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.

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Ceiling Zero (1935)

I’m getting in under the wire with another posting for the Early Hawks Blog-a-thon at Ed Howard’s Only the Cinema site.

After being enthralled by Hawks’ earliest sound film, The Dawn Patrol,  I was interested to see another 1930s flying drama he directed – this time set in the world of peacetime aviation, among daring mail pilots. Another big attraction of Ceiling Zero for me was that it stars  James Cagney, who is brilliant as the raffish, irresponsible Dizzy Davis, in one of his  best teamings with real-life friend Pat O’Brien.

The movie isn’t available on DVD in the UK or the US as yet, but, as it was released on VHS in the US in the past and a French DVD was issued last year, here’s hoping Warner might  release a DVD in other countries too in the future. Fingers crossed.

James Cagney and June Travis

James Cagney and June Travis

In some ways, Ceiling Zero is very different from The Dawn Patrol. It’s more lighthearted, especially at the start, though the mood darkens later – and it focuses on aviators who have time to joke and enjoy life. However, there are also some striking similarities between the two films. Both focus on small groups of people under pressure and facing up to daily danger, who are intensely loyal to one another. The plot twists are also similar at times, especially when it comes to the dramatic climax in each case.

Spoilers below cut

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