Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Impeachment of Old Bacon Face—Justice Samuel Chase

Justice Samuel Chase in his Supreme Court Robe.

Samuel Chase was an obstreperous, intemperate loudmouth with a zest for political controversy, mixed with evidently impious personal behavior, and an occasional streak of hand-in-the-till opportunism.  He also had all the impeccable credentials of an honest-to-God Founding Father--pre-Revolutionary Patriot, Delegate to the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and as a George Washington appointee to the Supreme Court.  He also became the first and only sitting Supreme Court Justice to be impeached by the House of Representatives.  His trial before the Senate began on November 30, 1804.
Chase was born the only child of an Anglican Priest near Princess Anne, Maryland on April 17, 1744.  He was educated by his father, the Reverend Thomas Chase, from his well-stocked library.  At age 18 he left home to read law with Annapolis attorney  John Hall.  He was admitted to the Bar in 1761 when he was only 20.  Despite his youth he earned the nick-name Old Bacon Face from the other practitioners in the colonial capital.  No explanation for this unusual moniker can be found—or whether it evidenced fond affection or scorn.  Evidently he inspired both.
In May 1762 Chase married Ann Baldwin with whom he sired three sons and four daughters before Ann died in 1776.  But the very same year of his nuptials Chase was expelled from the prestigious  Forensic Club, an Annapolis debating society, for “extremely irregular and indecent” behavior. 
Whatever the scandal in 1762, it did not prevent Chase from being elected to the Maryland General Assembly in 1764 or from being continuously re-elected for terms lasting the next 20 years. 
As tensions between England and her colonies rose over issues of taxation, Chase became a vocal, and intemperate leader of opposition to loyalist members of the Maryland political establishment.  After he published a scathing letter naming prominent men, they replied in ab article in the Maryland Gazette of June 19, 1766 accusing him of being, “a busy, reckless incendiary, a ringleader of mobs, a foul-mouthed and inflaming son of discord and faction, a common disturber of the public tranquility.”  Chase quickly replied in kind accusing the men of “vanity...pride and arrogance… [brought to power by] proprietary influence, court favour, and the wealth and influence of the tools and favourites who infest this city.”
As Chase railed against the Stamp Act and its loyalist apologists as a member of the legislature in Annapolis, he co-founded Anne Arundel County Sons of Liberty.  He was becoming noted as a firebrand in a relatively conservative colony not generally regarded as a hotbed of simmering rebellion like Massachusetts, neighboring Virginia, or the urban center of Philadelphia.
Quite naturally as a leading Patriot and member of the Legislature, Chase served in the Annapolis Convention from 1774 to 1776.  He was elected by the Convention as a delegate to the First Continental Congress and to the Second in 1776.  He was an enthusiastic signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Chase remained in Congress until 1778 when he was accused of  leading involvement in a notorious attempt to corner the flour market, based on his inside information about supply and purchase plans for the Continental Army, privileged information he gathered as a member of Congress.  He was humiliated and his reputation tarnished.
Through the rest of the Revolution, he practiced law and amassed, as much as was possible in those turbulent times, a pleasant fortune.  By the time the war ended memories of his disgrace had faded while his reputation as a shrewd lawyer had risen.  He was appointed in 1784 by the Maryland government to be its agent in dealing with issues of its ownership of stock in the Bank of England.  It was a thorny issue caught up in issues of debt and reparations for the losses of Tories during the war.  In England, Chase did what he could, but also found time to woo the much younger Hannah Kilty, daughter of Berkshire physician.  The couple married that year and he brought her home to Maryland where she gave him two more daughters.
On his return to Maryland, Chase relocated to Baltimore,  an increasingly busy port and a commercial center that made the inland state capital seem like a rustic backwater.  He built a fine house there for his family in 1786 and two years later became Chief Justice of the District Criminal Court for Baltimore.  Retaining that position, he was also made Chief Justice of the Maryland General Court in 1791.
Prosperity and age had modified Chase’s political position, if not his sharp tongue or partisan fervor.  He had been an ardent Anti-federalist during the debates over the adoption of the Constitution.  But he shifted toward the Federalists, especially after panics about domestic unrest like the Whiskey Rebellion and distrust of the French Revolution, scared the daylights out of the propertied elite, a class of which he was now a privileged and honored member.
By 1796 Chase was such a reliable Federalist stalwart the George Washington, probably on advice from Alexander Hamilton, appointed him an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
Chase became an object of controversy after the ascension of John Adams to the Presidency and the imposition of the Alien and Sedition Acts during a period of rising tensions with France and support for the revolution there from the rising Democratic-Republican Clubs.  It was the first great legal attack on civil liberties in American history, and Chase was an outspoken supporter of the suppression.  In April 1800, Chase presiding  as Circuit Court judge, as was then the practice for Supreme Court Justices, strongly attacked Thomas Cooper who had been indicted under Acts and was on trial before him. He seemed to take on the air of a prosecutor rather than a judge in the case.

Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke was only 31 years old when he led the prosecution of Justice Chase at the urging of his distant kinsman, Thomas Jefferson.
After Jefferson won a landslide victory in what has been called the Revolution of 1800, the outgoing Federalists hastily passed the Judiciary Act of 1801 which created new layers of lower Federal courts which Adams spent his last hours feverishly filling with Federalists guaranteed lifetime appointments.  Jefferson’s Republican supporters in the new Congress worked quickly to repeal the Act and thus terminate the appointment of the notorious midnight judges. 
In May 1803, Chase denounced the repeal in a charge to a Federal grand jury in Baltimore, saying that it would “take away all security for property and personal liberty, and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy.”
The inflammatory and inappropriate statement incensed Jefferson, who was finding himself beset by the Federalist judiciary.  In exasperation, the president penned a note  to his ally Congressman Joseph Hopper Nicholson of Maryland asking, “Ought the seditious and official attack [by Chase] on the principles of our Constitution . . .to go unpunished?”  This quiet whisper was akin to Henry VIII muttering “will no one rid me of this turbulent Priest?” about Thomas à Becket.
Jefferson’s old friend and kinsman Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke got the message loud and clear an initiated action against Chase in the House of Representatives.  The heavily Democratic Republican House, with many new members including those not drawn from the traditional caste of the political elite, wasted no time in passing eight Articles of Impeachment citing the justice’s conduct in presiding at two trials and for, “intemperate and inflammatory … peculiarly indecent and unbecoming … highly unwarrantable … highly indecent” remarks while charging the Baltimore grand jury. 
In the case of John Fries, a Revolutionary War officer and hero who had been a leader among the Germans in the Whiskey Rebellion, Chase presided over his second trial which resulted in a sentence of death by hanging.  Chase had been typically immoderate on the bench and in the view of Republicans skewed the verdict and sentence.  Although Fries was ultimately spared and pardoned by John Adams, the case still stirred emotions. 
Chase was also cited for procedural errors and prejudice in the case of radical journalist James T. Callender who was prosecuted under the Sedition Act, fine $200 and served longer in jail than any other defendant charged under its provisions.
The Senate had also fallen into the hands of the Democratic Republican, but by a narrower margin.  Moreover the Senators, who were elected by the state legislatures, were almost to a man members of the traditional governing classes regardless of party affiliation.  A conviction in the upper chamber was far from a sure thing.
The Senate took up the case at the end of November but promptly recessed until the new year.  Oral presentation of evidence and arguments did not begin until they reconvened  early in 1805.  Vice President Aaron Burr presided, reportedly with ability as a lawyer and with admirable impartiality.  Randolph, a noted trial lawyer, presented the case for the House.  Chase’s  defense team naturally argued that the impeachment was politically motivated.  In testimony he personally argued his actions had adhered to precedent, dutifully restrained advocates from improper statements of law, and were motivated by considerations of judicial efficiency.

The Colombian Sentinel of Boston reported on the Senate vote in Chase's impeachment rial and featured a chart on how every senator voted on every article.

