The Paper Chase (film)

The Paper Chase

Theatrical poster.
Directed by James Bridges
Produced by Rodrick Paul
Robert C. Thompson
Written by James Bridges
Based on The Paper Chase
1971 novel
by John Jay Osborn, Jr.
Starring Timothy Bottoms
Lindsay Wagner
John Houseman
Music by John Williams
Cinematography Gordon Willis
Edited by Walter Thompson
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release dates
  • October 16, 1973 (1973-10-16)
Running time
111 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $3.6 million (rentals)[1]

The Paper Chase is a 1973 film starring Timothy Bottoms, Lindsay Wagner, and John Houseman, directed by James Bridges.

Based on John Jay Osborn, Jr.'s 1971 novel, The Paper Chase, it tells the story of James Hart, a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, his experiences with Professor Charles Kingsfield (played by Houseman in an Academy Award-winning performance), a brilliant, demanding contract law instructor, and Hart's relationship with Kingsfield's daughter. Houseman later reprised his role in a TV series of the same name that lasted four seasons.


James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) starts his first year at Harvard Law School in a very bad way. In his contract law course with Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), he assumes the first class will be an outline of the course. When Kingsfield immediately delves into the material using the Socratic method and asks Hart the first question, Hart is totally unprepared and feels so utterly humiliated that, after class, he throws up in the bathroom.

Hart is invited to join a study group with five other students:

While out getting pizza, Hart is asked by a woman, Susan Fields (Lindsay Wagner), to walk her home, due to her feeling uncomfortable with a man who had been following her. Hart returns to her house soon after and watches her from the sidewalk before knocking on the door and asking her on a date, after which they begin a relationship. Their relationship is complex; she resents the time he devotes to his studies, while he expects her to provide him with a great deal of attention and wants their relationship to have a firm commitment. When Hart and his classmates are invited to a cocktail party hosted by Kingsfield, he is stunned to discover that Susan is Kingsfield's married daughter. (She is, however, separated from her husband and eventually gets a divorce.) She and Hart break up and get back together several times.

Hart divides the class into three groups: those who have given up; those who are trying, but fear being called upon in class to respond to Kingsfield's questions; and the "upper echelon". As time goes on, he moves from the second classification to the third.

The mounting pressure, as the course nears its end, gets to everyone. When Hart gives Kingsfield a flippant answer, the professor gives him a dime and tells him to "call your mother and tell her there are serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer." Hart calls Kingsfield a "son of a bitch" and starts to walk out. Surprisingly, Kingsfield agrees with his assessment and invites him to sit back down, which he does. Brooks makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt and then drops out of school. The study group is torn apart by personal bickering. With final exams looming, Hart and Ford stay in a hotel room and prepare feverishly for three days.

The film is a faithful adaptation of the novel, although it adds two things not in the book: Hart's first name and middle initial (James T.), and his grade in contract law (93, an A). In both the novel and the film, Hart makes a paper airplane out of the unopened letter containing his grades and sends it sailing into the ocean.[2]


Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr.

There are several possible inspirations for the character. Retired Harvard Law professor Clark Byse is said to have been the inspiration for the character's position at Harvard Law School, though not the character's personality. According to John Houseman,[3] the inspiration for Kingsfield was crusty professor Edward "Bull" Warren, also reflected in The Boston Globe in 2004.[4] Houseman noted that Kingsfield's behavior is actually a toned-down version of Warren's famous classroom rudeness, as enshrined in classroom lore, and recounted several examples of the professor's putdowns.

James Bridges had originally earmarked James Mason for the Kingsfield role, but he was unavailable. After failed attempts to cast Melvyn Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, and other famous actors in the role, Bridges offered it to Houseman, who agreed to fly to Toronto (where the film's interior sequences were to be shot) for a screen test. Bridges called it "fabulous", and Houseman accepted the part, thus launching his acting career. He had seldom acted before, but had known Bridges from the time he had been a stage manager in Houseman's UCLA Professional Theater Group. Houseman had then recommended Bridges as a writer for the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for which Bridges wrote eighteen teleplays before establishing himself as a motion picture writer-director.[5]


The exterior shots of Harvard Law School buildings were filmed on the Harvard Law School campus, and the library shots were filmed in the Harvard Andover library at the Harvard Divinity School. All interiors were shot on stages in Toronto. In a 1999 interview, Gordon Willis said production designer George Jenkins "reproduced the Harvard Law School in The Paper Chase beautifully."[6] The hotel scene was filmed at the Windsor Arms Hotel.[7] The scene of Hart and Ford entering a building to take their final exam near the film's end was shot in front of the Law School's iconic oldest building, Austin Hall. Most of the extras for the Harvard Law School venue scenes were then current Harvard Law students paid a $25 per diem by 20th Century Fox.

