The William Wyler Blogathon: Counsellor at Law (1933)
I’ve seen John Barrymore in quite a few films: Svengali, which I remember watching at a young age on a Sunday afternoon; one of my favorite comedies, Twentieth Century; those star-packed MGM offerings, Dinner at Eight and Grand Hotel; A Bill of Divorcement, notable as Katharine Hepburn’s first film; Midnight, which stands out as one of the many great movies of 1939; Marie Antoinette, where Barrymore played a small but memorable role as King Louis XV; and Arsene Lupin (which, I confess, I still haven’t quite managed to watch all the way to the end). But one of my favorites is Counsellor at Law (1933), a first-rate showcase for Barrymore’s talent, briskly and skillfully directed by the great William Wyler. In fact, many point to the film as Wyler’s first successful feature and one of the best “lawyer” films of the 1930s.
What’s It All About?
George Simon (Barrymore) appears to be on top of the world – a Jewish emigrant who was born on a boat crossing to America, he has become a high-powered attorney handling everything from murderous society dames to petty thieves. But he finds himself threatened with disbarment, and the destruction of his personal and professional existence, when a rival exposes a benevolent – but illegal – act he committed years before.
George is like a maelstrom, surrounded by a swirling surfeit of personages and circumstances. He’s not above making a buck on hot stock tips or jacking up the fees of his wealthy clients to subsidize the freebies he reserves for his pals from the old neighborhood. He dotes on his high-society wife, Cora (Doris Kenyon), inexplicably oblivious to her self-absorbed arrogance. He tries to be a loving patriarch to Cora’s children from her first marriage, unaware that they snottily clarify, out of his hearing, that he is NOT their father. His family is rounded out by his adoring, cute-as-a-button mother (Clara Langsner) and a never-seen brother who embarrasses him by “[getting] pinched in gambling raids, annoying women in subways, passing out rubber checks.” And then there’s his loyal and efficient secretary, Regina “Rexy” Gordon (Bebe Daniels), who is secretly in love with him; Roy Darwin (Melvyn Douglas, in a rare sleazy role), a former client of George’s who only has eyes for his wife; and Herbert Wineberg (Marvin Kline), a law clerk who seems to spend most of his time seeking a date with Rexy. It’s quite a motley crew.
And . . . Scene!
There are many memorable scenes in the film, but one of the most striking is an encounter in George’s office between his wife and his mother. The scene lasts less than a minute, but it furnishes an excellent illustration of the personalities of the two women, as well as the vast chasm that exists between their worlds. When Cora enters the office, she actually shakes the hand of George’s mother, asking her “How do you do?” as if she were nothing more than a casual acquaintance. Mrs. Simon makes an effort to be sociable, inquiring after Cora’s children and commenting on her hard-working son, but Cora is politely distant, scarcely bothering to contribute to the seemingly interminable exchange. At best, it’s awkward – at worst, it’s almost painful to watch.
My Favorite Character
Barrymore was interesting throughout the film, but I simply fell in love with sassy switchboard operator Bessie Green, played by Isabel Jewell, whose performance has to be seen to be believed. Jewell turns in a veritable tour de force, spitting out her lines at a rapid-fire pace – never missing a beat as she alternately answers calls, gossips with a girlfriend, orders her lunch (with plenty of Russian dressing!), welcomes visitors to the office, and puts the smack-down on a co-worker who impudently offers to buy her a fresh pair of stockings if she’ll let him put them on her. (Yes, he actually says that! Gotta love pre-Code!) Jewell walks away with every scene she’s in, and serves up some of my favorite patter when she answers a call from an old boyfriend: “Oh, it’s you, is it? Gee, I thought you was dead and buried. Sure I missed you – like Booth missed Lincoln. Well, what do you think I been doing – sitting home embroidering doilies?”
George Says . . .
In addition to the shots delivered by Bessie, some of the film’s best lines are supplied by George. Here are my top three:
“I was engaged to defend you on a charge of murdering your husband. There’s nothing in the retainer that requires me to make love to you.”
“Don’t you know whenever you give anybody a helping hand, he always turns around and kicks you in the pants?”
“What am I going to do, John? How am I going to spend the rest of my life? I’m no golf player. I don’t know an ace from a king. I don’t even know how to get drunk. All I know is work. Take work away from me and what am I? A car without a motor. A living corpse.”
- The entire film takes place in the law offices.
- Small roles were played by Mayo Methot and Thelma Todd.
- The screenplay was adapted by Elmer Rice from his play of the same name, which opened on Broadway in November 1931 and played for 232 performances. The part of George Simon was played by Paul Muni. Several others in the play reprised their roles in the movie, including John Qualen and Marvin Kline.
- Doris Kenyon, who played Cora Simon, was a star of the silent screen and started her film career in 1915.
- The cast included three future directors: Vincent Sherman (Mr. Skeffington, The Hard Way, The Damned Don’t Cry), Richard Quine (Drive a Crooked Road, My Sister Eileen, The Solid Gold Cadillac), and Robert Gordon (The Joe Louis Story, It Came From Beneath the Sea, and episodes of TV shows including Maverick and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).
Counsellor at Law is available on DVD and airs on TCM from time to time. If you want to experience the masterful direction of William Wyler near the start of his illustrious career, one of John Barrymore’s best performances, and a superb example from the pre-Code era, make it your business to check it out.
You only owe it to yourself.
This post is part of the William Wyler Blogathon, hosted by R.D. Finch at The Movie Projector. Pop on over and check out the many outstanding posts on this great director! You know why . . .