Top of page

Celebrating Valentine’s Day: Law, Love, and Life in the Movies

Share this post:

In celebration of Valentine’s Day this past weekend, I have once again polled my blog colleagues for some of their favorite movies involving love and the law. As I noted in our 2014 post on Valentine’s Day, we seem to be somewhat jaundiced on the subject of love so not all the stories are happy ones, but we hope you enjoy our take and let us know what your favorite movies are that involve love and the law.

Winchester Drive-In Theater sign, S. Western Avenue, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. John Margolies, photographer. 1993. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

One of my favorite books is the Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. The novel was made into a 1993 movie by Martin Scorsese. The story is set in New York City in the early 1870s and it depicts a love triangle between the hero, Newland Archer, his fiancée, May Welland, and her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska. The countess, Ellen, had married a dissolute Polish nobleman. Ellen fled, apparently with the help of her husband’s secretary, and eventually returned to her family in America, where she hoped to divorce her husband and start a new life. Divorce was legal in New York at this time but it was not common or socially acceptable among the upper classes of New York City – women were expected to endure unhappy marriages. Newland, who works as a lawyer, advises Ellen against pursuing a divorce because of allegations her husband could supposedly bring against her in court that would be embarrassing not just to her but to her New York family. Subsequently, Newland and Ellen fall in love but cannot marry because Ellen had decided to accept Newland’s advice and not pursue a divorce. Newland marries May, and after some twists and turns, Ellen returns to live in Europe, apart from her husband. The movie, and book, conclude with Newland and his son in Paris going to visit Ellen but although his son goes in to meet Ellen, Newland remains outside remembering the past.

Betty picked a movie she had recently watched by chance starring the handsome Cary Grant, Mr. Luck: (1943). In it, Cary Grant plays against type as a ne’er do well gambler and draft dodger – two crimes for the price of one! He and his pals decide to rip off a war-effort charity by holding a fundraising casino night. Only, of course, they plan to take most of the proceeds for themselves. Standing in his way is Laraine Day playing a society girl who works with the charity. Naturally, she initially distrusts Grant’s character and he, of course, is merely using her. But eventually love finds a way and Grant is redeemed on both fronts by returning the funds to the charity and becoming a merchant marine in the war effort.

Elin says that as a foreign law specialist for the Nordic countries, there may be only one love story movie starring the famous Scandinavian actress Ingrid Bergman that everyone expects her to know: Casablanca. Its status as a true American classic has been recognized by the Library of Congress: it was a national film registry inductee during the program’s inaugural year! The love story is told through flashbacks. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) are lovers in Paris when, without any explanation, Ilsa leaves Rick just as they are about to flee Paris to escape the Nazis. It turns out that Ilsa has left to join her husband Victor Laszlo who was believed to have been killed. Then, Ilsa and Laslo, seemingly inevitably, cross paths with Rick again in a bar in Casablanca. Some call it the greatest love story of all times. But does it raise any legal questions? You better believe it.

The most obvious issue is the legality and transferability of a pair of exit visas that Ilsa and her husband need to leave Casablanca, currently held by Rick. Because law touches everything, there are also issues involving illegal gambling, liquor licenses, gun licenses, and police powers. But leaving aside the legal issues linked to Rick’s bar, Elin looks at the legal issues connected with Ilsa’s choices – to stay with Rick or leave Casablanca with her husband, Victor. Ilsa probably could get a visa to live with Rick in Casablanca, provided he married her. Ilsa and Rick could even return to Ilsa’s native Norway where, today, cohabiting partners can get resident visas without marrying. But in 1940, could Ilsa have gotten a divorce from Victor? It is apparent that she thought him dead when she started her affair with Rick. But absent a death certificate one cannot be declared a widow until seven years have passed under Norwegian law. Even if Ilsa wanted to stay with Rick, she knew the legalities were questionable at best. Until very recently, the Norwegian Ilsa would have had to give up her citizenship regardless of whether she chose to stay and become a citizen of Rick’s Morocco or leave with Victor for America, as Norway did not recognize dual citizenship until last year.

Robert initially offered the War of the Roses but we had to remind him that he had already discussed this in our previous Valentine’s Day post. Instead, this time he recommended The Paper Chase,which follows James Hart during his challenging first year of law school at Harvard. Robert thinks most people watch the Paper Chase to get a sense of what it is like to be a first year law student, watching Hart suffer through the torment of the Socratic method at the hands of black-hearted Professor Charles Kingsfield. In one memorable scene, Hart is so humiliated by Kingsfield that he runs to the bathroom and vomits. This plot often overshadows the romance in the film, when Hart begins dating a woman who is not only later revealed to be Prof. Kingsfield’s daughter, but also married (although she is separated from her husband in anticipation of a divorce).

Geraldine offers a movie with a more lighthearted take on the law school experience with Legally Blonde. It is the story of Elle Woods, a sorority sister and recent graduate from UCLA, who gains admission to Harvard Law School in pursuit of her old college boyfriend. Elle, deemed “too blonde,” proves everyone wrong by succeeding at law school, and in the process, finds love for herself and her true purpose. Her character arc is magnificent and the legal cases she works with, however crazy they may be, shows her clever nature. It’s a good lesson in how legal cases can be won with the most interesting knowledge, in this case; the length of time a perm should go without being washed helps to catch a criminal.

Nathan suggested The Reader, a 2008 film directed by Stephen Daldry, based on a novel of the same name by Bernard Schlinck. It is set in post-war Germany and it follows the story of a young German man, Michael Berg, who falls into an unusual love affair with an older woman named Hannah, in which a regular part of their encounters involved Michael reading books aloud to Hannah. After her sudden disappearance, he is haunted with loss and guilt at the thought he had driven her away. Later, as a law student, he encounters her again facing charges in a criminal trial. There he discovers to his horror that she is harboring a secret that could exonerate her, but because she finds the secret more shameful than the crimes of which she stands accused, she refuses to divulge it. In the end, Michael becomes a legal historian, but his life is marred by emotional numbness and insomnia. To overcome these ailments, he begins recording himself reading books, and sending the cassette tapes to Hannah in prison. The story is no cheerful romance, and the ending is powerful, but not happy, but Nathan loves the idea that a legal historian is a central character (however compromised) of a love story.

We will conclude this post with Anna’s contribution, which speaks to love but also the hardships endured in this country by African Americans for what seem very basic rights. Loving is a retelling of the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple at the heart of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. This blog has discussed Loving v. Virginia and the legal principles behind it previously. The movie begins with Mildred telling Richard that she is pregnant. Richard then purchases land in Caroline County, Virginia, near where the couple grew up, with plans to build a home for their growing family. The couple travels to Washington, D.C.,to get married because Virginia law in 1958 prohibited people of different races from marrying each other. After returning to Virginia, local law enforcement officers learn that the Lovings are living together as a married couple, storm their home in the middle of the night, and arrest them. After being charged with crimes under Virginia’s interracial marriage ban, the Lovings plead guilty and avoid incarceration by agreeing to leave Virginia for 25 years. The film shows how the criminal sentence completely altered the couple’s life and the pain experienced by being isolated from their families. It was not until 1963, when they were inspired by the March on Washington, that they sought the help of an attorney to lift their banishment. The movie ends with the Lovings returning to the property Richard had purchased in Caroline County after the Supreme Court unanimously overturns the conviction and holds that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional. Loving is not a courtroom-based legal drama, but shows how the law can impact our everyday lives, for better or worse.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.