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.
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.
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.
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!