Counsellor at Law (1933)

Director: William Wyler

By Marilyn Ferdinand

This review is an entry in the William Wyler Blogathon, hosted by The Movie Projector.

“In the beginning was the Word.” Atheist Elmer Rice, author of the play Counsellor at Law as well as its screenplay, disagreed with what the Bible said that word was, choosing instead to make all words his god. He made a successful career as a playwright and screenwriter, and was lucky enough to find his perfect director in William Wyler. A rarity among Hollywood directors, Wyler respected the words on the page and did little to shape them into an auteuristic vision. His self-described mission was to entertain and make a lot of money, a stance to filmmaking that sent his star plummeting from the skies when the mid-century French critics anointed a canon of auteurs that expressly excluded him.

The fact that Wyler was content to be a showman did not preclude him from having a few expressive tics that show themselves in Counsellor at Law, a stagebound film that nonetheless allowed him to showcase some truly dazzling dialog. Further, sharing a Jewish background with Rice allowed Wyler to coach the badly miscast patrician John Barrymore to a halfway believable performance as a Jewish lawyer whose Lower East Side roots make his marriage to a blueblood with two children a decidely lopsided alliance.

In common with many films of the day, Counsellor at Law has the fast pace and snappy humor of a screwball comedy. Switchboard operator/receptionist Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) adopts a rat-a-tat, sing-song style to answer phone calls and greet clients that might have been less grating and more funny if it had been played with more of a Jewish spin to it. A controlled chaos within the office, underlined by Jewell’s manic delivery, conveys the rapid-fire business of the successful law practice of George Simon (Barrymore) and John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens). Two Italian clients wait for Tedesco, peppering the dialog with their native language. Several people want to see Mr. Simon, including Zedorah Chapman (Mayo Methot), whom Simon has just defended successfully in a murder trial; Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein), a friend from the old neighborhood who wants Simon to defend her son Harry (director-to-be Vincent Sherman), who has been roughed up and arrested by the cops for making pro-Communist speeches; and Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Daily), a process server and investigator Simon rescued from a life of crime.

In one of his characteristic flourishes, Wyler teases the audience like another client waiting in line by keeping Simon out of sight; our lead-up to the “reveal” is Barrymore’s hands working the phones on his desk. When Barrymore finally appears, it seems designed to encourage applause, a frequent occurrence in the theatre when the big-name star makes his or her first entrance and a nod to the stage origins of the film. Over-the-shoulder shots with delayed reaction shots, a Wyler staple, also dot Counsellor at Law. The most effective one shows Harry standing, his fist clenched, when he hears Cora’s children disparage the working class. When we finally do see his beaten face wild with anger, Wyler switches to the children and moves slowly in on their frightened faces.

Among the clichés of the script is Simon’s hard-working, ultra-efficient secretary “Rexy” Gordon (Bebe Daniels), a beautiful, young woman whose unrequited love for her boss plays out in painful expressions every time she must interact with his snobbish wife Cora (Doris Kenyon) and her repeated rebuffs of law clerk Herbert Wineberg’s (Marvin Kline) too-frequent attempts to ask her out. Wineberg’s persistence is deeply annoying, but Daniels’ beautifully modulated distress and growing agitation make these scenes a somewhat harrowing experience.

Another cliché is Simon’s mother Lena (Clara Langsner), a patient, self-effacing Yiddishe mama who repeatedly answers “I’ve got all the time in the world” when she is kept waiting to see her son. Nonetheless, Wyler keeps Langsner from overdoing it or tipping over into melodrama when she tries to guilt Simon into helping his wastrel brother David out of yet another jam or offering a hurt look when she speaks with Cora and it becomes clear that she has not seen Cora’s children in some time. I got a delightful jolt when Barrymore called his brother a gonif (crook), a beautifully integrated Yiddish expression that almost made me forget Barrymore’s perfect British profile.

The disconnect between Barrymore’s appearance and his character was a serious handicap for me; indeed, I could have seen Melvyn Douglas, who played a rival for Cora’s affection, as a better choice to play George. Yet, Barrymore offered a kind of intensity that stayed kosher, and suggested the avarice of his profession without making it a stereotype of the grasping Jew. When he lathers over a potential $100,000 payday that would compromise a friend of his wife’s, his eyes could light half of Manhattan; however, like the doting Jewish husband, he lets the suit go to please Cora.

George has blinded himself to his real position in his family—Cora’s children from a previous marriage, Dorothy (Barbara Perry) and Richard Dwight (future director Richard Quine), disdain George and proudly declare their father is in Washington, DC, yet George persists in calling himself their father. When he learns that Cora is abandoning him, his despair goes a bit too big, but Wyler achieved the appropriate somberness by keeping Barrymore in the shadows and having Daniels interrupt his intended leap out a window in a very quick scene that doesn’t allow for too much mugging for the camera.

