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. 

Rexy, played by Bebe Daniels, can’t help loving that man.

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.

Isabel Jewell was a stand-out as the sassy switchboard operator.

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:

“There’s nothing in the retainer that requires me to make love to you.”

“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.”

Trivia, Shmivia

  • 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 . . .

~ by shadowsandsatin on June 27, 2012.

26 Responses to “The William Wyler Blogathon: Counsellor at Law (1933)”

  1. Great stuff. I love this film and would rate it as one of the very best for both John Barrymore and Wyler – reading your posting brings it all back and makes me want to see it again very soon. The art deco office building and the way they all walk to and fro are wonderful – it strikes me that people walking along corridors and, especially, up and down stairs are very characteristic for Wyler. Also agree with you that Isabel Jewell is brilliant as the switchboard operator and has many of the film’s funniest lines.

    The confrontation between George’s wife and mother is devastating, as you point out – also the scene where his mother is waiting and the staff are patronising and fobbing her off until they find out who she is, and there is another powerful confrontation between George and Vincent Sherman as the young radical. The whole film is full of uncomfortable questions about class and selling out. Anyway, congratulations on your posting, a great contribution to the blogathon!

    • Thank you, Judy! So interesting about the up and down stairs — I will have to pay closer attention, but I certainly, just off-hand, can think of how The Heiress and The Letter fit into that. I’m glad you mentioned the confrontation between George and Vincent Sherman — it got left on the “cutting room floor,” if you will. The first time I saw the scene, I had no idea that that was Vincent Sherman! It was quite a revelation once I figured it out. And so interesting that he went from acting to being such a prominent director.

  2. I agree – this film is one of Barrymore’s and Wyler’s best! While I enjoyed Isabel Jewell’s performance, I also thought Bebe Daniels was heart-rending as the love-lorn secretary; she conveys so much emotion just by stillness and the expression in her eyes. Llike so many pre-Codes, the film is fast-paced and snappy; and like you said, it has some saucy lines! The film also confronts head-on George’s stuffy wife’s snobbish anti-Semitism (years before Gentleman’s Agreement). Enjoyed your post!

    • Thanks, Grand Old! I totally agree about Bebe Daniels’s performance — there’s one scene in particular where her acting is just so wonderful. It’s right before the fade-out at the end of a scene, it only lasts a couple of seconds, and she doesn’t say a word — but it’s so powerful!

  3. This sounds like a can’t miss movie. I don’t know how I have gone this long without see it, but I will certainly be looking for it soon. I love Barrymore in everything I have seen him in and obviously I am a Wyler fan so this just sounds perfect. Thanks for your review and your thoughts.

    • Thank you for your comments, Paul! I hope you get to see it soon — I first saw it years ago, just by chance, and it was such fun watching it over and over again for this post. I enjoyed it and appreciated it more with every viewing.

  4. This is a excellent pre-code film with as you mention some engaging and extremely funny lines. Barrymore is wonderful, Isabel Jewel is a highlight too. An excellent addition to what has been a great blogathon.

  5. A delightfully structured post with many fine facts and observations about “Counsellor at Law.” Among all the goodies in it, I particularly liked your analysis of that one-minute scene. This is certainly the earliest outstanding film directed by Wyler I’ve seen–I should say, yet seen, because I’m waiting on the early Western “Hell’s Heroes,” which I’ve heard good things about. It hasn’t been too long since I saw this one, and I was struck by the very things you mention.

    Wyler was known for the quality of the performances in his pictures, but even given the high tone of the cast in this one, he gets remarkable work from his actors. Speed-talking Jewell was marvelous, George’s mother touching, Douglas slimy, the wife and stepchildren an odious trophy family George nevertheless really seemed to like. Best of all for me were loyal Bebe Daniels straining not to show her love for George (I never thought of her as anything but a musical star) and of course Barrymore. It’s his movie all the way and the finest performance I’ve seen by him in a sound film, despite his memorable turns in “Twentieth Century” “Grand Hotel,” and “Dinner at Eight.” (A less well-known performance of this caliber I saw not long ago was in 1939’s “The Great Man Votes.”)

