William Wyler's COUNSELLOR AT LAW continues several themes running through my recent viewing, with pre-Codes, the legal profession, and Melvyn Douglas all represented in one neat package. And what a terrific package! COUNSELLOR AT LAW is riveting entertainment; I'm surprised the film is not better known.
COUNSELLOR AT LAW depicts a few frenzied days at the law offices of Simon and Tedesco. George Simon (John Barrymore), from a poor immigrant family, has overcome hardship (including, perhaps, anti-Semitism) to become a hugely successful New York City lawyer with an office in the Empire State Building. George is a good man, despite a little insider trading and cooking up a fake alibi once upon a time for someone he deemed worthy of help. George has never forgotten his roots, whether it's employing someone from the "old neighborhood" or giving legal help to those from his past.
George's loyal secretary Rexy (Bebe Daniels) silently moons after her boss, who adores his wife Cora (Doris Kenyon); unfortunately for George, we gradually learn Cora does not feel the same way about her husband. Cold fish Cora, in fact, seems embarrassed by her husband, and she is overly interested in Roy Darwin (Melvyn Douglas), who's nervy enough to borrow money from George while seeing George's wife on the side.
That scarcely scratches the surface of the film's plot. The characters speak so quickly there are probably enough stories for two films crammed into this one movie. In some ways the film is a forerunner of HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) in terms of speed talking, although for the most part it doesn't utilize HIS GIRL FRIDAY's constantly overlapping dialogue. The fastest talker of them all is switchboard operator Bessie (Isabel Jewell), who creates a very memorable character. Jewell's best-known roles are probably in LOST HORIZON (1937) and GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), but she certainly deserves to be remembered for this film as well.
The film ends with the charming words "A Good Cast is Worth Repeating," then lists the film's players, just as they were listed at the start of the film. The ensemble is truly excellent, with a slew of memorable characters. It was a treat to see John Barrymore in this, as many of his later performances were, shall we say, over the top. (An exception was his charming role as the ersatz fairy godfather in 1939's MIDNIGHT.) This film gave me much greater insight into Barrymore's acting ability; it's certainly the best of his performances which I've seen to date.
Bebe Daniels is quietly touching as Simon's devoted secretary. This film was released the same year as another classic Daniels film, 42ND STREET. Daniels, who married actor Ben Lyon in 1930, was mostly done with films by 1938; she and Lyon were married until her passing in 1971. Lyon married former actress Marian Nixon that same year and passed away himself in 1979.
John Qualen has an effective single scene as the client Simon got out of a jam once upon a time. Onslow Stevens plays Simon's partner, John Tedesco, whose calm manner seems to be matched well with Simon's more excitable demeanor. Thelma Todd and Mayo Methot (who at one point was Mrs. Humphrey Bogart) are also in the cast.
The Simon and Tedesco law firm is one of the most spectacular art deco sets I've ever seen, particularly the more private area set aside for Simon and his secretary. The sleek lines on the doors to Rexy's office and the bar set high on the wall in Simon's office are just two of the film's visual delights. The art and set decoration were by Charles D. Hall and Ray Moyer, respectively. This movie would be worth seeing for the set alone, even if it didn't also have a well-acted, interesting storyline.
The script by Elmer Rice is based on his own play. Although the movie is set entirely in the law office, the film never feels stagebound; this contrasts sharply with a later Wyler film based on a play, DETECTIVE STORY (1951), where the limitations of the police station set serve as a constant reminder that it's a filmed play.
The film is notable as some future directors appeared in the cast as actors. Longtime Warner Bros. director Vincent Sherman (THE HARD WAY, NORA PRENTISS) appears as one of Barrymore's clients, a deranged young Communist whose mother knew Barrymore back in the old neighborhood.
Richard Quine (BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE, FULL OF LIFE) acted in over two dozen films, including spending several years under contract to MGM, before directing his first film in 1948. Quine plays Barrymore's stepson. And Bobby Gordon, who plays the office boy, was a child and teen actor in over two dozen movies who later directed under the name Robert Gordon (IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, TV's MAVERICK and ZANE GREY THEATER).
This movie is available on DVD from Kino as part of the William Wyler Collection. It also had a VHS release.
COUNSELLOR AT LAW runs a fast-paced 82 minutes. Like the vast majority of Wyler's films released from 1933 on, it's a memorable film worth seeking out.