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NITA Movie Review: A True Original

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

The_Magnificent_Yankee_(1950_film)I was mulling over what movie to use for this month’s review when I heard the startling news about Justice Scalia’s death. Like him or loathe him, Justice Scalia was one of a kind. In addition to being a frequent topic in the blogosphere, he was also the subject of art: an opera (Scalia/Ginsburg) and a play (The Originalist). Those thoughts eventually brought me to the movie for this month’s review: The Magnificent Yankee (MGM, 1950), a sentimental biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the only movie I can think of where a real-life justice of the Supreme Court is the subject.

The Magnificent Yankee stars Louis Calhern as Holmes. This movie was Calhern’s only top-billed starring role, although he was a terrific supporting character actor in some excellent films[1], perhaps most memorably as a crooked lawyer in one of the greatest of films noir, The Asphalt Jungle[2]. Calhern had played Holmes in the Broadway play of The Magnificent Yankee and rumor has it that MGM bought the property for Calhern to star in as a reward for his years as a stellar supporting actor. It was worth it: Calhern was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Holmes. The movie also stars Ann Harding as Holmes’ wife Fanny, and Eduard Franz as Justice Louis Brandeis.

While the movie devotes some time to Holmes’ career on the Court, the cases he decided, his judicial philosophy, and especially his crusty persona, the sentimental subtext of the movie is about how Holmes related to and treated his law clerks. Holmes and his wife had no children, and the movie advances the thought that the law clerks filled that void. Indeed, when this movie was released in England, it was re-titled The Man with 100 Sons.

The real Justice Holmes was one of the towering figures in American Jurisprudence and in the history of the Supreme Court. He was the son of prominent Boston gentry, a graduate of Harvard, a thrice-wounded veteran if the Civil War[3], a former Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and one of the truly original thinkers and writers in American Constitutional Law. Holmes was the great proponent of the doctrine of Legal Realism, best expressed in his famous statement: “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Holmes served on the Court for thirty years and retired at age 90, the oldest Justice ever to serve.

Any lawyer worth his or her license should understand Holes and recognize the part he plays in the history of the law in this country. And one can do much worse than to watch – and enjoy – The Magnificent Yankee when it shows up on TV, usually on Turner Classic Movies. Please find it and have fun watching it!


[1] Including Ambassador Trentino in one of my all-time favorites, Duck Soup, starring the Marx Brothers.

[2] A movie also memorable for an early performance by Marilyn Monroe as the mistress of Calhern’s character

[3] That Civil War service was so significant to Justice Holmes that he listed it above all other accomplishments on his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery. The actual tombstone appears in the movie, when Justice Holmes visits his wife’s grave.

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