Counsellor at Law

by Glenn Erickson Apr 08, 2023

William Wyler’s breakthrough movie gives John Barrymore one of his better sound-era dramatic roles, in a strong, incisive pre-Code adapted from Elmer Rice’s play set in a high-powered New York Law office. Attorney George Simon has done well by defending the rich, and eases his conscience by helping people from his roots down on Second Avenue. Now he’s being targeted for an old case, probably because his ancestors ‘didn’t come over on the Mayflower.’ Can Simon keep his wife, fend off the accusations of a communist activist, and avoid being disbarred? Bebe Daniels is his loyal Girl Friday, with Melvyn Douglas, Isabel Jewell and Thelma Todd in support.

Counsellor at Law
KL Studio Classics
1933 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 82 min. / Street Date February 7, 2023 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: John Barrymore, Bebe Daniels, Doris Kenyon, Isabel Jewell, Melvyn Douglas, Onslow Stevens, Thelma Todd, Clara Langsner, Robert Gordon, John Qualen, Richard Quine.
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Director: Charles D. Hall
Supervising Editor: Maurice Pivar
Film Editor: Daniel Mandell
Screenplay by Elmer Rice based upon his play
Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr.
Directed by
William Wyler

The best argument defending the Production Code is that the restrictions it placed on screen content ‘forced’ writers to come up with clever, sophisticated ways to suggest adult situations, instead of sullying the screen with nudity, crude dialogue and overt discussions of sordid adult subjects.

The pre-Code classic Counsellor at Law disproves that notion entirely. The show has no nudity, no on-screen sinning and no bad language *  , yet it manages to explore and examine five or six serious adult subjects that the coming enforcement of the revised Production Code would effectively ban from American screens. For years, Americans would be kept in an enforced cultural childhood — a state in which numerous issues considered ‘not nice’ were not acknowledged to exist.

Elmer Rice’s fine screenplay is taken from his own Broadway Play, which deals with real problems, including the country’s economic and class divides. Numerous characters and dramatic angles are filter through a law office in the Empire State Building, much the way Lewis Milestone’s  The Front Page  had framed most of its action inside a crowded newspaper office. The issues here suggest a social morality at work. Our attorney hero is no saint. He tries to stay above the hypocrisy around him, but his human weaknesses leave him open to attack from without, and from his own conscience.


The law office of Simon & Tedesco is in a constant buzz, with the chatty switchboard-receptionist Bessie Green (Isabel Jewell) fielding constant calls and visitors. Star attorney George Simon (John Barrymore) is mostly at the beck and call of the rich and decadent. He juggles several clients plus political contacts plus a constant flow of insider stock tips. Having sprung Zedorah Chapman (Mayo Methot) from a murder charge, he is presently securing a fat breach of promise payoff for Lillian La Rue (Thelma Todd).    But George also takes cases from his old neighborhood, Second Avenue: tearful ethnic mother Sarah Becker (Malka Kornstein) cries for help for her son Harry (future director Vincent Sherman), a communist activist beaten by the police. Simon’s own mother Lena (Clara Langster) visits, and gets a warm reception from everyone but Simon’s socialite wife, Cora (Doris Kenyon). Cora treats the office staff like her personal servants, and appears to have a more-than-friendly relationship going with ‘family friend’ Roy Darwin (Melvyn Douglas), who visits to mooch money from George.

 George Simon’s personal secretary is Rexy Gordon (2nd billed Bebe Daniels), who remains mum about Cora’s obvious philandering — she can see that George’s wife doesn’t even like being in the same room with him. Of all the complications that come together in these swank offices, the most important is an old case that could get George disbarred: years ago, he accepted an alibi that he knew was bogus for his defendant Johan Breitstein (John Qualen). Now another attorney is attempting to re-open the case and expose the truth.


Simon’s own political connection Pete Malone (T.H. Manning) suspects the real motive behind the charge: Park Avenue types jealous of Simon’s success don’t like his humble Jewish background. Malone is himself two-faced, but he expresses the conflict with a clarity that disappeared when the Production Code arrived:

“Those guys who came over on the Mayflower don’t like to see the boys from Second Avenue sitting in the high places.”