Many small comic moments brighten the film. For example, when the adults who see Dorothy and Richard unfailingly exclaim, “my, how you’ve grown,” or words to that effect, not only does young Richard predict their comments, but he also adds, “What do they expect us to do? Get smaller?” Wise-cracking Bessie insults an inattentive boyfriend with, “Sure I missed you—like Booth missed Lincoln.” Middle-aged, ample secretary Goldie Rindskopf (Angela Jacobs) moves languidly through the office, her broad beam a vision of delight for the two Italians and a thoroughly refreshing, if superficial look at the sex appeal of an older woman.

Rice studied and practiced law for a short while, and his jaundiced view of the profession, from the emotional tricks and fake alibis that help lawyers get criminals acquitted, to the lobbying on behalf of big business and the flexible fees to cover losses, gets a full airing in the actions of George Simon. Class conflict is also well represented in the scenario, but anti-Semitism is only vaguely alluded to. Rice had seen the rise of the Nazis during a trip to Germany in 1932, but with only a few exceptions—most notably, the films of Frank Borzage—the studios stayed far away from the impending calamity; Counsellor at Law is no exception. Nonetheless, George Simon remains a fairly sympathetic character, and the subtext of presumed Aryan superiority represented by Cora and her set gives this film the kind of meat a thorough professional like Wyler could sink his teeth into.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    27th/06/2012 to 6:56 pm

    Kael also questioned Barrymore’s casting, but she came down decisively in the acting legend’s corner when she declared: “John Barrymore seems an unlikely choice for the ghetto-born lawyer of Elmer Rice’s play, but this is one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His “presence” is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor and his zest.”

    Barrymore, one of the most gifted of all actors, makes George a wholly sympathetic character with no trace of fraudulence. The cost to Wyler however was prohibitive, as Barrymore was drinking heavily at that time and couldn’t remember his lines necessitating the use of cue cards. Reportedly Wyler was in a bad way with the rest of the cast. Still, as you note here in this excellent essay, he paces the film quite well, and wisely opts to maintain the theatrical underpinnings, while still incorporating a brisk pace and rhythm. In fact this is about as economical a pre-coder as any, making excellent use of every line and character. It requites one’s undivided attention.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/06/2012 to 7:28 pm

    Sam – I know a lot of critics have given Barrymore the highest marks for this film, but I couldn’t buy him as a Jew, and I felt echoes of his role in Grand Hotel. He is a favorite of mine, and he did a fine job, but I can’t give him unqualified praise.

    I gave out a sad laugh when George says he doesn’t drink. I’m not surprised to hear he was drunk a lot, but I will give him this. It didn’t show.

  • R. D. Finch spoke:
    28th/06/2012 to 2:38 pm

    Marilyn, thanks for your contribution to the William Wyler Blogathon at The Movie Projector. Your excellent and insightful post made a nice complement to the official contribution to the blogathon. Most people admire Barrymore’s performance–and given how central his role is to the film, he is called upon to carry it–but I though you explained your reservations about his performance quite lucidly. His George Simon IS reminiscent of his character in “Grand Hotel,” but I thought the character as written had a great deal more scope to it than that earlier one.

    I never really thought about how authentically Jewish his manner and appearance seemed. It seems to me that if the actor is good, Gentiles can play Jews as convincingly as the other way around. It did occur to me, though, that considering how prevalent and accepted anti-Semitism was at the time, his professional success might actually be helped by his acting and looking vaguely WASP-ish rather than identifiably ethnic. Anyway, your comments about the appropriateness of his casting certainly raise an intriguing question.

    It’s too bad we don’t have a performance by Muni in the role for comparison, There was an actor who often disappeared behind the makeup, heavy accents, and other externals to the point that such gimmickry dominated the performance. It would have been interesting to see if he used this approach to George Simon too.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/06/2012 to 3:45 pm

    Richard – Thanks for you kind comments.

    I agree that a good actor should, in most cases, be able to disappear into any role and make it his or her own. Barrymore is a good actor, but he just didn’t do the job for me. Muni, a Jew, could have played this part without make-up, and probably would have done it a lot of justice. I wanted something like John Garfield’s performance in Gentleman’s Agreement, the unstated understanding of one’s relegation to an inferior position. We get Barrymore’s sorrow that his wife is leaving him, but we don’t have time to register his feelings of inferiority. He wasn’t exactly a lawyer to high society, either, and his marriage was made, no doubt, partially in hopes that he could upgrade his clientele.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    28th/06/2012 to 7:41 pm

    Richard mentions Muni here, and I just wanted to add that Muni was apparently the strong choice of producer Laemmle, but the actor purportedly refused, as he didn’t want to be typecast as Jewish. Before Barrymore was chosen, attempts were made to secure the services of Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Schildkraut and William Powell.

    As Marilyn mentions, John Garfield in another potentially stupendous choice.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/06/2012 to 10:47 pm

    Sam – Garfield came a few years too late to Hollywood to be a contender for the part. I also thought of Robinson and Schildkraut in the role, especially the latter. He was a superlative actor who could have done a fine job at George Simon – Robinson was maybe just a little too typecast as a gangster at this stage in his career to be a perfect fit. Powell raises some interesting possibilities, but not my first choice.

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