Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

Back to the pre-Code period – and back to John Barrymore. I’ve already written about one fine, though little-known, film where he plays a lawyer, State’s Attorney (1932). The following year he starred in this even better legal drama, which must be one of his finest talkies, and is available on DVD from Kino, though in region 1 only. Barrymore gives a restrained but moving performance as a workaholic lawyer, who spends much of the film having two or three phone conversations at once. Sadly there are no courtroom scenes this time – but it’s an utterly compelling film, which repays repeated viewings. Indeed, you’ll need them to catch all the quickfire dialogue, especially in the scenes with Isabel Jewell chattering away irrepressibly as switchboard operator Bessie.

Like many early 1930s films, this drama is based on a stage play, in this case by Elmer Rice. It does betray its stage origins in the way that it is entirely based in one setting, within the Simon and Tedesco suite of legal offices in the Empire State building. However, where some films set in just one location might drag at times, Counsellor at Law, an early success for great director William Wyler, moves at a breathless pace. Rice, who adapted his own play for the screen, had trained and worked as a lawyer, and the legal background feels very authentic as far as I can tell, tackling still-current issues such as insider trading and professional standards.

John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels

Paul Muni had starred in the original Broadway run and Universal originally wanted him to reprise the role in their film adaptation, but he refused the part. So John Barrymore, who had just been “let go” by MGM, was cast as Jewish lawyer George Simon instead – but I’ve read that Universal was reluctant to pay his high salary for very long and shot his scenes in just two weeks before completing the rest of the film. His short-term memory was reportedly starting to be unreliable by this time, as a result of his alcoholism, but you would never know it to see his fast-talking performance. He does look rather tired and worn here, with few hints of his usual glamour, but that is in keeping with the character he is playing.

Despite being set in one building, the film moves to and fro between different offices and the reception area. It has a flavour of portmanteau dramas like Grand Hotel  in the way we learn about the lives of various different workers, from Bessie, who has a singsong voice for the phone and a much snappier tone to order a chocolate malted or argue with her colleagues, to George Simon’s loyal secretary Rexy (Bebe Daniels), who constantly has to fend off unwanted dinner invitations from lawyer Herbert Weinberg (Marvin Kline). He knows she is secretly in love with George, but keeps trying to get her attention all the same. At the start of the film, his unrequited love seems a sad echo of her own feelings, but by the end of it he is seeming like a creepy stalker. Daniels is great in her role, which involves a lot of scenes where she is in the background – I’ve seen quite a few 1930s films which feature secretaries in love with their bosses, but in this she is someone who nevertheless does a fiercely professional job. She  keeps her own feelings grimly under wraps as she watches others neglect and patronise the man she loves.

Thelma Todd, John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels

Much of the drama is built around a succession of scenes involving Simon’s different clients. One is a glamorous widow (Mayo Methot) who has been cleared of killing her husband, thanks to George’s eloquence, though he clearly thinks she did it. Another is the son of an old neighbour from a poor New York neighbourhood, played by future film director Vincent Sherman, who has been beaten up by police for giving a Marxist speech. One of the most powerful moments comes where Sherman’s character, Harry Becker, confronts Simon and accuses him of being a traitor to his class because of his success.  Both characters stand their ground and there is no clear indication as to where the viewer’s sympathy is expected to lie.

Interestingly, in both Barrymore’s early 1930s legal dramas, he is playing a lawyer who has fought his way out of poverty and is said to have come “from the gutter”.  In State’s Attorney he plays Irish-American Tom Cardigan. This time his character is Jewish, like both Rice and Wyler, and mentions a couple of times that he came over in steerage. He has married shallow WASP Cora (Doris Kenyon) – who is always keen to point out that she has done him a great favour by deigning to marry him and proved she can’t possibly be prejudiced. However, she seems to find the business of the law rather sleazy and distasteful, and gives supposedly delicate hints  that George is too concerned with money, though in fact she is the one spending it.  “Can’t you practise law like a gentleman?” she asks, when he is reluctant to give up a case that might cause embarrassment for her socially.