    Besides Barrymore, what I recall best about the film is the way it moves–around the law offices and constantly forward in its narrative. The themes of the price we have to pay for success and of past mistakes threatening to ruin us also left a potent impression. An great contribution to the blogathon on an important Wyler film.

    • Thank you so much, R.D., for your comments and for organizing such an outstanding blogathon. I was proud to be a part of it.

      I love your spot-on assessment of each of the characters — and I totally agree that Bebe Daniels turned in a performance that I, frankly, hadn’t previously known she had in her. Speaking of which, I will have to make a point to see Barrymore in The Great Man Votes!

  6. Isabell Jewell always made the most out of her roles. She was hilarious in Bombshell as the floozy Ted Healy brings home as all hell breaks loose in Jean Harlow’s house. And Jewell made a memorable impression in several Val Lewton productions, especially The 7th Victim.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, Charles. I loved Jewell in Bombshell — she cracks me up every time. I’ve never seen her in The 7th Victim, though — I will totally have to check that one out!

  7. Excellent review! JB can almost do not wrong in my book and I love Bebe Daniels in this film. I have to go back and pay more attention to Isabelle Jewell. Another Wyler home run!

    • Thank you! John Barrymore is climbing on my list of faves, especially after seeing him in Counsellor at Law. Now I want to try to find some other films of his that I’ve heard of but never seen. I liked Bebe Daniels, too — I’ve seen her in a couple of pre-Codes, but her role in this one definitely showed that she had the stuff.

  8. A fun review as well as an informational one (especially the trivia about the future directors who acted in the pic). I’m not a big fan of John Barrymore’s talkies, but always enjoy the very reliable Isabell Jewell.

    • Thank you, Rick! It’s funny, until I started writing this post, I only thought I’d seen John Barrymore in a couple of movies, and I never thought much of him one way or the other. But after not only realizing all of the different roles I’ve seen him in, plus watching Counsellor at Law over and over, I find that I like him more than I knew! I share your fondness for Isabell Jewell — she is a hoot.

  9. I’ve read that Barrymore’s drinking was out of control when he made this film, and it caused Wyler a lot of grief, but despite being seemingly miscast the legendary actor with the help of cue cards delivered what may well be his finest screen performance. Certainly as you note this id the earliest example of Wyler’s incomparable management of adaptations, and the best of the lawyer films from the period. Definitely a top-rank pre-coder, and you have provided all kinds of interesting info and tidbits in a marvelously written piece!

  10. Great review! I have not seen this film but will have to now that I’ve read this.

    • Thank you! I hope you will get a chance to see it soon — I think you’ll like it! It’s one of those films that grabs you from the opening reel and never lets go!

  11. Your admonishment to those who haven’t seen “Counsellor-at-Law” that they “owe it to themselves” is right on the money. And most certainly a reminder to others (that would be me) that I have let too many years pass without borrowing it from my sister’s movie shelf. Your look at the film has me positively aching to see it again. Well done.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, CW! I’m so glad that this pre-Code Wyler was on the list for me to select — it’d been years since I’d seen it, and it was truly like seeing it for this first time.

  12. I don’t t know that I’ve seen this movie entirely. However, I do know I have seen clips of Jewell’s hilarious performance. Barrymore was a bit of a ham, so maybe that’s why I haven’t watched the whole film. Nice review.

    • Thank you Kim, as always, for your support — it is so much appreciated, I can’t tell you. I hope you’ll get an opportunity to watch Counsellor at Law again — Barrymore is not quite so heavy on the ham, LOL!

  13. “Counsellor at Law” is one of several early ’30s William Wyler films I haven’t seen. Your write-up reminds me that I need to do some catching up and inspires me to keep an eye out in particular for this one.

    • Thank you so much for visiting and for your comment, Eve. Counsellor at Law is the earliest Wyler that I’ve seen — after this blogathon, though, I’ll be on the lookout for more! I hope you’ll get a chance to see this one soon; I’m sure you’ll like it.

  14. […] Karen at Shadows and Satin loves this one, and describes her favorite scene: […]

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