The same anti-Semitic discrimination has likely seeped into George’s marriage, explaining why Cora now seems less attached to him. “Well, darling, you’ll make a gentleman of me yet.” says George, as if aware that she regards him as possessing an inferior social status.

Little escapes George’s critical eye, but his marriage is a blind spot: he’s still crazy about Cora. Ever the loyal employee, Rexy looks for ways to support her boss, because she loves him too. But she knows she can’t be the one to bring him the bad news about his wife.


William Wyler directs this adapted play at pleasing pace — George Simon rattles off some of his dialogues but not every speech is given a ‘Front Page’ machine gun delivery. There’s plenty of bustle among George’s mixed-background staff. The office boy Henry (Bobby Gordon) is nervy and rude to Bessie. Charlie McFadden (J. Hammond Dailey) is a rehabilitated Irish house-breaker, who now works as George’s private detective. All stand in awe of their over-achieving boss, but there is some chafing in the ranks. Law researcher Herbert Weinberg (Marvin Kline) won’t accept Rexy’s turn-down when he asks her for dates.    He all but accuses her of anti-Semitic prejudice: “You might at least be civil to me. Everywhere else I go people treat me with civility.”  Cora has two children from a previous marriage, Dorothy and Richard (Barbara Perry & future director Richard Quine). The privileged brats coldly reject George’s attempts to be friendly, preferring the smooth-mannered Roy Darwin . . . who they seem to know very well. 

George Simon has a solid law partner in John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens) — when told of George’s previous legal misconduct, John doesn’t abandon him. Tedesco’s private secretary Goldie (Angela Jacobs) is a curious sidebar character seemingly included to give the audience a break from the general office chaos. A creature of habit, Goldie is oblivious to the drama around her. Two Italian clients ogle her behind as she toddles by; Wyler interrupts everything to observe Goldie’s slow walks to the ladies’ room.


George is enthusiastic about his mother and uses his humble roots on Second Avenue as his moral compass in the ‘no rules’ arena of big deals, shady clients and political posturing. He sees nothing wrong with fleecing the rich but also welcomes petty ‘neighborhood’ cases that are all but Pro Bono, like the Becker problem. But George has himself cut corners in the past. The perjury business with Breitstein was done in the spirit of justice, but Simon and Tedesco also recklessly deal in insider trading. In the midst of a crisis, George notes that one of his sly stock sales has earned his law partner $10,000. George is a whiz at winning juries over to his point of view, but will he hold together as several big problems come at him all at once?

William Wyler’s distinctive style intensifies the drama without drawing too much attention to itself. For some activities he moves his camera, and for others is content to remain still and observe action in depth. We soon get the layout of the office — which rooms are private, and in which the office staff feel comfortable flexing their personalities. Wyler’s compositions can be aggressive, as when the zealot Harry Becker rises in the frame as a huge silhouette before Cora’s snobby kids. Wyler pushes-in to a close-up on the frightened kids. That push-in move is repeated only once, when George Simon is at his wits’ end. The sparing use of aggressive camera techniques shows real directorial decisiveness — unlike modern movies that insist on constant agitation, for fear of losing the audience’s interest.


From an acting point of view Counsellor at Law is easily one of John Barrymore’s better sound-era pictures. The actor’s alcoholism made it difficult for him to remember lines of dialogue, and the movie ran over schedule. But the finished product was considered excellent, with Barrymore carrying many dialogue-filled scenes. Reviewers praised the picture and the director received much of the credit — no more third-rate program pictures for William Wyler.

Primarily a silent star, Bebe Daniels is now mainly known for this show and the classic musical  42nd Street.  We’re rooting for Daniels’ Rexy from the start, as we do similar loyal Girl Friday types in  Employee’s Entrance  and  Skyscraper Souls. Yet Rexy has depth of character and a sense of self-worth. She may hide her feelings for George, but she’s not attracted to Herman and won’t let herself be intimidated by his too-aggressive advances.

