The film “The Paper Chase” is as relevant today as it was over forty years ago when it was first released. It is based on the novel of the same name written by John Jay Osborn, Jr. A movie about struggling law school students may sound like dry material. It is anything but.
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John Houseman - Wikimedia
James T. Hart (Timothy Bottoms) is a first year law student at Harvard University. He managed to incite the ire of his Contract Law professor, Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. (John Houseman) on the first day of school by being unprepared for a question. He was rightly accused by the professor of assuming that the first day of class would be devoted to an overview of the course rather than questions about an assignment that was expected to be completed by that day. Kingsfield explained that his course would use the Socratic method, which involved questions and answers, followed by further questions, as a way of preparing the law student to analyze rather than memorize facts.
Hart is a serious young man who was invited in that first week to join a Study Group consisting of Ford, O’Connor, Bell, Anderson and Brooks. Each of the students would take notes in a particular class and share his notes with the other five students before final exams. Hart chose to share his Contract Law notes with the others.
Balancing Studies and Romance
After picking up a pizza one evening, a girl walked up to him stating that someone was following her. She asked to be escorted home. Her name was Susan Fields (Lindsay Wagner) and the two started a romantic relationship very quickly. Members of his Study Group had differing opinions on trying to balance law school with romance. Hart decided to give it a try nevertheless. A discussion also ensued regarding the fact that grades were of the utmost importance in defining a person’s future career and salary, and should therefore be the law student’s prime concern.
Unfortunately, Hart’s class preparation suffered when he and Susan began to spend an increasing amount of time together. He was humiliated once again in class when he was unable to answer a question pointed directly at him. Hart is bent on making an impression on Kingsfield, not only out of admiration for him, but to acquire the good will of the professor. It appeared that Kingsfield made no attempt to form good relationships with his students.
In familiarizing himself with his fellow classmates, Hart determined that they could be divided into three groups: those who had already given up and were ready to drop out, those who remained silent in class discussions, and the “upper echelon” who participated and answered correctly when called upon. Hart determined that he wanted to move from the second group into the “upper echelon.”
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Langdell Hall, Harvard Law School - Wikimedia
Invitation from Kingsfield
Hart received an invitation, along with all of his fellow law students, to a party given by Professor Kingsfield at his home. He was totally surprised to see Susan at the party and learned that she was actually Kingsfield’s daughter. As he left the party, Susan followed. She asked why he had not called her. He berated her for not sharing that information with him. He assumed that she had given him the false name of Fields. Susan explained that she was married and that her name was actually Fields. Her husband was in Europe and they were getting divorced. Philip was also a law student who had dropped out and was now backpacking around Europe.
The couple resumed their relationship and Hart stayed overnight at Susan’s father’s house. He was intrigued by Kingsfield’s study and examined all the photographs of the professor taken with famous people. Clothed only in his shorts, Hart was startled, as was Susan, when Kingsfield came home early from his trip. He spotted Hart going out the back door, but did not recognize him. Susan brought him his clothing and belongings and drove him home. He wondered the next day in class why Kingsfield ignored his upraised hand, and feared that Susan had spoken to him about their romance. Susan said her father was completely unaware of it.
The Red Set Section
While visiting the library, Hart learned from the librarian that a section of books known as the Red Set contained the class notes of all of the faculty members when they themselves were students at Harvard. Hart asked if he could see Kingsfield’s notes, but the librarian said they could not be seen without authorization. Hart persuaded his Study partner, Ford, to break into the stacks with the Red Set, and Hart reveled in reading Kingsfield’s class notes on Contract law.
A Broken Date
Susan wanted Hart to realize that her father wanted no personal relationship with any of his students, and invited Hart to spend the next weekend with her at her family’s summer home on Cape Cod. Hart accepted eagerly. The next day, after Kingsfield’s class, Hart stayed to stress a point with the professor, and Kingsfield asked him to help him with a research project the next weekend, to be handed in on Monday afternoon. Hart called Susan to cancel their weekend, and she hung up the phone.
Sadly, Hart was not able to complete his project in time, and Kingsfield informed him that a third-year student had taken over the project when Hart did not show up on time with his results.
Tension in the Study Group
At the next Study Group meeting, tension is dividing the group. Bell stated that he had 800 pages of notes, and did not want to share them since he would probably publish them instead. Brooks had not done well in any of his classes and was fearful of failing out, especially since his wife had just learned that she was pregnant. When Hart was at Brooks’ house helping him with the course work, Brooks wife invited Hart and his Study Group to a birthday celebration for her husband the next week. Hart forgot the party and had forgotten to inform the Study Group about it. Upon arriving an hour late at Brooks’ house, his wife informed Hart that her husband was despondent when nobody showed up and tried to kill himself. He withdrew from Law School.
In his Contract Law class, Hart did not answer Kingsfield’s question, and received a humiliating remark from him. Hart answered him with a curse and started to leave the room. Kingsfield called him back, stating “That’s the most intelligent remark I’ve heard all day.” On the elevator, a few days later, when Hart told Kingsfield that he enjoyed his class, the professor asked him what his name was.
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Lindsay Wagner - Wikimedia
Cape Cod Vacation
The final scenes in the film too place in Cape Cod when the semester was over and Hart was waiting to hear about his grades. The viewer already learned about his grade from Kingsfield. In spite of the admonishment to first year students that grades are of prime importance, Hart took the unopened letter containing his grades, made a paper airplane out of it, and sailed it off into the ocean. The viewer is left to wonder whether Hart already sensed that he had passed with flying colors or whether he no longer regarded grades as the prime concern in his life.
I learned what the phrase “Paper Chase” signifies. Each person needs a piece of paper for every event in his life: birth, death, graduation, marriage, divorce, house deed, car purchase, and so much else. Chasing after paper takes much of our time and effort, and saps the enjoyment out of our lives. The film was so much more, however, in the lessons that it told so subtly.
John Houseman received both an Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. It was well deserved.