Willis shot The Paper Chase in anamorphic format due to the "schoolroom and the graphics in the film".[6] He also commented on the cinematography, noting that the composition of the scenes with Houseman and Bottoms "related to who had command of the situation. We used huge close-ups of John, and demeaning shots of Timothy. Then as the movie goes along and Timothy begins to get on top of it, you'll notice the shot sizes begin to diminish on John and begin to get a little bit bigger on Timothyuntil finally they are equal partners shooting back and forth."


Vincent Canby wrote the film "goes slowly soft like a waxwork on a hot day, losing the shape and substance that at the beginning have rightfully engaged our attention"; he concludes "it takes a long while for The Paper Chase to disintegrate, and there are some funny, intelligent sequences along the way, but by the end it has melted into a blob of clichés."[8] Jay Cocks called it a movie of "some incidental pleasures and insights and a great deal of silliness":[9]

What [writer/director] Bridges catches best is the peculiar tension of the classroom, the cool terror that can be instilled by an academic skilled in psychological warfare. His Ivy League Olympian is Kingsfield, a professor of contract law who passes along scholarship with finely tempered disdain. In an original bit of casting, Kingsfield is played by veteran theater and film producer John Houseman. It is a forbidding, superb performance, catching not only the coldness of such a man but the patrician crustiness that conceals deep and raging contempt.

Houseman was awarded Best Supporting Actor at the 46th Academy Awards and the same award from the National Board of Review. Bridges was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, losing to William Peter Blatty, who won for adapting his novel into the screenplay for The Exorcist. Donald O. Mitchell and Larry Jost received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound.[10] In spite of Houseman's awards, the University of Chicago Law School calls his rendition of the Socratic method "over-the-top", telling prospective students:[11]

John Houseman may have won an Oscar for his impressive performance, but if anyone ever did teach a law school class like his Professor Kingsfield, no one at Chicago does today. Instead, our students discover quickly that the Socratic Method is a tool and a good one that is used to engage a large group of students in a discussion, while using probing questions to get at the heart of the subject matter. The Socratic Method is not used at Chicago to intimidate, nor to "break down" new law students, but instead for the very reason Socrates developed it: to develop critical thinking skills in students and enable them to approach the law as intellectuals.

However, others disagree. Another reviewer noted a contrary view:

This is really the only serious flick about law school life. It’s brooding and intense, perfectly capturing the dynamic between law professor and student. The movie is worth watching just for actor John Houseman’s academy award winning performance as Professor Kingsfield. Every school still has a professor that knows how to absolutely terrify the 1Ls — for us at UChicago, that was Richard “The Hammer” Helmholz. The Paper Chase’s Professor Kingsfield is like a distillation every one of these scary Arch-villain type professors.[12]

Over three decades later, the American Film Institute included the film on its 100 Years...100 Cheers list.

See also


  1. Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1. p232. Please note figures are rentals accruing to distributors and not total gross.
  2. Walsh, Colleen (October 2, 2012). "The Paper Chase at 40: Law School audience reflects on iconic film about earning degree". Harvard Gazette. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
  3. TV Guide, August 9, 1986
  4. "He's still crimson after all these years".
  5. Houseman, John, Unfinished Business: Memoirs 1902-1988, New York, Applause Theatre Books, 1989, p. 459-460.
  6. 1 2 LoBrutto, Vincent (1999). Principal Photography: Interviews with Feature Film Cinematographers. ABC-CLIO. p. 248. ISBN 0-275-94955-9. Retrieved 2011-09-02.
  7. Fleischer, David (July 27, 2011). "Reel Toronto: Quality Cinema Grab-Bag". Torontoist. Retrieved 2011-09-02. Toronto locations are next to impossible to spot, but there's one scene where a couple of the law students lock themselves in a hotel room to cram for finals. It was shot at the Windsor Arms...
  8. Canby, Vincent (October 17, 1973). "Paper Chase: Adaptation of Osborn Novel Is at Columbia I". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-09-01.
  9. Cocks, Jay (October 29, 1973). "Hells of Ivy". Time. Retrieved 2011-09-01.
  10. "The 46th Academy Awards (1974) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-02.
  11. "Prospective Students : Studying Law at Chicago : The Socratic Method". University of Chicago Law School. October 17, 1973. Retrieved 2011-09-02.

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