On the Trail of Juano Hernandez

Since becoming a fan of Juano Hernandez through Intruder in the Dust and The Breaking Point, I have my DVR set to record anything he’s listed as appearing in. Which is how I ended up watching an oddball movie directed by Mark Robson and written by Don Mankiewicz called Trial. (No relation to The Trial or Kafka.)

It’s set in a Southern California town. A Mexican kid named Angel Sanchez is on trial for murder. A big-name attorney played by Arthur Kennedy hires a law professor with little trial experience played by Glenn Ford to take on courtroom duties while he (Kennedy) raises money to finance the defense. Ford begins to realize that Kennedy is really a Communist using the case as an excuse to bring in tons of money for the party’s purposes. He also realizes that Kennedy would rather Ford lose the case so that Angel can be a martyr to the cause to be further exploited for fund-raising.

This reminded me of the Scottsboro Boys case and the charge that was frequently leveled at the Communist Party for how that turned out. The NAACP was ready to bring Clarence Darrow in, but the Party made a successful bid to the Boys’ parents that they would be more effective, so the NAACP was sent packing. Of course, they weren’t effective at all and, after being convicted, the Boys spent years in prison for something that they didn’t do. I’m betting that this was an inspiration for the novel that Trial is based on.

Certainly, I enjoyed comparing it to the other stories about white lawyers concerned with cases involving race I’ve seen or read lately – To Kill a Mockingbird (both film and play) and Intruder in the Dust (film and book). In the film of Intruder, Juano Hernandez is the defendant. In Trial, in what was a notable piece of casting for the time, he played the judge. And much is made of him being a black judge. (I read somewhere that he was the first black judge portrayed in a studio feature.) Hernandez gets co-starring billing, but he’s certainly one of the leads. In fact, he’s the last person we see in the film. He is a commanding, articulate figure who doesn’t take any shit. One amusing scene has him in chambers with Glenn Ford’s character, referring to Ford as “boy” a couple of times. I can’t imagine this was unintentional.

Though a Communist is the villain, reference is also made to a state version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the head of that organization is also referred to as a charlatan and a villain. Many of the people involved in the film were very public liberals at the time, so this was evidently meant to be viewed as a statement by anti-Communist liberals: “Just because we’re one the left doesn’t mean we’re red.”

It’s a clumsy movie and some of the plot developments are unpersuasive. (Nobody would be convicted of first degree murder on the evidence presented!) But the racial politics are interesting for the mid-fifties. Also unusual is Dorothy McGuire playing a sympathetic woman who is more sexually experienced and aggressive than women were in the standard studio fare of the time.

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at dgsweet@aol.com.
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