Friday, October 11, 2019

The People Against O'Hara (1951)

The early Fifties were a good time for Spencer Tracy. The late Forties saw Spencer Tracy in such hits as Adam's Rib (1949) and Father of the Bride (1950). The sequel to Father of the Bride, Father's Little Dividend (1951), also proved to be a hit. Pat and Mike (1952) proved to be a success as well. All of these films are well remembered today. Not so well remembered is the courtroom drama The People Against O'Hara (1951). While the film made a profit, today it not nearly as well remembered as Father of the Bride, Adam's Rib, or Pat and Mike. In some ways, this is a shame, as it features one of Spencer Tracy's best performances.

The People Against O'Hara centres on James Curtayne (played by Spencer Tracy), a retired lawyer. He comes out of retirement to defend a boy from his neighbourhood, Johnny O'Hara (James Arness), against a charge of murder. 

The People Against O'Hara was based on the novel of the same name by Eleazar Lipsky. MGM had purchased the film rights for $40,000, although ultimately it wound up costing the studio more money. Gustave B. Garfield, a New York attorney, alleged that Eleazer Lipsy had edited his story "Murder in Jest" and then used it as the basis for The People Against O'Hara. Mr. Garfield then sued both Eleazar Lipsky and MGM. The lawsuit was dropped when MGM bought "Murder in Jest" for $5000.

One of the more remarkable things about The People Against O'Hara is its casting. Spencer Tracy had known Pat O'Brien since childhood and the two were close friends. Despite this, the two had never appeared together in a film. As of the early Fifties, Pat O'Brien was having trouble finding roles. As a favour to his old friend, then, Spencer Tracy insisted that Mr. O'Brien be cast in the film. He played Detective Vincent Ricks, and the role effectively revitalised Pat O'Brien's career. 

Pat O'Brien's role in the film was not the only notable bit of casting. Former child star Diana Lynn appeared in one of her earliest adult roles as James Curtayne's daughter Ginny. A young James Arness, fresh from appearing as the monster in The Thing from Another World (1951) and before he appeared in Them! (1954) and the TV series Gunsmoke, played James Curtayne's young client. It was Charles Bronson's second film. He played one of the Korvac brothers. William Campbell, now best known as Koloth in the classic Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," played another Korvac brother. Richard Anderson, later a regular on Perry Mason and The Six Million Dollar Man, played Ginny's boyfriend Jeff Chapman.

Aside from an interesting cast, it must also be pointed out that much of The People Against O'Hara was shot on location in New York City. The Criminal Courts Building, the Fulton Fish Market, and the Manhattan Bridge all appear in the film. As might be expected, the interiors were shot at MGM's Culver City studios in Los Angeles. 

The People Against O'Hara would be released to mixed reviews. The critic for The Nation said of the film, "An adroit scholarly example of sound storytelling..." Time commented, "..the film is played as though everyone concerned enjoyed making it." At the other end of the spectrum was Bosley Crowther in The New York Times wrote of the film as "...on the whole the picture moves ploddingly." The critic for Variety said  of movie, "A basically good idea for a film melodrama [from a novel by Eleazar Lipsky] is cluttered up with too many unnecessary side twists and turns, and the presentation is uncomfortably overlong."

I have to agree with the critics at both The New York Times and Variety to a degree. The People Against O'Hara does move slow at times and it could have been well served by a shorter running time. That having been said, it benefits from a sterling cast at the top of their game. Spencer Tracy gives a startlingly realistic portrayal of the alcoholic James Curtayne, perhaps drawing upon his own experiences as an alcoholic. Pat O'Brien does well as Detective Ricks, as does Diana Lynn as Ginny. Although his part is brief, William Campbell gives a sterling performance as Pete Korvac. John Sturges' direction is also excellent, making the film better than it might have been in lesser hands. 

Today The People Against O'Hara is not as well known as many of Spencer Tracy's films from the early Fifties. That having been said, given it features what may be his best performance of the era, it is well worth seeking out.


J-Dub said...

Sold. I've not seen this film, but it is now on my queue. Great article!

Caftan Woman said...

While I agree that it does tend to drag in spots (odd for Sturges), with Tracy as its core and that very interesting cast, who could turn away?

Michaela said...

I have to admit I hadn't heard of this film until I saw it was your topic for this blogathon. I'm really intrigued now, though, especially with that cast list! It does seem like a shame that this film isn't better known.

Thanks for bringing this great review to our event!

Tiffany Brannan said...

This is a lovely article! I had never heard of this movie before. I love the way you described it. It sounds like another great performance from Spencer Tracy.

By the way, PEPS is hosting two upcoming blogathons, The Second Annual Claude Rains Blogathon on November 8-10 ( and The Happy Holidays Blogathon on December 6-8 ( We would love for you to join one or both! We think that they will be a lot of fun!

Yours Hopefully,

Tiffany Brannan