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COUNSELLOR AT LAW(director: William Wyler; screenwriters: from the play by Elmer Rice/Mr. Rice; cinematographer: Norbert F. Brodin; editor: Dan Mandell; cast: John Barrymore (George Simon), Bebe Daniels (Regina ‘Rexy’ Gordon), Isabel Jewell (Bessie Green), Doris Kenyon (Cora Simon), Onslow Stevens (John P. Tedesco), Melvyn Douglas (Roy Darwin), John Hammond Dailey (Charlie McFadden), Marvin Kline (Weinberg), Malka Kornstein (Sarah Becker), Vincent Sherman (Harry Becker), Clara Langsner (Mrs. Simon), Robert Gordon (Henry Susskind), T.H. Manning (Peter J. Malone), Barbara Perry (Dorothy Dwight), Richard Quine (Richard Dwight), John Qualen (Breitstein), Angela Jacobs (Goldie), Elmer H. Brown (Francis Clark Baird); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Laemmle, Jr.; Universal; 1933)
“This comedy-drama is one of the best lawyer films made during any time period.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Counsellor At Law is taken from Elmer Rice’s hit Broadway play that starred Paul Muni, who refused the movie role. This thought-provoking drama is about the rags-to-riches tale of an assimilated Jewish lawyer who is crushed when he learns that his Wasp wife is unfaithful and still looks down upon him because of his humble beginnings despite his success and the kindness and love he shows to her. It’s eloquently directed by William Wyler (“Roman Holiday”/ “Ben-Hur”). It catches the actor known as the Great Profile, John Barrymore, at his peak before in a few years he would decline because of his losing bout with alcohol. Working with breakneck speed dialogue, as was the case with early talkies, Barrymore resorted to using cue cards since he was beginning to have trouble remembering his lines. But that didn’t effect his brilliantly restrained performance that was filled with character integrity, pathos and deep emotion. The Waspish Barrymore played the Jewish lawyer with great conviction and sincerity, catching the workaholic lawyer’s deepest fear of disbarment over a questionable ethical decision he made a number of years ago to save a guilty client he believed would be reformed if given a chance from an unfair long sentence–which proved to be the case.

In its serious moments, this comedy-drama is one of the best lawyer films made during any time period. Despite the clichéd characters and story, and the claustrophobic setting of the entire film set in the lawyer’s spacious office, the film always feels like it’s a rip-snortin’ movie and the genuine article and never stage-struck.

George Simon (John Barrymore) has risen from the parents of Jewish immigrants, residing in poverty, to become a powerful NYC lawyer, partners in a prosperous Fifth Avenue Empire State Building office with John P. Tedesco (Onslow Stevens). He’s in all his glory just after getting an accused murderess off on a not guilty verdict, and on the day after his office is filled with clients from all walks of life–from the most prominent and wealthy to the impoverished from his past. Also calling on him is his dear loving mother (Clara Langsner), who is proud of her son but worries he’s not happy. When his pampered blueblood wife Cora (Doris Kenyon) calls upon him and brings the spoiled snobbish boy and girl from her first marriage, who have kept their father’s name of Dwight, we can see how distant she is and that the self-absorbed snob is only concerned with her own image.

Wyler builds the story around the characters in the workplace, both workers and clients, before introducing the plot. By showing a number of clients interacting with the hotshot lawyer, from important politicians ringing him up for advise to his doing a favor for his former neighborhood pushcart lady whose son (Vincent Sherman), he knew as a baby, was clubbed hard on the kop and arrested for making a radical speech at Union Square. It also shows him acting in a dubious moral way, as he bilks the rich clients by padding their bills while he cuts his fees for the poor as if he were a modern day Robin Hood. He also engages in insider trading that would make Martha Stewart kvell with envy. His office staff consists of his brilliant lonely heart law clerk Weinberg and his super-efficient and loyal secretary Miss ‘Rexy’ Gordon (Bebe Daniels), who has crush on him that he doesn’t even notice. For comic relief there’s the colorful switchboard operator (Isabel Jewell), who endearingly changes tones at the drop of a hat when talking either with the clients or friends. Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Dailey) was a professional criminal, who was saved by George and hired to do private eye work for the firm. It’s McFadden who comes through to save the day when George is faced with the biggest crisis in his life, as one of those Silk Stocking lawyers (Elmer H. Brown) has the goods on him for providing a phony alibi but has to drop those charges when McFadden comes up with some dirt on him.

George is pictured as someone not about to apologize that he did something illegal. Instead, he sees his whole life crashing down on him if can’t practice law because he doesn’t have a clue what else to do with his life. When things get cleared up over the disbarment matter and he’s uncharacteristically jubilant for the moment, the next stunning blow is that his wife is taking a boat to Europe with her lover (Melvyn Douglas) aboard. This leads him to think about jumping out of his office window; but, he’s stopped by his loyal secretary, who sees this as her chance to be with the man she loves.

This is an excellent drama that knows how to combine comedy with drama, and never forgets what force is driving this powerful story. It’s a complete triumph.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”