Mayo Methot

Cora’s two children share her snobbish attitudes, and both patronise their stepfather too – but perhaps the most painful scenes come when Cora meets up with George’s mother, Lena (Clara Langsner). You can feel the society wife inwardly shuddering at every heavily accented word her mother-in-law says, frostily addressing her as “Mrs Simon” and acting as if she is a distant acquaintance rather than family. There are a couple of touching scenes between Barrymore and Langsner, who calls her son “Georgie” and fusses over him, while he feeds her candy, though all he really wants is to get back to his work.  Barrymore doesn’t have all that many “mamma’s boy” scenes in his movies, or at least not in those I’ve seen so far, but those he does have are  poignant, as here and in The Beloved Rogue.

As the plot complications abound, this is a film that doesn’t give any easy answers and has a forthrightness which is characteristic of the best pre-Codes. Although Simon is the hero, he often does things which aren’t exactly legal, like trading on inside knowledge, or jacking up the bill of a richer client to subsidise a poorer one, Robin Hood-style. I wonder if all this could have been portrayed once the Code kicked in – though Wyler does manage to show similarly complicated moral layers in Dodsworth, made in 1936.

I discuss the end of the film in this next part.

There are more moral complications and cynical plot twists when an act that Simon did in the past, concocting an alibi for a client to save him from jail because he believed he should have the chance to go straight, comes back to haunt him. Simon knows that what he did was illegal but still believes he was morally right. Ironically, what turns things round for our hero professionally is him managing to dig up dirt on the man who had dug up the dirt on him – so blackmail is in effect his salvation.

However, before the prospect of disgrace is lifted, Cora deserts Simon, and he eventually learns that she is having an affair with Roy (Melvyn Douglas), who, ironically, borrowed money from him just before borrowing his wife. Devastated by this discovery, Simon sits staring at the window, and remembers the fate of a man who was seen jumping from another skyscraper by Bessie earlier in the film. Suddenly he lunges at the window – but is saved by Rexy just as he is about to jump. Barrymore is often accused of hamming things up, but there is nothing hammy about the way he plays this scene of quiet despair, just staring at the window with a frozen expression. As he sits slumped in a chair afterwards,  Rexy tries to talk to him but is getting nowhere, until the phone rings and he is offered another big case, which tempts him back to life. The  final scene sees him back on the phone, about to practise law in just the same way, but now with the suggestion that he will forget about Cora and start to appreciate Rexy.

The DVD doesn’t have any special features, except for a gallery of photos from Wyler’s career, but the picture and sound quality are both excellent, which is just as well, since it’s hard enough to follow the fast-talking dialogue in this film anyway!

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27 thoughts on “Counsellor at Law (William Wyler, 1933)

  1. I’m not a big fan of STATE’S ATTORNEY, but COUNSELLOR AT LAW is a fabulous film, very likely Barrymore’s best and among Wyler’s best. It’s so nice that 1933 gave us a great sense of the modern urban thrill of the Empire State building, both inside (this film) and out (the one with the big monkey).

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    • Thanks for commenting, Scott – that’s a great point about this being the same year as ‘King Kong’ and the two different views of the Empire State building. Glad to hear we agree on what a wonderful film ‘Counsellor at Law’ is, even if you don’t share my love of ‘State’s Attorney’ – though I’ve only seen that one in a pretty dodgy print online. Anyway, must agree that ‘Counsellor at Law’ is one of Barrymore and Wyler’s best.

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  2. I also loved “Counsellor at Law.” Barrymore was wonderful. I think Simon and “Topaze” were the two least hammy of his roles I’ve seen so far.

    An aside: my family is Jewish and my grandmother used to use a phrase that always seemed out of context to me and was never something I’d heard from anyone else in the family. Imagine my surprise when I hear George Simon use it in a phone call with his mother!

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    • Thanks for visiting and commenting, Kellye. I’m pleased that you also like both this film and ‘Topaze’, another of Barrymore’s films which I’ve seen and reviewed recently – I agree that he doesn’t ham things up in that one either. Interesting that you recognised your grandmother’s turn of phrase in the film – the whole setting does feel very authentic as far as I can tell. Thanks again!

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  3. Judy, thanks for your fantastic review of this film, one of your best posts ever. This is a movie that has intrigued me for years, and your very thorough and articulate review just intrigued me further. I keep hoping that TCM will show it, but to my knowledge they never have. I’m so glad you wrote that it’s available on Region 1 DVD, because that inspired me to check Netflix for it (don’t know why I never thought of this before), and they have it. So I’ll soon be watching it. By the way, “Dodsworth” is my favorite early Wyler movie, and one of my favorites of his ever, so your comparison of this film to “Dodsworth” just further stimulated my interest.

