Posted April 10, 2012 by D. K. Holm
An early talkie with John Barrymore seems like an unlikely film to help kick off the 20th Portland Jewish Film Festival, but Counsellor at Law(1933) turns out to be immersed in Jewish culture. And also in Irish, Italian, and WASP cultures. Like many Hollywood films of its time, Counsellor at Lawuses ethnic stereotypes as a shorthand and for easy humor.
Counsellor at Law is based on the stage play by Elmer Rice, and director William Wyler keeps it stagy while also ordering his camera to track around the premises of George Simon’s lavish law offices with penetrating intrusiveness. There are dollies and tracks both grand, such as shots that connect all the offices in the suite at one go, and subtle, as when the camera tracks in slightly to highlight Simon’s emotional changes. Sound had only come in some five or so years earlier, but already the medium is as lively as before but with the added benefit of snappy, quick dialogue of a kind that would make Aaron Sorkin green.
Counsellor at Law takes place over the course of a day or two. In the first of the film’s four segments, we meet Simon (Barrymore, aged 50 and looking it, with DT tremors visibly affecting his right hand), his devoted PA Rexie (Bebe Daniels), his wife, who is snooty Old Money (Doris Kenyon) with kids from a previous marriage, his law partner, various clients, and assorted office assistants, helpmeets, and spies. Among this crew is Simon’s mother (Clara Langsner), who reminds the viewer that her son came from the ghetto and clawed his way to the top, becoming one of Manhattan’s premiere attorneys, getting off murderers and other unsavory people (among them Thelma Todd), to Simon’s wive’s sniffy disapproval. Another hanger on is Darwin (Melvyn Douglas), the society layabout angling for an affair with Mrs. Simon. In segment two, Simon learns that his career is in jeopardy due to a youthful but well-meaning indiscretion. In segment three, his life is complicated by a new case that makes him examine his morality. And in the final segment, Simon wrestles with new changes in his life.
Wyler’s film is fast-paced, clippy, and evocative of an era in cinema when the talk was fast, not the cars, monsters, explosions, and editing. It’s also interesting to see in the cast several workaholic characters actors (John Ford regular John Qualen) and future film directors (Vincent Sherman as a rabble-rousing commie; Richard Quine as Simon’s ghastly step-son). Paul Muni played Simon on stage, but passed on the picture for fear of being typecast in “Jewish” roles. Wyler, who was also Jewish, apparently had to reign in Barrymore’s efforts at acting the part too ridiculously ethnic, though he does get to kiss his mother on the mouth, and Wyler rewarded the actor with opening and successive shots of the Barrymore profile, which was famous, for some reason, or at least that is what the history books tell us. Barrymore is visibly drunk in at least one scene in the film. And the tale certainly knows a lot about Jewish guilt, even if it comes in one scene from a goy. Simon’s shiksamanipulates him in one sequence that is a textbook for cutting and emasculating psychological self-aggrandizement. And like Lubitsch, Wyler knows, what not to show. A key scene takes place behind closed doors, which makes it more powerful and mysterious than if we saw it. Counsellor at Law is a fun and brisk 82 minute minuet of mixed early Hollywood tones.
Counsellor at Law plays at the Northwest Film Center at 7 PM, Monday, April 16, 2012. at 7 pm