03 October 2012

Counsellor at Law

Counsellor at Law (1933) is a compelling film by William Wyler based on the popular Broadway hit play by Elmer Rice. Set in the Simon and Tedesco law offices in the Empire State Building, Counsellor at Law looks at a few days in the life of attorney George Simon.

Simon appears to have it all. Raised in a poor Jewish neighborhood on the Lower East Side, he has risen to become a successful attorney with a large stream of clients, a loyal staff, and a beautiful socialite wife. Yet when a rival attorney threatens to reveal that Simon once allowed a client to perjure himself, his life takes a nosedive. His wife leaves for Europe with another man, one of his clients dies, and he is filled with despair. He is about to end it all when the love of his devoted secretary and a new case save him.

Counsellor at Law is filled with a stellar cast including a great Bebe Daniels as the long suffering secretary Rexy Gordon who is in love with her boss, Doris Kenyon as his snobby wife Cora, Melvyn Douglas as a slimy family friend, Isabel Jewell in a hilarious turn as the fast-talking, Brooklyn-accented telephone operator Bessie Green, John Hammond Daily as Simon’s process server/detective Charlie McFadden, and Mayo Methot (in real life the former Mrs. Humphrey Bogart) and Thelma Todd as happy clients of Simon’s with Todd being especially vivacious in her all too brief screen appearance.

But ultimately Counsellor at Law is John Barrymore’s film. All of the characters revolve around his George Simon, and he never falters once. Some people believe that the non-Jewish Barrymore was miscast but I found Barrymore totally believable in the role. Little things he does—the constant eating of chocolates (a reminder of something he was denied as a child?), the softening of features when his mother (played by Clara Langsner) comes to visit, the genuine hurt he exhibits when his wife treats him coldly—all help to give depth to Simon’s character and gain empathy for his plight from the audience.

John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels in a tense moment.

Simon is a flawed person but he is a good man. Even the mistake he made that now threatens his career and life was done out of a belief, however misguided, in redemption for his client. Simon still helps people from the old neighbourhood, most likely pro bono, because you believe he doesn’t want to forget where he came from.

Class is a strong theme in the film. Simon’s wife and stepchildren appear to resent Simon’s origins and his profession with Cora making constant jabs about his work and expressing concern his actions may bring shame on her. They, along with Simon’s mother and a former neighbour and her radical son, symbolize the two worlds that Simon finds himself constantly straddling. One of the strongest scenes occurs when the young radical (played by future director Victor Sherman) confronts George and charges him with betraying his background. The cutting words visibly upset Simon.

The setting, the fast-paced law offices of two New York attorneys, acts as a barometer of Simon’s life (and while we're on the subject, what better building to symbolize the city but the Empire State Building). The place is a constant buzz—phones ringing, people coming in and out, orders being yelled. As long as everything keeps ticking and running on schedule, Simon is fine. But once it quiets down, when everyone goes home at night, Simon is forced to face his demons and his strength waivers.

As for the set, oh my God. The entire film takes place in the law offices, and they're Art Deco gorgeousness with sleek furniture, huge doors and windows, chrome and glass. I would never leave if I worked in a place like that.

One final comment about Barrymore. In this film you can see the toll that alcohol had taken on him; he looks older than his years. Watching him it’s easy to forget how handsome and dashing he was when he was younger (check him out below). 

But young or old, the man could command presence and in Counsellor at Law he does just that. I saw it at Film Forum this summer and the audience was obviously moved by his performance. If you've never seen the film, I highly recommend that you do. And if it's been a while since you last saw it, watch it again. It's that good.

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