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    • R.D., I’m delighted to hear that you will be able to get hold of this film via Netflix, and will be very interested to hear what you think of it. I also really like ‘Dodsworth’ – I suppose in some ways the two movies are opposites, as ‘Dodsworth’ ranges around all over the world while ‘Counsellor at Law’ stays within the walls of one suite of offices, but I do think there are similarities in the way they both present adult and complicated relationships. Thank you very much for the kind comments on my review, which mean a lot from a writer like you.

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  4. “As the plot complications abound, this is a film that doesn’t give any easy answers and has a forthrightness which is characteristic of the best pre-Codes.”

    Indeed Judy. It almost seems a given Judy that you would author one of your finest essays in consideration of an irrefutable early masterwork, one that yields not only John Barrymore’s most celebrated performance in a “talkie,” but represents the highest level of artistry in William Wyler’s early period. My own personal Wyler favorite pre-1940 is WUTHERING HEIGHTS, but this film, DODSWORTH and THE GOOD FAIRY are superlative. As you note this is a challenge to watch with the fast-paced delivery, yet it quickly grips, due to the excellent screenplay, which leaves the audience sympathies at bay. As you also assert it’s an amazing feat to overcome the potential claustrophobia of the Empire State Bulding setting, but the fascinating screenplay won’t allow for such contemplation. I agree teh Harry Becker/Simon scene is powerful, and the film absolutely has the ‘portmanteau flavor’ of GRAND HOTEL, which had released the previous year. Much like Reginald Rose’s TWELVE ANGRY MEN (also based on a stage play) the film shines on the strength of the performances and the miticulous attention to character and the professional underpinnings that define its themes.

    I have owned the Region 1 Kino for quite some time (I obtained it with THE GOOD FAIRY, another Kino) and have long regarded this as a superlative early word. I hate to use the word definitive, but you’ve achieved this with this terrific and passionate piece Judy! Bravo.

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    • Sam, thank you so much for this detailed comment – as usual, though, you have now left me adding even more films to the list of those that I want to see! I am another fan of Wyler’s ‘Wuthering Heights’, though it is some years since I’ve seen it – this reminds me, I have read that Olivier felt Wyler helped him to tone down his stage acting style for the screen, so I wonder if he helped Barrymore to do the same in this. (I’ve also read that Wyler’s insistence on doing dozens of takes helped to do this, as the actors were worn out by the end and so gave a more naturalistic performance!)

      I haven’t seen ‘The Good Fairy’ as yet, but will aim to do so soon – and the same with ‘Twelve Angry Men’. That is one I’ve been meaning to see for ages, but your description of it now has me even more intrigued.

      Thanks so much also for the very kind comments, Sam, which are much appreciated!

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  5. I love this film and for me it is a battle between this film and TWENTIETH CENTURY for my favorite Barrymore film, though admittedly I have not seen too many of his works. This is truly not just one of the great pre-code films but one of Wyler’s best. An extremely well done job here Judy!

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    • I’ve actually just bought myself an import DVD of ‘Twentieth Century’ – I had seen it once before but didn’t remember it all that well – and watched it last night, John. Must agree it is another fantastic performance by Barrymore, and a complete contrast with ‘Counsellor at Law’, as in ‘Twentieth Century’ he can ham it up in spectacular style. I’m not sure which I prefer either, but they are both great roles. Thanks very much, John!

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  6. Judy, I checked this out of our local lending library partly b/c of Barrymore and partly b/c of Wyler, but the main reason I wanted to watch it is b/c of Bebe Daniels. I love that woman’s profile. I’m serious. Her profile belongs on an ancient Attic vase or on the walls of an Etruscan tomb (which is a high compliment, believe it or not). She and Mary Astor had two of the best profiles in H’wood, IMHO, but between the two, Bebe’s wins hands down.

    Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I must say that I enjoyed this movie for a variety of reasons, many of which you pointed out in your review and commenters have mentioned in their comments. In addition, it was interesting to watch a movie in which John Barrymore, Bebe Daniels, Thelma Todd, Mayo Methot, Melvyn Douglas all starred. Melvyn was a cad here, but he was interesting to watch all the same. Through the years I have grown to appreciate and highly regard Mr Douglas. Thanks for bringing attention to a movie which receives too little of it.

