Overlooked Gems: The Paper Chase (1973)
We are back to school and some really smart people are entering the Ivy covered halls of Harvard Law School. That location has been presented on screen several times, most notably today in the film Legally Blonde. One of the best scenes in that film shows Reese Witherspoon’s El being asked to leave because she didn’t know of a first day reading assignment, a screen moment I always assumed was a inspired by the original Harvard Law film movie…The Paper Chase.
I’ve been eagerly waiting for the right time to profile this movie because it is my favorite film. When I put it on just wanting a little background noise, I get sucked in again and again. Which is ironic because when you consider the plot, it isn’t the most exciting concept, the story of the first year at Harvard Law School for an ordinary student. Hart (Timothy Bottoms) plays a Midwesterner who comes to the Ivy Leagues to pursue his legal career around men (and very few women) from more wealthy and established families. But he has a bit of wisdom most haven’t yet discovered: the only way to get through law school is to actually understand and engage in conversations about the law, not just memorize and study. His primary focus is on the hardest professor around, Kingston (John Houseman), who encourages his students to think and engage, often being hard on them as he tries to mold their brains into the kind of people who can be lawyers. But Hart’s life is more complicated when Kingston’s daughter Susan (Lindsay Wagner) suggests his single-minded pursuit for grades will destroy his personal life and their relationship.
Along the way, Hart’s group of “friends” in law school includes members of his study group, Ford (Graham Beckel), Anderson (Edward Herrmann), Bell (Craig Richard Nelson), O’Connor (Robert Lydiard) and Kevin (James Naughton). Kevin, the only law student referred to by his first name, is one of the most tragic figures, a straight A student whose photographic memory does him no good in law school. And it soon becomes obvious watching him struggle why so many first years suffer breakdowns or drop-out – not every brain is hardwired for that kind of thinking.
The fascinating quality to The Paper Chase, and probably the reason I find it so engaging a film, is that is really is about the idea of engaging in the process of education and asks the audience to consider what school really means. Susan tells Hart in a flurry of angry excitement that she has no interest in dating another law student because they only focus on earning little pieces of paper (grades, degrees, pay checks, mortgages) and keeping them organized in their boxed-up lives. But if grades and degrees don’t mean anything, what is the purpose of Hart going to school, studying, and trying to get through law school? Eventually, it becomes the actual learning that matters to him, and his final moments with Kingston show that he’ll probably be one of the success stories because he gets more out of school than a brief moment of relief over a good grade.
I was told by a friend who was an attorney that most law students are shown this film (usually by parents who remember the film’s release) before heading off to their first day. Even if not going to Harvard, the way law school is presented on screen is still remarkably similar to how it is today (although note books and pens have been replaced with laptops). But even if going to your first day of college, the movie still can have an affect on the viewer, because the movie isn’t so much about learning the law, but learning how to think and getting more out of your education than just another piece of paper.
The Paper Chase is available on DVD and Video On Demand services including Itunes, Amazon, and Netflix
A Gallery of Images from The Paper Chase
Watch The Paper Chase Trailer