6 February 2008 | bkoganbing
Barrymore Beats The WASPS
Elmer Rice's long running Broadway play about a Jewish lawyer who never forgets his class roots became a hit for star Paul Muni. If the screen rights had been bought by Warner Brothers instead of Universal, I'm sure Muni might have repeated his part. It's a pity we have no record of his performance because I'm sure he was a natural for the role.
Although the casting might seem bizarre John Barrymore does a superb job in the role Muni created om Counsellor at Law. This is a man who did live out the American dream, rising to the very top of his profession by hard work and a natural aptitude for the profession of law. He lives a good life style with a trophy WASP wife and a couple of step children who really don't like him. He never forgets where he came from and is available to many from the Lower East Side Neighborhood from where he sprung, pro bono.
Counsellor At Law with its lead character of George Simon is no doubt based on real life attorney Samuel Leibowitz who at that time was engaged in the biggest case of his career, defending the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama. There are also echoes of another famous Jewish attorney, Louis D. Brandeis who sat on the United States Supreme Court. Like Barrymore's character Simon, Brandeis and Leibowitz both aroused the jealousy and resentment of some of the old time lawyers of the WASP white shoe persuasion. It was some of those who led the opposition to Brandeis when Woodrow Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court.
Here the opposition is in the person of Elmer Brown, your basic bigoted White AngloSaxon Protestant whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower or shortly after and think of America as their private preserve. He's gotten some information that on a previous case that involved Barrymore getting John Qualen off, an alibi witness is saying the alibi he provided was false. Problem is the alibi was false and the witness is saying Barrymore suborned perjury.
Universal was fortunate enough to get Elmer Rice to adapt his own play for the screen and William Wyler does a fine job in directing so much so that you're not conscious of the fact that it all takes place within Barrymore's rather large office. Though it's not shot in those long takes like Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rope, Counsellor at Law has that same feel about it.
It also has several plot lines running at once, very similar to William Wyler's later work, The Detective Story. Barrymore's marriage is on the rocks, wife Doris Kenyon is seeing Melvyn Douglas on the side. Barrymore has also been asked to defend the son of his mother's friend played by future director Vincent Sherman who is a Communist radical making inflammatory speeches in Union Square back in the day when that was the thing to do.
One very ironic scene involves young Sherman with his head bandaged waiting with his mother in the anteroom, where Barrymore's snobbish bratty stepkids are waiting. The young boy stepson is played by Richard Quine who also became a pretty noted film director himself.
There are also some very good performances by Bebe Daniels as Barrymore's loyal secretary and an ironically funny one by Isabelle Jewell as the switchboard operator.
John Barrymore had a very good grasp at screen characters who were reaching the end of their rope. Counsellor at Law very much follows in the same vein as his characters in Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight.
With Louis D. Brandeis and Samuel Leibowitz very much in the public eye, Counsellor at Law had a built in audience when it was released. Nevertheless 75 years later it holds up very well for today's audience.
I don't think even Paul Muni could have played it better.