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    • Glad to hear you enjoyed this film when you checked it out of the library – as you say, it is a great cast, and interesting to see Melvyn Douglas playing the cad role.
      I’m interested to hear someone else’s profile mentioned in a movie starring John Barrymore and will have a look at Bebe Daniels’ profile next time I watch a movie she is in. Many thanks, CagneyFan.

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  7. Judy, just a brief postscript: I, too, highly recommend THE GOOD FAIRY. It was my introduction (I think it was; sometimes memory fails) to Margaret Sullavan. Screenplay by Preston Sturges, direction by Wlm Wyler. Can’t go wrong. And Frank Morgan plays a harmless, unsuccessful cad. (good print on YT)

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  8. Judy, I thoroughly enjoyed your post on this film — I saw it for the first time last year and your review made me remember many of the reasons I liked it! I remember feeling as though the characters spoke so fast I was seeing two movie plots for the price of one (grin). It’s definitely my favorite Barrymore performance, other than perhaps his much different “fairy godfather” role in MIDNIGHT. I appreciated the combination of his fast-talking character who also shows some emotional restraint.

    I also recommend THE GOOD FAIRY — I preferred COUNSELLOR AT LAW but there is much to recommend THE GOOD FAIRY too.

    Thanks for a most enjoyable post,
    Laura

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    • Thanks very much for the kind comment, Laura – ‘The Good Fairy’ is definitely about to cast its spell on me very soon, given all these recommendations! I’m not sure which my favourite John Barrymore performance is, but this is definitely one of his finest. I think this must be one of the fastest-talking movies there is, along with ‘One, Two, Three’ and ‘His Girl Friday’.

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  10. Wow. This is a terrific blogsite, as I’ve been told. I was privy to a copy of this film a few years ago (the Kino) and found it one of the most engrossing and entertaining films of the 30’s. I appreciate such a detailed and penetrating review of it. I also have a copy of The Good Fairy and like it almost as much.

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    • Thanks very much for visiting, and for the kind comments, Frank. Much appreciated, and glad to hear that you are another admirer of this early Wyler movie, as well as ‘The Good Fairy’. I definitely need to see more of Wyler’s work in general. Thanks again.

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  11. I liked this review as it stirred me to want to see the film. I’m not quite sure what the issues were nor how they are resolved is my problem. You’re not explicit about that. E.M.

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    • Thank you, Ellen. I think you would probably find it a powerful film if you do get a chance to see it. I haven’t gone into exact detail about the plot twists towards the end, which do follow fast upon one another and get rather complicated – in fact I’d got into a muddle at one point and had to do some rewriting. But I think for me the main point is that Simon is not saved professionally by his ethics (wanting to save a man from jail so that he can have a chance to go straight) but by his willingness to play dirty and blackmail a colleague who is threatening him with exposure. Thanks again.

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  12. I’ve now come across an insightful article by Jenni Diski on the male type in American films who inhabits (or stars in) both pre-code and post-code films. She goes into Humphry Bogart but many of her general comments early on could equally be applied to Cagney as an archetypal socialistic romantic — a type erased from American films since the 1980s (no need for a black list now). It’s in the London Review of Books, “A bout de Bogart” by Jenni Diski, 33:10, May 19, 2011, pp. 29-32 (it’s not that many pages, it’s interrupted by ads in the paper copy). Here’s the online one (happily it’s all there);

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n10/jenny-diski/a-bout-de-bogart

    This is the sort of analysis I meant. Barrymore wins out because he is a good man as well as macho even if his actions require him to do problematic acts — and what this means to an audience now as well as what it meant then.

    Ellen

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    • Thanks very much for this, Ellen – this is a great article by Diski on Bogart, which, as you say, is also relevant to many other male actors of the period. It doesn’t sound as if the book being reviewed is very good, though – sadly, as she says, so many books on movie stars seem to concentrate on the life and have very little to say about the films. I can think of one or two more recent performances which possibly fit that socialistic romantic description, but they often tend to be period pieces, like Ralph Fiennes in ‘The White Countess’, which is said to be partly inspired by ‘Casablanca’.

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  15. Judy, do you suppose Terry Gilliam saw Counsellor At Law before he created Brazil? Something about the style, pace and the unusual characters…

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