Counsellor at Law
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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
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
"Elmer Rice is a noted playwright, novelist, stage
director, and producer. Rice was born on
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 "
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
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,
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.