Counsellor at Law (1933)

Directed by William Wyler

Counsellor at Law is a 1933 American Pre-Code drama film directed by William Wyler. The screenplay by Elmer Rice is based on his 1931 Broadway play of the same title.

The story focuses on several days in a critical juncture in the life of George Simon, who rose from his humble roots in a poor Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to become a shrewd, highly successful attorney.


Earlier in his career, he allowed a guilty client to perjure himself on the witness stand because he believed the man could be rehabilitated if freed. Rival lawyer Francis Clark Baird has learned about the incident and is threatening to expose George, which will lead to his disbarment. The possibility of a public scandal horrifies his socialite wife Cora, who plans to flee to Europe with Roy Darwin. Devastated by his wife’s infidelity, George is about to leap from the window of his office in the Empire State Building when his secretary Regina, who is in love with him, comes to his rescue.


After directing a series of films he considered inconsequential, William Wyler was happy to be assigned to a prestigious project based on a play that had enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. paid $150,000 for the screen rights, an unusually high price tag during the Great Depression, and to ensure the film’s success he hired Elmer Rice to adapt his own play.


In early August 1933, Wyler met Rice in Mexico City, where he was vacationing with his family, for preliminary discussions about the script. Rice was loath to mix business with pleasure and assured the director he would begin working as soon as his holiday ended. On August 22, he shipped a first draft from his New York office to Universal Pictures. Wyler approved of the screenplay, and principal photography was slated to begin on September 8.


Laemmle wanted to cast Paul Muni as George Simon, the role he had created on stage, but the actor declined because he feared being typecast as Jewish. Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Schildkraut, and William Powell were considered before Laemmle decide to cast against type and offer the role to John Barrymore in order to capitalize on his box office appeal. Both Wyler and Rice wanted to cast

Soon after filming began, Wyler realized much of the material Rice had excised from his play was necessary to build scenes, and he began incorporating it back into the screenplay. Eventually he worked with both the screenplay and play script at hand, a procedure he would follow when making The Little Foxes in later years.


Barrymore had signed for $25,000 per week, and Wyler was ordered to film all his scenes as quickly as possible. What should have taken two weeks ultimately took three-and-a-half because the actor could not remember his lines. After taking twenty-seven takes to complete one brief scene, Wyler decided to resort to cue cards strategically placed around the set. Also adding to delays was Barrymore’s heavy drinking, which frequently gave his face a puffy appearance that required the makeup crew to tape his jowls. Between dealing with Barrymore and trying to comply with Laemmle’s demands to complete the film on schedule and within the allotted budget, Wyler was tense and irritable and tended to take out his frustrations on the supporting cast

Three months after filming began, the film opened to critical and commercial success at Radio City Music Hall on December 11, 1933.


performers from the various stage productions, and although several screen tests were made, most of the roles were filled by studio contract players. Vincent Sherman, who had been in the Chicago production, was signed to reprise his small role of Harry Becker, a young radical with Communist leanings; he later became a prolific film and television director. Another cast member, Richard Quine, then 13, similarly went on to a career as a director, writer and producer.


It’s criminal that this superb melodrama, from a well-made play of the day, isn’t better known. Barrymore, all cylinders firing yet giving a perfectly natural, restrained performance, is a hotshot New York lawyer facing personal and professional ruin; he may never have been better in the movies, and some of the magnetism that made him a stage legend shines through. Wyler makes no attempt to “open up” the stage material; he basically confines it to one (very beautiful) set, and his camera unobtrusively follows the legal-office denizens around, seemingly overhearing conversations, Altman-style. There’s a lot of social history tucked away — with commentary about Jews and gentiles, rich and poor, capitalist and communist — and a whole stageful of compelling characters, who often define themselves in a walk, a smirk, a laugh. And yes, there are contrivances and coincidences, but that’s the stuff the well-made melodramas of the time were made of, and they were seldom constructed as neatly as this. I saw it at a revival house, with a smart New York audience, and nobody laughed in the wrong place or grew cynical about the old social conventions that no longer apply. In fact, at the end they applauded good and hard — after 70 years, this one’s still a corker.



Author: Michael Bo ( from Copenhagen, Denmark
6 January 2005

‘Counsellor at Law’ is guaranteed to take your breath away, even if you’re a child of the so-called MTV revolution of ultra-fast editing and relentless energy. It is more than 70 years old now, and it feels so new and invigorating.

John Barrymore, in the role of a lifetime, plays the brisk and matter-of-fact lawyer who came to his prestige, fortune and society-wife the hard way, cutting corners along the way, meddling in gray areas and doing a bit of shady business on the side. “I’m no golf player”, he says, and right he is. In the course of a work-day, the same day that his wife and his two overbearing step-children are on their way to Europe, he is accused of corruption and his whole world collapses around him, as he tries to evade his destiny.


No synopsis of ‘Counsellor at Law’ can do the film justice. It is a manic, mind-blowing depiction of a breakdown, stressful and paranoiac. Barrymore’s character is completely alienated from his own family, because he originates from the working-class, the son a Jewish-German baker. During this one morning at work, before things start crashing down, Barrymore has a visit from a woman who wants him to defend her son who was arrested in Union Square in the middle of an inflammatory Communist speech. And it is not even lunch-time yet.

Rent this movie, even better: Buy it. You will want to watch it more than once. It is a bona fide masterpiece, filmed in William Wyler’s usual brilliantly organic style.


Great Acting by John Barrymore

Author: whpratt1 from United States
3 January 2005

Always admired John Barrymore and his great acting skills and in this picture he plays a Jewish Lawyer, (George Simon),”Midnight”,’39, who is very successful and climbs to the top of his profession, not only helping the very rich but also his old time neighbors and especially is mother. William Wyler directed this great film classic and was able to help John Barrymore give an outstanding performance despite his drinking problem. It was in this picture that John Barrymore started to forget his lines and need cue cards, however, he gave an outstanding performance. The entire film was at a very fast pace with all the actors running through their dialog which was the practice during the early 1930’s. Melvyn Douglas,(Roy Darwin),”The Old Dark House”,’32, played a very brief role and managed to steal George Simon’s wife away from him on a cruise. This is a great film classic and worth the time to view.



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