Counsellor at Law


posted to on January 3, 2005


As the name implies, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) cable station shows old movies all day long. While channel surfing, I often watch a minute or two of whatever they're showing. It always seems to involve a scene with a guy wearing a pencil-line moustache, a 3-piece suit and a fedora on his head. Smoking a cigarette and sitting on a desk, he talks to a blonde in the chair next to him: "Look, kiddo, I don't care what your dad says. The two of us are going to get hitched in the spring. We'll just make the best of things."


Last night I stumbled across the 1933 "Counsellor at Law," which had all the earmarks of the typical TCM movie. But when I clicked the "guide" button on my remote, I was intrigued to discover that the movie was about a wealthy and powerful Jewish lawyer caught between his lowly roots on the Lower East Side and his newfound status and connections.


The legendary John Barrymore plays the Jewish lawyer George Simon in the sort of powerful but stagy style he brought to all his roles. This is accentuated in the production itself, which is basically a film adaptation of a Broadway play written by Elmer Rice. Rice, who was born Elmer Reizenstein on Sept. 28, 1892, in New York City and trained as a lawyer, clearly was familiar with the characters and milieu described in this film. The FBI website, which has dossiers on many famous people, has this to say about him:


"Elmer Rice is a noted playwright, novelist, stage director, and producer. Rice was born on September 28, 1892, in New York City. Rice is a member of the New York Bar. The New York Times records reflect that Rice had made trips to Moscow in 1932 and 1936 to compare the Russian theater with the Theater's in America."


Although George Simon is clearly a social climber with many of the sleazy characteristics of somebody like Roy Cohn, he always has time for poor people from the old neighborhood, who are either Jewish or Irish in this screenplay.


His generosity has actually gotten him in trouble. He conspired to cook up a false alibi with a basically decent youth facing life imprisonment after a fourth conviction for petty theft. Another petty thief, now serving time in a prison upstate and who figured in the alibi, has now decided to rat out Simon in exchange for a reduced sentence. Simon's enemies in the dog-eat-dog legal world are using this information to destroy his career.


Rice's screenplay is filled with references to poverty-driven crime. It is not a movie in the escapist style of "Forty-Second Street" with Busby Berkeley dance numbers. It confronts the Great Depression head-on. Simon's receptionist is so upset by all the economically ruined men jumping from windows in nearby buildings that she is on the verge of a nervous collapse. Meanwhile, Simon continues to get rich through inside information on stocks.


In a pivotal scene in the film, Simon meets with Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman), a Jewish Communist who has been beaten senseless by the cops during a protest and who faces a lengthy jail term for inciting to riot. In Simon's opulent office, he advises the young man that he will defend him but that he has no time for his idiotic propaganda.


In response, Becker delivers a speech that is unlike any I have ever seen in a 1930s film. Standing up in front of Simon, he denounces him and the capitalist system. He calls him a parasite and an exploiter of his own workers. The language and the delivery make it clear that the director and screenwriter empathize with Becker.


"Counsellor at Law" was directed by William Wyler, who had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood. He got started as a director of silent films and made dozens of forgettable cowboy movies in the 1920s. He directed Lillian Hellman's bitterly anti-capitalist "The Little Foxes" in 1941. Other credits include the 1946 "Best Years of Our Lives," which deals with the difficult adjustments WWII veterans had to make, and the splashy but superficial 1959 epic "Ben-Hur." Along with Larry Adler, John Huston, and Ira Gershwin, Wyler was a founding member of the Committee for the First Amendment, the group that stood up to the Hollywood witch-hunt in the late 1940s.


Besides being well-acted, well-written and socially relevant, "Counsellor at Law" has the additional merit of being a prime example of pre-Production Code film-making. Beginning in 1934, Hollywood films would be put through the scrutiny of censors. Films made before 1934 had a kind of vitality and honesty that would never be seen again.


In these pre-Code films, heroes weren't angels but three-dimensional characters. In the case of Wyler's film, suffice it to say that George Simon turns against the phony bourgeois world he has struggled to find a place in, but not entirely!


"Counsellor at Law" is available in VHS at your better stores and well-worth viewing, despite its staginess and tendency toward melodrama.