Watching 1939: On Trial (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  On Trial (1939)

Release date: 
April 4, 1939

Margaret Lindsay, John Litel, Edward Norris, Janet Chapman, James Stephenson, Larry Williams, Nedda Harrigan, John Ridgely (uncredited)

Warner Bros.

Terry O. Morse

Robert Strickland (Litel) is on trial for killing Gerald Trask (Stephenson), who was his best friend. Stickland’s attorney is young and inexperienced Arbuckle (Norris), who took the case to further his career. The film follows the testimonies of Trask’s wife (Harrigan), Trask’s assistant (Williams), Strickland’s six-year-old daughter (Chapman), and Strickland’s wife (Lindsay).

1939 Notes:
• A film editor for many years, Terry O. Morse first started directing films in 1939. He was billed as Terry Morse.
• One of four films Nedda Harrigan acted in that was released in 1939. Her film career ended in 1940.
• Child actress Janet Chapman’s only film of 1939.
• Margaret Lindsay was in four films released in 1939.
• John Litel was in 13 films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• One of three film versions of this film. The others were released in 1917 and 1928, all with the same title.
• Based on a 1914 Broadway play by Elmer Rice. The play opened on Aug. 19, 1914, and ran for 365 performances.
• Working title was “The Strickland Case.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Before there was Perry Mason with his plot twisting finale, films and Broadway shows had used this trick quite frequently.

So going into the courtroom drama “On Trial” (1939), you know that not all is what it seems when it comes to this third film version of Elmer Rice’s play.

Robert Strickland, played by John Litel, is on trial for killing his friend and business colleague, Gerald Trask. As each person testifies, there is a flashback to the memory of the night Trask was killed.

One bizarre testimony comes from Stickland’s six-year-old daughter, Doris, played by Janet Chapman. Chapman is a cute little girl, but her lines were written by someone who doesn’t know how children talk. Her memory was surprisingly detailed such as “We lived in Cleveland” and “I believe it was 8 o’clock.” My favorite line was, “I don’t want to say anything more, my head hurts and I’m afraid!” All of her lines were very adult.

While “On Trial” is only one hour long, the plot’s twists and turns made the story a bit convoluted. I wasn’t sure if my confusion was just me or the plot.

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: On Trial (1939)

  1. The play ran from Aug. 1939 to July 1915. — backwards, no doubt.
    I am impressed with your 1939 project. Where do you even find these films?


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