Counsellor at Law Is Just One Example Putting the Lie to John Barrymore’s Late Career “Decline”
Note: This is the hundred-and-seventy-fifth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Letterboxd, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1933 film, COUNSELLOR AT LAW, directed by William Wyler.
By the early 1930s, the “Great Profile,” John Barrymore, had fallen far from the esteem afforded him by audiences and show business professionals at his stage and silent film heights in the 1920s. But ironically, I find, beginning with his early talkie career, Barrymore was delivering the best screen performances of his life. Ravaged by alcoholism and the various personal problems that such a disease causes, the living icon was allegedly “difficult to work with,” flailing about in diva fashion and stumbling over or completely forgetting lines. The roles Barrymore took in this era often played with his apparent has-been status, and more accurately they offered him a chance to play the flamboyant yet tired charmer as well as the deeply troubled sufferer. Perhaps the credit for his riveting performances in the early ’30s should also be shared by Barrymore’s directing collaborators. One of the most fruitful pairings was with William Wyler for COUNSELLOR AT LAW, a career-shifting film for the eventual three-time Oscar for Best Director winner and a rich study of a “rags to riches” character from Barrymore.
In COUNSELLOR AT LAW, Barrymore plays George Simon, one of the best lawyers in New York City. But Simon didn’t come from riches to this point; he was a poor Jew in the Lower East Side and his Horatio Alger story landed him in the spacious art deco offices in which the entire film takes place. COUNSELLOR AT LAW is based on the 1931 play of the same name by Elmer Price, a lefty who seemed to have at least some sympathy for the Communist Party, as shown by his personal politics and a character in his source material and the film (more on that later).
At a time when many movies based on stage productions kept the action in essentially one location with staid commitment, Wyler fires up his camera to chart the very three-dimensional feel of Simon’s offices. Beyond this, the rooms are occupied with a host of colorful characters, including Simon’s partner John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens), associate attorneys, switchboard operators, office boys, and visiting clients, both blue blood and streetwise. Although ultimately classified as a “drama,” humor defines much of what makes COUNSELLOR AT LAW compelling; its story is enriched by a diversity of emotions and doesn’t solely lie in a melodramatic mode.
The most important supporting denizen of the offices is Regina Gordon, played by Bebe Daniels, also at the tail end of a famed career that reached its peak in the silent era. Performing her secretary to Simon with a stoic yet pining love for her boss, Daniels also delivers some of the best work of her career, even with her relatively limited screen time as a tonic to the machinations of Simon’s spoiled and cheating socialite wife Cora (Doris Kenyon). Cora lies at one of two points that emerge to torment Simon through the film. Her infidelity with Roy Darwin (a dashing Melvyn Douglas) is an anxious complement to her fear of a scandal, and Simon’s fear of disbarment, when a rival lawyer discovers that Simon led a guilty client to perjure himself on the stand. Simon has not been portrayed as totally virtuous, but his sympathy for the common person has been established in spite of or perhaps because of his new money wealth, especially in comparison to his out-of-touch wife. As he achingly explains, his action was an early career move in belief that his client could be more successfully rehabilitated.
Simon’s other “save the cat” moment, as it were, is revealed by a pro bono case he takes on. Securing the release of the son of an old family friend from the Lower East Side, Simon discovers that the young man arrested for participating in a pro-Communist rally is ungrateful for his help, and indeed, castigates the lawyer for his apparent class betrayal. The inclusion of an even remotely sympathetic or principled portrayal of a Communist in a mainstream Hollywood film is not something that would last much longer. And it reveals Price’s intentions in the creation of the Simon character, with its commentary on the “American Dream” and what is sacrificed to achieve it.
Barrymore beautifully embodies Price’s ideas and Wyler’s sense of dynamism. Sometimes pacing like a tiger of ambition, more and more often slumping with the fear of a man who is about to lose it all (or rather, just about to live as he once did), Barrymore’s Simon is conflicted in mind and mood, in principle and outward behavior. This leads him to the climactic scene and my favorite part of COUNSELLOR AT LAW, the reason why the movie resonates with me so. Alone in his dark offices, seated at the switchboard, Simon ruminates on everything that has brought him to this point (over just the past three days, mind you). A disturbing parallel is brought to mind by Wyler and cinematographer Norbert Brodine’s shot of an open window, recalling conversation about a lawyer who threw himself from his lofty New York offices. The shroud of darkness about Barrymore reveals just how well he could radiate the subconscious of the character, aided of course by Wyler’s adroit cinematic language.
Now, I’m not saying Simon should have, for dramatics’ sake, killed himself. But the way COUNSELLOR AT LAW ends does feel very “Hollywood,” even if much of the rest of the film utilizes a permissiveness afforded by the Pre-Code era. Rushing in as he’s about to throw himself from the window, Regina stops Simon and explains that the whole circumstance has been cleaned up and they can be free to be with each other. Although this sets my eyes to rolling to some extent, Barrymore plays such a complicated yet ultimately sympathetic character that I am happy to see his problem positively resolved, regardless of the dangling implications of his secured class position.
Circumventing a climax almost entirely used by dramas centered on the legal profession, COUNSELLOR AT LAW grounds its resolution in personal psychology, regret, and fear, not in the principled stand for or against a system in a courtroom. In fact, we never see anyone in a courtroom at any point in the film. This unique approach is complemented by Wyler’s expressive camera and Barrymore’s subtle yet almost overwhelming performance of struggle. COUNSELLOR AT LAW is just one of a few great examples of how the tabloid staple could still dish out his craft at an elevated level, and the way Barrymore is supported in this task by the film’s grammar and narrative implications makes it thoroughly rich.