On March 1 the Senate voted—by large margins on most counts—to acquit Chase on all counts.  Even some Republican Senators who detested him voted for acquittal fearing a bad precedent in removing a justice because of the quality of his work, judicial temperament, or lack of good judgment.   In the future no other Supreme Court justice would be impeached.  Lower court judges would rarely be impeached and tried only for committing actual crimes.
The usually politically astute Jefferson had gambled and lost big time.  The result of his attempt to put a leash on Federalist judges ended up strengthening their position.  Chase would remain a thorn in the President’s side and following the lead of Chief Justice John Marshall would thwart some of his ambitions.
Chase stayed on the bench until he died of a heart attack in Washington on June 19, 1811 at the age of 70.
On the other hand, after Chase justices were more temperate and circumscribed in their comments and rulings and even when acting in highly partisan ways learned to justify their action and couch their opinions in the language of lofty disinterest.
From time to time the parties descended from the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans have both yearned to impeach partisan judges from the other side.  Think of the campaign to impeach Earl Warren which was launched by the John Birch Society and embraced by many conservative Republicans. 
On the other hand many current liberal Democrats clamor for the impeachment of Justice Clarence Thomas for conflict of interest in ruling on health care cases while his wife is employed as a high powered lobbyist for the health care industry and of Justice Antonin Scalia for being a jerk, slavishly partisan, and inconsistent in his rulings depending on whose ox has been gored in the case in front of him.  Thomas could conceivably be impeached if it were found that he materially benefited from ruling he made in cases where his wife was involved with a party before him.  It would be tough to do, but it is imaginable.  Scalia is more directly analogous to old Bacon Face and thus can thank his distant predecessor for covering his ass.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Life as a Production Number—Busby Berkley

Busby Berkley at Work.

Busby Berkeley William Enos was born into a theatrical family on November 29, 1895 in Los Angeles.  His mother, Gertrude Berkeley, was an actress in the Tim Frawley Repertory Company and his father the director.  He was named for two other troupe members, ingénue Anne Busby and leading man William Gillette, soon to go on to fame playing Sherlock Holmes in the long running play that he wrote himself.  The two were godparents to the child.
Young Busby made his own theatrical début with his parents at the age of 5.  But like many theatrical children, he was eventually sent to boarding school.   He entered the Mohegan Lake Military Academy near Peekskill, New York at the age of 12 and graduated in 1914.  After three years of working for a Massachusetts shoe company, performing in local amateur theatricals, leading a dance band, and playing semi-professional baseball, he enlisted in the Army for World War I.
Berkley was commissioned a second lieutenant of Field Artillery.  He showed himself to be particularly adept at leading the troops through the intricacies of field drill.  He later credited that experience for inspiring his work as a stage choreographer moving his dancers in complex patterns across the stage.  After Armistice he was also charged with camp moral and produced entertainments and shows for the troops.
After the War, he went to New York to enter the family business.  Now using his mother’s maiden name, he drifted almost accidently from acting in small parts to staging dance numbers for shows.  Not a dancer himself—a fact that he kept secret from his performers—he developed a style less dependent on fancy footwork than on mass movement on the stage in geometric patterns framed by elaborate sets and flashy costumes. 
He quickly caught the eye of master producer Florenz Zeigfeld who put him in charge of production numbers for his hit A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Zeigfeld’s biggest star, Eddie Cantor, was so impressed with his work on Whoopee! that he asked him to accompany him to Hollywood to create the dance numbers for the film version of the show produced by Samuel Goldwyn.  At first he was limited to creating the choreography, but the film director still had control of camera shots and lighting and the editor of assembling the footage.  Berkley convinced Goldwyn to give him total control over all aspects of the production numbers.
That first film introduced many of Berkley’s signature devices including the parade of faces, close-ups of the faces of the lovely Goldwyn Girl dancers.  He continued to work on Cantor’s enormously popular musical comedies.  He took the overhead shot featuring dancers making kaleidoscopic patterns first used in MGM’s Dancing Lady, and made it bigger and more elaborate.  It became the signature of his epic production numbers.
After a string of hits for Goldwin, Warner Bros. snatch Berkley up in 1933 for their extravaganza 42nd Street staring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.  Two of Berkley’s production numbers, Shuffle off to Buffalo and the closing title number, were dazzling and secured his reputation as the top in his field.

The stunning Forgotten Man sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933 took an unflinching look at the reality of the Great Depression and was inspired by the Bonus March of veterans on Washington.  The perfect bookend to the extravagant opening number with chorus girls as dancing coins.

