Things are certainly jumping in the Manhattan law offices of Simon & Tedesco—phone operator Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) and “office boy”* Henry Susskind (Robert Gordon) can barely keep up with the influx of calls and mail, while the lobby is filled with a variety of clients waiting to speak with one of the lawyers.
And a very New York mix of clients it is, with old-world types like the Italian-speaking Moretti (George Humbert) and desperate mother Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein, wearing a shawl that immediately signals her social class) rubbing elbows with the likes of the elegant and very modern Zedora Chapman (Mayo Methot), recently freed from murder charges, and Lillian La Rue (Thelma Todd), whose difficulties seem to be of a more intimate nature. In his spacious office, George Simon (John Barrymore) fields one call after another from the two phones on his desk, while his secretary Rexy Gordon (Bebe Daniels) manages a third (which has a Hush-a-Phone attached, a device anyone who’s worked in a modern open office might appreciate being revived).
Welcome to the world of George Simon, a poor Jewish boy who made good in the cutthroat world of Manhattan law. You know Simon & Tedesco are a big deal because their offices are located in the Empire State Building (the world’s tallest at the time, completed just two years before this film’s release in 1933). The elevator lobby is a sea of gleaming marble, and the offices themselves are decorated in the latest Art Deco style, signaling modernity and prosperity to contemporary audiences. Despite his success, however, Simon hasn’t forgotten his roots, assuring Mrs. Becker that he’ll get her son out of jail (he was arrested while making a speech supporting Communism, a very 1930s sort of event), while slipping her some cash and recalling that they used to live in the same building.
There’s no story without conflict, and trouble soon arrives in a steadily escalating chorus. Roy Darwin (Melvyn Douglas) shows up to ask for a favor, then for a loan. Simon’s mother (Clara Langsner) arrives to beg him to “help out” his ne’er-do-well brother Davie, who has a taste for passing rubber checks. His wife (Doris Kenyon), who comes from a much higher strata of society, implores him to drop an important case (which he says is worth $100,000, or over $2 million in today’s dollars) because it could disadvantage one of her rich friends. Then the real trouble arrives in the form of news that a prisoner is threatening to reveal some information about an act of dishonesty in Simon’s past—the kind that could get him disbarred, even though he did it for the best of reasons.
The screenplay for William Wyler’s Counsellor-at-Law was adapted by Elmer Rice from his own hit play, and the theatrical origin explains why the action is confined to what could just as well be a stage set. It also explains why the characters are drawn so broadly, and why the dialogue is so frequently on-the-nose. On the plus side, restricting the action to the law offices works well on screen because it focuses attention on the fast-paced dialogue and allows the able cast, many of whom also appeared in the Broadway production, to show what they could do. From the not-Broadway cast, Isabel Jewell stands out for providing comic relief from the predominantly heavy subject matter, investing as much energy into managing her private life as to her job duties, and switching effortlessly between accents depending on whom she’s speaking to.
One casting change reveals something about America in the 1930s: Paul Muni, who got his start in the Yiddish Art Theatre, played the lead on Broadway but declined to repeat the role on film because he didn’t want to get typecast in Jewish roles. Casting Barrymore was a move in the opposite direction—while Simon speaks of his humble origins, his manner is so completely assimilated that you might otherwise think he was to the manor born. It’s true that being a chameleon is sometimes a requirement of career success, but with Barrymore’s characterization there’s no hint of his reality ever being otherwise. | Sarah Boslaugh
*Using the terminology of the film. I’m not sure such a role exists today.
Counsellor-At-Law is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, with a street date of March 28. The main extra on the disc is an audio commentary by film historian and filmmaker Daniel Kremer, and actress and producer Catherine Wyler (daughter of William Wyler).