Program Notes: First Monday in October (1981)

It is widely assumed that the film First Monday in October was inspired by Ronald Reagan’s appointment in 1981 of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female member of the United States Supreme Court.

Nope.

As a stage play First Monday preceded the O’Connor appointment by three years, making the dramatists Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee seem prescient.

And in fact the already-completed film was rushed into the theaters in order to capitalize on the big news coming out of Washington.

The comedy/drama debuted on the Broadway stage in 1978 with Jane Alexander starring as a right-leaning judge from Orange County, California, who becomes the first woman on the land’s highest court. Henry Fonda played her ideological nemesis, a crusty old liberal justice clearly inspired by William O. Douglas.

Film Screening:
First Monday in October (1981)
Saturday, June 1 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

On the stage, as in the later movie version, the premise was less about a woman breaking into an all-male bastion than about the philosophical conflicts that exist within the Court and the roles they play in formulating the legal decisions that the rest of us must live with.

First Monday (the title refers to the Court’s first meeting after summer recess, which always takes place on the first Monday in October) was hardly the first Lawrence-and-Lee play to use its setup as a framework for some biting ideological discussions.

In 1955 the pair had a huge hit with Inherit the Wind, (later a film), a drama about the 1925 “Scopes Monkey” trial in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was tried for teaching evolution in defiance of state law.

Wind explored some pretty heavy themes – science versus religion, freedom of expression and belief (not to mention freedom from religion), and the dictatorship of the anti-intellectual majority – what the newspaper columnist H.L. Menken (who covered the actual trial) sneered at as the “booboisee.”

No doubt Lawrence and Lee would be dismayed to learn that in 2013 efforts are still underway to make creationism a part of public education.

Another of their hits was the 1970 drama The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, which addressed the issue of civil disobedience – a very hot topic, given the then-current opposition to the Vietnam War and the non-violent protests that had marked the recent struggle for Civil Rights for black Americans.

First Monday in October – as both play and movie – follows the standard Lawrence and Lee format. If anything, it feels even more didactic than their other efforts.

Jill Clayburgh’s Ruth Loomis and Walter Matthau’s Dan Snow can be expected to assume opposite attitudes on just about any legal issue. Much of the film’s dialogue is devoted to debates – literally – as these two advocate for their viewpoints.


Walter Matthau & Jill Clayburgh
 

Two big issues are before the court in the film version. First there’s a pornography case about movie that has been found obscene by the courts of Nebraska.

Snow posits that one man’s filth is another man’s art and that, anyway, who’s to be the judge of what has redeeming social content and what doesn’t? Embracing an argument still popular today, Loomis maintains that someone has to draw the line before our culture is irreparably sullied.

Of course, in 1980 pornography was still being hotly debated. Today it’s as close as a click of your computer keyboard. Nevertheless, the “culture war” continues.

A second case taken up by the justices in the film still reverberates. It concerns a lawsuit against an oil conglomerate that has systematically bought up alternative energy inventions with the expressed intention of suppressing them.

Eerie...it’s almost as if Lawrence and Lee were anticipating a decision like 2010’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations basically had the same political rights as individuals.

Truth be told, First Monday is rather clumsy drama. It’s always grinding to a stop so that the characters can give mini-speeches.

But the film works largely because of its stars. Matthau is totally watchable as the curmudgeonly Snow (he seems to be doing a dry run for Grumpy Old Men), and he has a terrific time with the character’s rabble-rouser attitude.

Clayburgh at the time was riding a high after several hit films – Silver Streak, Semi-Tough, An Unmarried Woman (for which she got an Oscar nomination for best actress), and Starting Over.

If she appears a bit too young and sexy to be prime Supreme Court material, she’s able to sell her character’s conservative viewpoints and holds her own against the cheerily bombastic Matthau.

Other films in the series “Order in the Court!”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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