His next film, Gold Diggers of 1933, re-uniting many of the cast members of 42nd Street, was even bigger and established its own franchise.  Tailored to Depression audiences, the film opens with the fabulously glitzy We’re in the Money sung by Ginger Rodgers and an epic, much more serious piece about World War I vets, obviously inspired by the Bonus March, The Forgotten Man.
Through most of the ‘30’s Berkley had his hand in a string of Warner Bros. hits including, Footlight Parade, Fashions of 1934, Dames, Gold Diggers of 1935, and Gold Diggers of 1937In between he enlivened many Warner’s musical programmers and occasionally got a chance at directing a whole film, beginning with the 1933 drama She Had to Say Yes.
When the big production numbers that had been a welcome escape for Depression audiences began to go out of fashion, Berkley was even given the opportunity to direct one of the gritty crime dramas for which the studio was famous—They Made Me a Criminal staring John Garfield.  He repeatedly, however, clashed with the rising star on the set and soon found himself without a studio home.
But not for long MGM snatched him up to helm a popular musical with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  This come-on-gang-let’s-put-on-a-show musical was on a significantly reduced scale than the extravaganzas Berkley had produced at Warner’s.  Babes in Arms was the first of several films starring Garland including Strike up the Band, with Rooney; Ziegfeld Girl; Babes on Broadway, again with Rooney: For Me and My Gal, Gene Kelly’s debut; and the final Rooney-Garland film Girl Crazy.  Once again, however, Berkley’s dictatorial methods on the stage alienated his star.  Garland, by now a studio box office powerhouse, had him replaced half way through Girl Crazy.

 Technicolor opened up new possibilities for Berkley.  He showed he had lost nothing of his visual imagination in the famous Carmen Miranda number The Girl in the Tuti-fruiti Hat from The Gang's All Here.

Rather than pay him off for the unfinished work on Girl Crazy, MGM loaned him to 20th Century Fox for The Gang’s All Here staring Alice Faye and Benny Goodman.  The film was Berkley’s first in full three-strip Technicolor, which he took full advantage of in the most memorable number, Carmen Miranda’s Lady in the Tutti-frutti Hat.
With their biggest star refusing to work with him, pickings were slim at MGM after that.  Berkley did a couple of down scale musicals with B stars like Joan Leslie.   On another minor musical, he was downgraded again to director of musical numbers for Romance on the High Seas with Jack Carson as an uncharacteristic leading man, Janice Paige, and the film debut of Doris Day.
Old pal Gene Kelly got him the director’s chair for Take Me out to the Ball Game in 1948, but Kelly choreographed and produced his own dance numbers.  It was Berkley’s last job as a director.  But it did connect him with rising MGM star Esther Williams.
It was back to strictly doing choreography in musicals for Jane Powel, Betty Gable and Dan Daily, and Tony Martin.  All pleasant but unmemorable.  Then MGM teamed Berkley with Williams for the spectacular water ballet sequences in a string of Esther Williams hits.  He re-created the lavish production numbers, including the over-head shots and gigantic stages of his early Warner musicals in dazzling Technicolor and in the water.  With Williams he also had a star who did not mind his demands and perfectionism.  Williams credits the water skiing number from Million Dollar Mermaid, mostly done in one continuous shot, as her favorite.
When Williams decided to retire to become a businesswoman and wife, Berkley’s usefulness to the studio was nearly over.  They let him stage dance numbers for a weak re-make of Rosemarie with Howard Keel and Ann Blythe.  Then they cut him loose.
He drifted, directing some episodic television, but was mostly idle.  In 1962 MGM did bring him back, partly at the insistence of star Doris Day, to stage musical numbers for the lavish production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo.  Despite much hype, the film was a critical and financial failure.  It was Berkley’s last movie.
The release of the nostalgic MGM compilation That’s Entertainment revived interest in old musicals in general and Berkley in particular.  So did the rise in availability of classic films on VHS tapes and classic movie TV channels.  Berkley found himself in demand as a speaker and lecturer at college campuses.  He was even commissioned to do a cold remedy commercial in his old style.
At the age of 75 Berkley came out of virtual retirement to direct a stage adaptation of the 1920’s musical No, No, Nannette which also featured his old Warner Bros. star Ruby Keeler.
Berkley’s personal life was deeply troubled.  He drank, had a notorious temper, and philandered openly, often with his personal pool of chorines.  He was married six times.  A nasty alienation of affections law suit involving comedienne Carol Landis made headlines in 1938.  Even worse, so did three jury trials for killing three people in an automobile accident after an evening of partying and drinking.  Despite hitting a car head-on in the wrong lane, there were two hung juries before a final panel produced a not-guilty finding in 1935. 
Berkley died of natural causes at the age of 80 in Palm Springs in 1976.  He was survived by his last wife, Etta Dunn.