“Inherit the Rom-Com”
I’m just finishing up teaching a delightful course with my colleague, Bill Freivogel, a lawyer who covered the Supreme Court for many years as a journalist for The St. Louis-Post Dispatch. Our course, entitled “Which Supremes?” studies the Supreme Court and its relationships to film and television. The most interesting discovery I made this semester is First Monday in October, a 1981 film directed by Ronald Neame, a romantic comedy about the appointment of a fictional first female Supreme Court justice. The film is based on a 1978 play written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. On Broadway, Jane Alexander played Ruth, the female justice, a conservative, while Henry Fonda played Dan, a liberal.
Given the track record of Lawrence and Lee, it is surprising that First Monday in October has not garnered any critical or academic attention. Lawrence and Lee wrote the play, Inherit the Wind (1955) and adapted Patrick Dennis’ novel, Auntie Mame (1955) into a stage play in 1956. The screenplay adaptations of both plays were adapted into major Hollywood films, in 1960 (Inherit the Wind) and 1958 (Auntie Mame), respectively.
Inherit the Wind, of course, served as a centerpiece of our course, an exemplar both of debates over the constitutionality of various bans on the teaching of evolution and creationism, and also its response to the chilling anti-intellectual climate fostered by 1950s McCarthyism. Auntie Mame is among the most beloved Hollywood films from the late classical period, as it defends the bohemian lifestyle of Auntie Mame (Rosalind Russell) in a period of otherwise intense social conformity.
Given the complex and elegant construction of First Monday in October, the only good explanation I can think of for its having faded into obscurity involves the historical forces which led to its rushed release. The film was scheduled for a February 1982 release. However, when the newly elected president, Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor to be the first female Supreme Court justice, Paramount moved up the film’s release to August 21, 1981, just two days after the Reagan administration’s formal announcement of O’Connor as the candidate for the spot on the Supreme Court vacated by the retiring Justice Potter Stewart. This allowed the film to still be showing at movie theaters on October 5, 1981, the first Monday in October when O’Connor actually began serving on the Supreme Court.
The wonderful strangeness of First Monday in October is driven by more than a rushed release schedule. Because it was written in the late 1970s, long before the identity of O’Connor as the woman who would be the first female Supreme Court justice, the identity of Ruth Loomis (played in the film by Jill Clayburgh) is completely speculative. Lawrence and Lee made some good guesses: Ruth is from Orange County, CA, and is a conservative; O’Connor was from Arizona, and similarly conservative. However, because of the indeterminate nature of the central character, the weight of history is placed on the shoulders of the male sidekick, Daniel Snow (played in the film by Walter Matthau), a liberal foil to Ruth’s conservatism.
Unlike Ruth, Dan is based on a real historical figure, William O. Douglas, the staunchest defender of the First Amendment ever to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. He wrote the opinion in Griswold v. Connecticut (from which Potter Stewart, whom O’Connor replaced, dissented). The 1965 Griswold decision held that the sharing of birth control by Planned Parenthood to married women was speech protected by the Constitution, thus destroying the patriarchal vice that the Comstock Act had held the country in for almost a century.
Since the notion of privacy is not literally stated in the Constitution, in his Griswold decision, Douglas suggested that such a right existed in the penumbras and emanations, the vague shadows around various Bill of Rights amendments, such as the First and the Fourteenth. In subsequent years, the conservative literalist interpreters of the Constitution, such as Antonin Scalia, would hold Douglas’ opinion up to considerable ridicule. However, Griswold transformed the nation, leading most spectacularly to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, won on the basis of a woman’s right to medical privacy.
The force of Dan’s status as impeccably correct in his liberal stance drives the construction of First Monday in October. As the film begins, we see him hiking in the mountains, soaking in the beauty of nature. Douglas was the Supreme Court justice most responsible for bringing environmentalism into the center of American political life. His glowing endorsement on the back cover of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the foundational text of the modern American environmental movement, was crucial in the early popularization of the book. In one of his decisions, Douglas uttered the phrase, “trees have standing,” a wonderful counterweight to the insanity of the recent Citizens United decision.
Douglas-cum-Dan’s liberalism is so strong in First Monday in October, it infects the character of Ruth herself. Early in the film, as she is testifying before Congress at her confirmation hearings, she delivers a stirring defense of feminism. In addition to being correct, this is of course also Hollywood liberalism run amuck. As Professor Freivogel pointed out in our class discussion of this scene, no nominee would ever engage in such an extensive political diatribe during the hearings, instead sticking to the facts of her professional experience. Instead, in the film, Ruth celebrates the fact that she has decided not to have children, instead seeing her legal decisions as her progeny. Her speech, celebrated with cheering by the women behind her at the hearings, emanates from the traditions of literary liberalism, not conservative jurisprudence.
The greatness of the film, though, for whatever its shortcomings, is that it foregrounds ways of collapsing two discursive fields into one tension-filled sequence. That best came to the fore in our class when I showed the scene in which the nine justices are going through the first Monday in October ritual, preparing in chambers to walk into the Supreme Court and take their seats. I paused the film at the moment Dan and Ruth are about to leave their chambers. Just as it appears Dan is going to let Ruth go ahead of him, he steps in front of her. I saw this as a romantic comedy moment, when Dan’s Act II disdain for Ruth (“boy loses girl”) overcomes his liberal chivalry at letting a woman precede him out of politeness. Professor Freivogel suggested that instead, this was a matter of Supreme Court protocol, that the last justice appointed should be the last to enter the chambers. This is the reason I wanted to teach the course in the first place, to collide two disciplines—film and legal studies—and reveal that knowledge is forged out of the interdisciplinary stretch of ideas, not their reduction via disciplinary blinders.
First Monday in October is a bizarre entry in the history of Hollywood film. Its status as a romantic comedy strains its conceit of representing the Supreme Court. Late in the film, as Dan rushes to Ruth’s apartment to deliver crucial information about a case he is working on, one that relates to the illegal dealings of her late husband, we see the naked Jill Clayburgh get out of the shower. At this moment, the film’s greatest misstep, the demands of the Hollywood film overwhelm the representation of the Supreme Court as a hallowed institution of ideas. However, this weirdness also leads to the film’s fabulous reinvention of the romantic comedy: the “will they or won’t they” sexual tension of the love story is replaced by the liberal vs. conservative battle of ideas between Dan and Ruth.
The colleagues’ arguments over details of law replace the normative language of love and sexuality in the romantic comedy, rendering First Monday in October as both surprisingly delightful and intellectually satisfying. The film serves as a kind of summation of the work of Lawrence and Lee, featuring both the intense representation of the legal system from Inherit the Wind and the whimsical social critique of Auntie Mame. It is time we give First Monday in October its due, as the artistic crescendo of the careers of one of the great writing teams in American literary history.