The Paper Chase

Prominent among my most recent television diet has been the show The Paper Chase, a four-season drama that ran from 1978 to 1986 (the show was cancelled after the first season due to low ratings – which is what happens when you schedule it opposite Happy Days: the Fonz brooked no challengers – but revived a few years later on another network for three more). It was based on a 1973 film (which I have not yet seen) based on a novel by John Jay Obsborn about his experiences at Harvard Law School.

The premise of all three is essentially the same; an ambitious law student named James Hart comes to Harvard, where he runs up against the school’s most formidable teacher: Professor Kingsfield, Kingsfield is a crushingly brilliant, unyielding teacher of contract law who uses merciless application of the Socratic method to train his students. “You teach yourselves the law,” he informs them. “But I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.” We follow Hart (who idolizes Kingsfield) as he struggles to survive and grow under Kingsfield’s stern instruction, with the help of a small group of friends with whom he forms a study group.

So far I’ve seen most of the first season (one episode I couldn’t find, a few I skipped) and part of the second. The main appeal of the show, undoubtedly, is Professor Kingsfield himself, played to perfection by the late John Houseman, who reprises his role from the film. Houseman as Kingsfield represents one of those rare marriages of actor and role where the idea of anyone else in the part is simply absurd (similar to Columbo), which is all the more impressive as the film was his first major film performance. He had been a partner to Orson Welles, a stage performer, and had trained many actors in his day (the director actually claimed that Houseman was the Kingsfield of acting), but had never had a real film role. He won a richly-deserved Academy Award for his performance back when that actually meant something.

As I say, Kingsfield is a riveting figure. As conceived in the show, he isn’t just a brilliant teacher, but a legitimate Great Man of the old school. We’re told that he’s contributed significantly to the understanding of American Law, and one episode revolves around him being considered for the Supreme Court. When it’s pointed out that he’s nearly eighty years old, someone comments, “four or five years of Kingsfield on the bench is worth another man’s fifty.” More importantly, Kingsfield is shown to have both an iron will and principles of adamant, to the point where there’s a whole episode of Hart trying to figure out an old case where it looks like he might have made an ethical compromise, because he simply can’t believe the man would do that.

One of my favorite moments thus far has Kingsfield confronting a younger professor who has come to confess that he plagiarized an article for the Law Review. After laying out his excuses, the man nervously concludes with, “we’ve all done these things.”

“No,” Kingsfield answers. “We have not.”

(Earlier Kingsfield rebuked the man for televising one of his classes, saying that the law was not meant to be a show and that, however he disguised it, it was nothing but a tribute to his own ego).

There’s another bit at an old New York hotel where, in a rare moment of openness, Kingsfield talks to Hart about the great statesmen under whose portraits they stand, saying that they represent a now all-but extinct breed of lawyers for whom principle and law were paramount rather than fame and commercial success. No one says it, but we’re left in no doubt that Kingsfield himself is one of that breed.

A ‘great’ man may in this case imply a ‘good’ man, but don’t think for a moment that it implies a ‘nice’ man. Kingsfield is often a downright terrifying figure; a man who tolerates no nonsense and who is perfectly willing to verbally tear his students to shreds if they fail to perform. He rarely raises his voice beyond the firm ‘auditorium’ level he customarily uses, but his biting sarcasm, rhetorical skills, overwhelming genius, and iron focus produces more devastating results than bellowing ever could. A large part of the fun of the series is just watching his razor-sharp tongue go to work. “Speak up, Mister Hart! Fill this room with your intelligence.”

Meanwhile, he maintains an intentional distance from his students, affecting not even to recognize them outside the classroom. There are even (not unbelievable) reports that he’s driven students to madness and suicide over his career (an intriguing and thus-far never explained element in the first season is “the Screamer:” a male voice in the dorms that periodically just starts screaming out of nowhere. It’s rumored to be the ghost of a former student of Kingsfield. I really like those kinds of ‘might be supernatural, might not, and we’re not going to tell you’ elements in otherwise down-to-earth stories).

And yet, the show is at pains to show that Kingsfield is not merely sadistic; there is a method to his malevolence. By enforcing rigorous, unyielding standards and forcing students to perform or suffer he not only prepares them for the experience of the courtroom but forces them to understand the law and its principles instead of simply regurgitating what they’ve read. The final episode of the first season revolves around Kingsfield setting his students a seemingly-impossible assignment whose solution, it turns out, forces them to delve into the very roots of the idea of law.

Moreover, the show at least gives us periodic assurances that, aloofness aside, Kingsfield does indeed care for his students’ well being and, though he won’t cheapen his instructions for their sake, he does want what is best for them and wishes them well.

The plots of the episodes, when they don’t revolve around Kingsfield, tend to be rather standard, though generally well-written and not too boring. There was one episode of the first season, for instance, that featured Hart’s activist female friend becoming enamored with an imprisoned political agitator which did a remarkably good job of depicting both the myopia and hypocrisy of her immature, ‘idealistic’ perspective (without making her unsympathetic) and the workings of a manipulative personality. To be honest, I can’t really picture an equivalent episode on modern show ending with the soulful activist turning out to be a sociopath and the unsmiling prison guards turning out to be in the right. Another one about affirmative action actually made a point of deconstructing the Black student’s anger through some decent storytelling symbolism. Nothing brilliant, but at least the writers clearly gave the matter some thought rather than coming down with a, “this is what you should think about this issue” finality. Likewise an episode about a student in a wheelchair had him using his disability to manipulate his friends, not exactly intentionally, but almost without thinking about it. I also appreciate that there is some moral awareness going on, as when Hart’s friend discovers his father has been acting dishonestly, and though he’s disgusted by it, he can’t bring himself to actually expose him. So, there is thought and nuance that went into the writing of the show, even apart from Kingsfield.

At times the show deviates hard into melodrama, especially with Hart’s many girlfriends, most of whom carry some kind of extra dramatic baggage (e.g. one episode revolves around him dating a mobster’s daughter). Also, the supporting cast makes some odd shifts; losing two major characters between the first and second season is understandable, though having one the study-group (prominently featured in the opening credits) essentially disappear for most the first season, including an episode focusing on a one-shot character in his exact situation, before being dramatically written out entirely all but screams backstage drama. As always, of course, the episodes vary greatly in quality, though as suggested by all I’ve said they’re generally above-average fair.

But Kingsfield is what makes the show, and it’s at its best when the stories revolve around him. Honestly, this is one of the most successful efforts I’ve seen on screen to create a fictional Great Man who legitimately seems like the real deal. The show would be worth watching even if the rest of it were only mediocre just for the sake of observing a master actor bringing such a figure to life.

John Houseman in The Paper Chase (1973)

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