The movie is up front with author Elmer Rice’s progressive politics. The firebrand Becker spouts his communist rhetoric in a way that impresses George Simon, even if he disagrees with everything Becker says. Becker is committed to his beliefs, while George has doubts about his own role in society, doing errands for rich miscreants. Are George’s efforts to help cases ‘from the neighborhood’ a guilty attempt to atone for his own corruption?  As soon as the Production Code arrived, soapbox commies would no longer be tolerated. They were replaced by comic-relief Reds, epitomized by the (hilarious) Mischa Auer in  My Man Godfrey.  With the Code, any kind of anti-business political activism was frowned upon. Union organizers were frequently depicted as troublemaking vermin (MGM’s Riffraff, 1936).


A number of Counsellor at Law’s actors came straight from the Broadway play, including John Qualen, now most known for films by John Ford. Qualen started out in Elmer Rice’s play Street Scene, another exposé of what Harry Becker calls ‘the class divide.’ Qualen would later play the pitiful, harmless ‘anarchist’ in Howard Hawks’ The Front Page remake  His Girl Friday,  and then the Oakie driven from his own farm in  The Grapes of Wrath.  Qualen has just the one scene, the same as most of George Simon’s clients. We have to assume that Rice’s play was trimmed to fit within an 82-minute running time. Not every sidebar story was retained. We only hear about George’s apparently no-good younger brother (who in the play was performed by Ned Glass).

George Simon’s character is taken to the limit, making Counsellor at Law the best of the pre-Codes that share the iconic image of a disillusioned New Yorker leaping from a high window . . . an image much later incorporated into the titles for TV’s  Mad Men.  George is more on the brink than he realizes, both over his possible disbarment and his illusions about his showcase marriage. Wyler catches him now and then in static poses, caught at a moment of doubt or self-reflection.


From this point onward William Wyler’s career soared. Not to be missed are his superb mid-30s pictures  The Good Fairy,  These Three,  Dodsworth,  Come and Get It and  Dead End.  And that’s before his classic movies with Bette Davis, etc.

Sidebar Thought One: The screenplay name-drops  Peggy Hopkins Joyce,  a famous-for-being-famous playgirl of the era. One needs to know who ‘Peggy Joyce’ is to understand the reference in this picture, and also an entire running gag in Paramount’s  International House,  in which Joyce stars, making fun of her own celebrity.

Sidebar Thought Two: The show was released in the December of 1933, but on screen it is copyrighted 1934. Does that mean that someone could have pirated prints and shown it all they wanted over the Christmas holiday?



The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Counsellor at Law is a fine HD encoding advertised as from a new 2K master. It far outclasses the ancient Kino DVD from 2002, especially in the audio department. We can now admire the handsome office set, with its tall ceilings, bas-relief decorations, and fancy glass doorways.

Audio commentary specialist Daniel Kremer gives forth with a smooth chat track, inviting his guest Catherine Wyler to comment on her father’s film. She hasn’t seen it in years, and offers interesting family memories in addition to her own take on the film’s significance. Much of the track is devoted to an examination of William Wyler’s background, especially his emigration to New York and then Hollywood, starting as a lucky relative of Universal head Carl Laemmle.

They confirm that Counsellor at Law was Wyler’s career breakthrough — he got the credit for guiding the ‘difficult’ John Barrymore to such a fine performance. We learn that Paul Muni had played the role on Broadway, likely with a more direct nod to George Simon’s Jewish background. We hear both ‘Wiki’ reasons why Muni didn’t take the film role: either he didn’t want to be typecast as Jewish (fuzzy) or he was under contract to Warners (more credible).

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Counsellor at Law
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Commentary with Daniel Kremer and Catherine Wyler .
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
April 6, 2023

*  The Production Code wielded considerable power even before it was revised and fully enforced. In this sharp, stable HD encoding we can see for ourselves that a rumored bit of dialogue censorship is true. Sometime between filming and the final print, Wyler and Universal were entreated to clean two words off the Counsellor soundtrack. Having secured a payoff from her lawsuit, Lillian La Rue (Thelma Todd) makes a stylish exit from the office, having been told by George Simon that the defendants aren’t very happy. Her retort is, “Well, for God’s sake, what do they expect for ten thousand dollars?”  We can now see Todd’s lips continuing with no sound. She’s obviously saying the exact words we are told were blooped: “A virgin?”

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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