nice turn as Gideon’s landlady and friend. Near the end, a then-unknown actor named Lane Smith turns up in a wonderful cameo as a shrewd Southern lawyer appointed to represent Gideon at his second trial. He almost steals he movie.
Gideon’s Trumpet can stand alongside Twelve Angry Men, Reginald Rose’s great drama about a jury-room standoff, as an enduring testament to how well our judicial system, for all its flaws, can work. Fonda starred in the 1957 movie version of that classic, and given his history of playing iconic underdogs (The Grapes of Wrath, The Wrong Man), it’s easy to see why he was drawn to Lewis’ chronicle of the resolve and ingenuity of one angry man.
The 7 p.m. screening on November 19 is in the auditorium of the Russell Special Collection Library, 300 Hull Street, Athens (click for map). It’s free and open to the general public as well as University of Georgia students, faculty and staff. The film will be followed by a discussion led by Professor Russell C. Gabriel, Director of Georgia Law’s Criminal Defense Clinic.