Movie Reviews

DVD Review: “The Paper Chase (Season One)”

(Shout! Factory. 1978-79. 6 discs. 1,080 minutes. 22 episodes. Various directors.) John Houseman, James Stephens, Tom Fitzsimmons, Robert Ginty, James Keane, Francine Tacker. Theme song ("The First Years") by Gimbel and Fox.

“You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you’ll leave thinking like a lawyer.” So intones Professor Charles Kingsfield (Houseman) directly to the camera at the beginning of each episode of The Paper Chase. This intelligent, entertaining TV series lasted one season on CBS (too smart for commercial TV, I’d wager) and after reruns on PBS was picked up by then then-fledgling Showtime cable channel for three more, seeing the students through graduation. The earnest, hardworking scholarship student James Hart (Stephens) is technically the center of the series, but tough-as-nails Kingsfield, his Contracts professor at law school, dominates every scene he’s in. Houseman’s the only holdover from the 1973 movie (with Timothy Bottoms as Hart) which inspired this series. He won the Golden Globe and the Academy Award, and after a lifetime in the theater, Houseman found himself a new career in the movies at age 71! (A young Houseman is portrayed by Eddie Marsan in the current feature Me and Orson Welles.)

The series takes a look at the trials and tribulations of first-year law students, centering on Hart’s study group. Only occasionally slipping into melodrama, most episodes hold up well even today, and then there’s always Kingsfield, compelling-while-frightening in his classroom scenes, but capable of showing his human side as he interacts with the naïve Hart. The movie took place at Harvard Law School; the series only refers to an “Ivy League law school” (reportedly Harvard had had enough of publicity after Love Story, and most of this series was filmed in Toronto). Stephens later became a regular on The Father Dowling Mysteries. I was the same age as these students when the series first ran, so I’m enjoying revisiting that period, although being a graduate student in music was a bit easier than a lawyer-in-training. Try to ignore cheesy end-credits song, sung by Seals and Crofts. Season Two is also available. Class is back in session.

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