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Harvard Law School Looks Back on “The Paper Chase”

posted by Nell Minow

The Paper Chase, the story of a student’s first year at Harvard Law School and his rocky relationship with a demanding teacher, was released in 1973.  The fiercely Socratic law professor was played by John Houseman (at one time producer of Orson Welles’ Federal Theater Project plays) and was so popular he inspired a spin-off television series.

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The movie and series were based on a novel by Harvard Law School graduate John Osborn, and on the 40th anniversary of its publication Osborn returned to the law school for a conversation with Dean Martha Minow, my sister.

According to Osborn, a 1967 Harvard College and 1970 HLS graduate, 40 years ago the Law School had professors with stern classroom styles and zero tolerance for poorly prepared pupils. Based on that experience, Osborn crafted his curmudgeonly composite, one that has proved popular to generations of readers and moviegoers.

Osborn talked about the way he worked with legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis to show the evolving relationship of the initially intimidated student (tellingly named Hart) and the icy professor, who famously told the student to call his mother and tell her he would never become a lawyer.  They showed the relationship

by including close-up shots of the gruff professor throughout the first part of the film. In addition, camera tricks and a movable set heightened the sense of distance between teacher and student. As the film progressed, Hart came increasingly into the foreground of the camera’s lens and was finally “right in the frame with Kingsfield,” on a par literally and figuratively with the stern professor, said Osborn.

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Reflecting on the choice of Houseman to portray the professor in the film, Osborn said the actor was the perfect fit. “He could be that way; it wasn’t a big stretch for him. He was used to being in control.”

But when it came to the TV series, they had to modify the Kingsfield role to entice a weekly audience to keep watching. “You can’t have a guy who is just nasty through and through,” said Osborn. Instead, Houseman, who reprised the role for the series, offered viewers “a watered-down version” of Kingsfield for the small screen.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Osborn himself became a professor, but he assured his audience that in his class, students are not scared to answer.

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