Monday, March 27, 2023

Tonight's Movie: Counsellor at Law (1933) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

One of my favorite pre-Code dramas, COUNSELLOR AT LAW (1933), is being released on Blu-ray this week by Kino Lorber.

I've seen this film multiple times, including my first viewing in 2010 and a memorable nitrate screening in 2018, and the highest compliment I can give the movie is that it only gets better on each viewing.

This 82-minute film unfolds at a breakneck pace and never lets up, demanding viewer attention start to finish.

John Barrymore plays George Simon, a prominent New York attorney. He and his partner (Onslow Stevens) have an impressive practice in the Empire State Building -- the film is worth watching for the Art Deco decor alone -- but the elegant setting initially masks that George comes from a poor immigrant background.

George now has it made, or so he thinks, with a lovely wife, Cora (Doris Kenyon) and two stepchildren (Richard Quine and Barbara Perry), but the children won't give him the time of day, and it very slowly dawns on George that Cora isn't very interested in him either. Kenyon's delicate sigh to herself after he kisses her and says she smells good is one of the most brilliantly played moments in a movie that's full of them.

Meanwhile George's loyal, highly efficient secretary Rexy (Bebe Daniels) quietly pines after him, while George himself handles a barrage of clients, a bit of insider trading, and the prospect of disbarment. That latter problem is a bridge too far for Cora, who's more concerned about what her friends will think than how her husband is bearing up under the stress.

William Wyler briskly directs from a screenplay by Elmer Rice, based on Rice's own Broadway play, which opened in 1931 starring Paul Muni. (A few of the supporting actors in the film repeat their Broadway parts.) While the movie's action is confined to the law firm set, Wyler manages to avoid making it feel too obviously like a filmed stage play. The movie was beautifully shot by Norbert Brodine.

While the film gives the later HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) a run for its money in terms of the fast pace and rapid-fire dialogue, Wyler and the cast also provide beautifully nuanced and memorable small bits of business. The previously mentioned moment with Doris Kenyon is one scene; I also particularly noted things like Rexy immediately putting her head down and busying herself with work when she notices the arrival of Mr. Baird (Elmer Brown), who insistently presses her for a date.

Melvyn Douglas pops in for a couple of entertaining scenes as Roy Darwin, who proves to be nervy enough to tap George for a substantial loan at the same time he's courting his wife behind his back. Also of note are Isabel Jewell as the fast-talking, sing-song-voiced telephone operator and John Hammond Dailey as George's personal private detective.

For additional thoughts on this film I refer readers to my 2010 review. All in all, this is a highly entertaining movie which I very much recommend.

Kino Lorber's Blu-ray is from a brand-new 2K master. There are occasional lines and scratches, particularly in some later scenes, but on the whole the film looks and sounds great, particularly when one realizes the film's 90th anniversary is this year.

Extras consist of a gallery of four trailers for other William Wyler films available from Kino Lorber and a commentary track by Daniel Kremer and the director's daughter, Catherine Wyler.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

This has to be a BluRay I would like to get if at all possible as, and I thoroughly agree with Laura, it is a terrific movie with some really fine performances. Wyler's direction indicated a great career was ahead. Really, a must-have!

9:22 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

I love this movie too. One of my favorite pre-Code discoveries ever.

There was only one thing I was wondering the whole time. What if Warren William had played Barrymore's role? I like Barrymore in this movie, though I think William might have give the role a bit more of an ambiguous edge. But maybe not.

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Barry Lane said...

Margot, you are wrong, andhave asked the wrong question. The person who might have transcended Barrymore and was born for it was Paul Muni, who refused. The key element is the leading male's Jewishness, and Muni, who was a Jew, refused to play one on screen.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Barry Lane said...

Regarding Warren William. This admiration for his career was much milder in his lifetime. A road company Barrymore. Or in the world of theatre, a big star in Indianapolis.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry and Margot, thanks for adding your endorsements! I hope this film will attract new audiences now that it's out on Blu-ray.

Barry and I often share the same tastes but in this instance my opinion is more in line with Margot, I think Warren William might have been interesting. I know Muni is greatly respected but I've never been able to warm up to him -- perhaps I haven't seen him in the right film yet but to date I find him extremely dull. (Sorry, Muni fans!)

George is definitely an ambiguous character -- essentially a good man who's done "questionable" things -- and I could see William doing interesting things with the part. (I also think Barrymore was quite good.) Funny thing, David Brian's character in FLAMINGO ROAD (1949), which I also watched this week, has some of the same ambiguity.

Best wishes,

7:18 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Barry, like Laura said, we very often share the same opinion but no, not this time. Barry, you are right, the movie is to a great extent about George Simon's Jewishness. My favorite quote of the movie is:
"Those guys who came over on the Mayflower don’t like to see the boys from Second Avenue sitting in the high places.” Awesome. Barrymore gets it. I don't even want to think about Muni in this role.

But I wasn't thinking about his heritage. I was thinking about Simon's shadiness, his slightly slippery off-kilter but right on target sense of justice which didn't necessarily adhere to the letter of the law, but the spirit of it (How very New York). Pre-Code Warren William nailed these kinds of dubious characters. He was the king of pre-Code shadiness, to say the least.

Yes, I would have loved to see him as George Simon.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Barry Lane said...

Margot, yu make some sense, I still disagree but not so much. On the other hand, Muni, who was my neighbor some of the time in the 1960s was strange a less than sociable fellow. That and his background, and of course he played the part on Broadway, continue to make him the right guy.

About Muni and me. We both had apartments on East End Avenue with our wives. Paul seemed shy and while not frail, a little weaker than average. Louis Hayward was in town and came over, he had done The Woman I Love with Paul and Miriam Hopkins. I suggested he drop by and say hello, but Hayward, a sociable fella declined. Oh, I did not mean he declined my invitation, I just seeing Muni.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Always love your anecdotes, Barry! :) What an interesting personal connection and background.

Best wishes,

10:04 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Like Laura, I like to hear your anecdotes, Barry. Always interesting to get an inside view on the acting profession.

I didn't know Muni played the role on Broadway.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

I forgot to add, I saw Muni in We Are Not Alone. I thought he was really good in that role.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Barry Lane said...

Thank you, guys. The reason my anecdotes work is that I am the only one alive from the period.
And if I had not seen The Return of Monte Cristo in 1946, and devoted my life to being this kind of guy, not Edmund Dants, Louis Hayward -- I would not have been exposed to anything or anyone. Hayward, by the way, got it. One day, he turned to me and said, in astonishment. 'Barry, you're a buff!'

2:45 PM  
Blogger Lyson said...

Laura - Thank you for the review - thanks to you my copy arrives today. I'll put it on our Saturday Night Movie schedule. My wife will be thrilled that it isn't a western:)

Margot & Barry - thank you for your comments - I always learn & enjoy the knowledge that is shared by others like yourselves.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Thanks, Lyson. I don't know if I've "seen" you around here before. :)

2:27 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Lyson, thank you for reading! I'd love to know your feedback when you see it.

Best wishes,

3:14 PM  

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