Diversions: When Jimmy Stewart played a Yooper lawyer

I’m on my first post-Covid trip back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I spent some formative years, and I realized that it was fifty years ago this year that I was the projectionist for an annual cinema tradition in Marquette, a small university town on Lake Superior. That featured film was itself another step backward in time.

The on-location shoot of Otto Preminger’s star-packed 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder was one of the biggest national events to ever hit Marquette. In those days before widely available video, many local townspeople looked forward to seeing the film replayed every year, not least because many of their neighbors played extras in the film, and some of the courtroom jury members in the trial at the center of the story were still minor local celebrities for their extensive on-screen time. Parts of Marquette and the neighboring towns that served as film locations were still recognizable as well.

Anatomy of a Murder was based on an earlier novelization of a real-life murder trial, held in the same Marquette courtroom in 1952, that was full of conflicting evidence and moral ambiguities. The novel was written by the real-life defense attorney in the case, who later became a Michigan Supreme Court justice. Of course, it was then the lawyer who became the real star of the book and film, and he was portrayed by Jimmy Stewart, who was then in his acting prime. (Note: real Yoopers — natives of the Upper Peninsula — do not sound like Jimmy Stewart, but then he really only played “Jimmy Stewart” in every film.)

Preminger had assembled an all-star cast. Ben Gazzara, in his first major role, played an Army sergeant who admitted to the maddened revenge (or not?) murder of a bar owner. His coquettish wife, who may or may not have been raped by the murder victim, was played by Lee Remick. A very young George C. Scott, in just his second screen role, played an obnoxious prosecutor “from downstate.” Eve Arden, just off her hit television show “Our Miss Brooks,” was Stewart’s long-suffering but wisecracking paralegal. Veteran actor Arthur O’Connell portrayed an alcoholic sidekick attorney to Stewart. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed the jazz music that accompanied almost every scene outside the courtroom. Appearances in Marquette of Jimmy Stewart and the other celebrities throughout the filming were commonplace.

Anatomy was very controversial for 1959 because of that moral ambiguity. Did the alleged rape, which prompted the murder, really occur? Was the murder justifiable homicide? Would the admitted murderer get off due to some legal technicality or jury nullification? Plus, the script kept bringing up the then-scandalous word “panties,” which play an important part in the plot.

Shot in black-and-white, often at night, several regional locations show up in the film. You can still visit today the historic Henry Ford-built hotel in the tiny community of Big Bay, 30 miles north of Marquette, which plays a part in the film and was close to the original murder scene. Now called the Thunder Bay Inn, I can vouch that it is a pleasant, though very quiet, place to stay or eat. Bring a book to read, say, the novel on which the movie was based, which is even longer than the film. Big Bay, by the way, had been renamed the more sexy “Thunder Bay” in the novel and the film.

The grand main courtroom, under an ornate cupola in Marquette’s historic 1904 courthouse, serves as the main set for the film, which had an original runtime of 161 minutes. Long trial; long movie. Be forewarned, although I think most video releases of the film have been trimmed back.

Marquette Historical Courthous

Marquette Historic Courthouse. Photo by the author.

By coincidence, later in that summer of my 1971 showing, I was inside that still-impressive courtroom as a last-minute “best man” in the shotgun wedding of a co-worker, which was presided over by a local judge. Here is the gist of that invitation conversation: “What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?” [Me: Nuthin’.] “Do you own a suit?”

The gritty industrial Marquette harbor on Lake Superior shown in the film, dominated then by noisy iron ore trains traversing the center of town to a looming freighter dock, was still much the same in 1971 as it was in 1959. But it is a very different place today. While the stripped hulk of the ore dock remains, it is now surrounded by a lovely park and expensive waterfront condominiums. The old railroad line is now a bike path that stretches west 15 miles to the faded mining towns of Ishpeming and Negaunee. Another bike/walking path follows the shoreline for several scenic miles devoid of the old grit. The city and its surrounding forests are now a popular bicycling destination. In the summer, that is. Winter snow depths can total 155 inches or more.

Old Marquette ore dock.

The now-abandoned Marquette ore dock. Photo by the author.

Besides hosting the U.P.’s largest university, Marquette has become, in the intervening 50 years, the healthcare hub for the Upper Peninsula. The old airport near town, from which I began my first commercial airline trip, has since been supplanted by the massive, decommissioned Air Force base twenty miles south. With its “Atlanta-class” 2.5-mile-long runway, the base had as its mission, during Anatomy’s Cold War 1950s, protecting Chicago, four hundred miles due south, from a feared Soviet Russian air invasion or missile attack coming from over the North Pole. That was the Marquette that I remember. I flew into the new airport on this current trip on one of the small three-across regional jets that now serve Marquette, and that long runway through the remote north woods is a bit of Cold War-vintage overkill.

Here is the trailer to Anatomy of a Murder. See if you can find a copy to watch during a post-Covid movie binge.

1 thought on “Diversions: When Jimmy Stewart played a Yooper lawyer

  1. Lisa7

    Interesting article – did not know of this movie’s connection to the UP. Will have to chase it down and watch it. My great-grandfather, a physician, moved from Detroit to the UP to help deal with a smallpox epidemic, and later worked for two mining operations near Marquette.

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