Monday, August 13, 2018


Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting her Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon for the fourth time. It runs from August 13 to 15. Please click HERE for the contributions.

Written and staged by Elmer Rice, Counsellor-at-Law is the character study of a driven lawyer whose ambition is at odds with the comforts of peace he seeks in his life. Paul Muni played the role in the original production and revived it shortly after the initial closing date. Muni would revive the play again in 1942 and again play George Simon in a TV production in 1948. Obviously, this was a role close to his heart. Muni's Hollywood career was in full swing at this time, with films such as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, but he was not chosen to take the role to the screen. Universal cast the charismatic and talented John Barrymore.

John Barrymore began his young adulthood as a freelance artist, but fate drew him into the family business which just happened to be the theatre, and for which his gifts made him eminently suitable. Renowned for his stage interpretations of Shakespeare's tragic characters Hamlet and Richard III, John made his film debut in 1914 and during the silent film era played such diverse characters as Raffles, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes, and Don Juan.

Sound coming to the movies was no impediment for the theatre trained Barrymore clan and early in the decade, John played in Svengali, The Mad Genius, A Bill of Divorcement, Rasputin and the Empress with his siblings Ethel and Lionel, and Dinner at Eight.

John Barrymore as George Simon

George Simon, the title character of Counsellor-at-Law is never shown inside a courtroom. We know he and his partner are successful by the size of the office, the number of employees, the revolving door of clients waiting to be seen, the busy switchboard and the headlines in the newspapers. The office building and the area owned by Simon and Tedesco is large and impressively decorated in a streamlined art deco manner. Applause to Art Director Charles D. Hall and Set Decorator Ray Moyer.

Through the comings and goings of satisfied clients, amorous clients, potential clients - those with money and those with none - we can see the demands on the time and the energy of George Simon. We learn of his humble beginnings in a tenement and the ambition that led him to work since childhood to achieve wealth and fame. We learn of his sweet mother and his wastrel brother.

Doris Kenyon as Cora Simon and Melvyn Douglas as Roy Darwin

We meet George's wife Cora played by Doris Kenyon. She is a socialite who divorced her husband to marry George. He dotes on her and her two spoiled children. We can see that her regard is nowhere near his level and that her eye is already straying toward a playboy of her own class, Roy Darwin played by Melvyn Douglas.

Bebe Daniels as Regina Gordon aka "Rexy"

The audience can also see the deep affection of George's confidential secretary Rexy played by Bebe Daniels. She is as admirable a professional as she is a thoughtful person. George is so besotted by Cora that he can't see the treasure he has in his life in Rexy. Rexy, we will discover, is a lifesaver.

George's days are about to become even more chaotic. He is dealing with the arrest of a would-be anarchist from his old neighbourhood; a case he takes on for the sake of an old friendship. A tawdry affair of breach of promise will net a big profit. An early courtroom triumph proves to have been not as straight-forward a thing as George thought at the time. Political rivals plan to use it in disbarment proceedings.

The impending disaster cuts George deeply and he is in desperate need of the support of his family. Cora refuses to postpone a trip to Europe. She doesn't see how she could be of any help to George, and why should she be involved in the scandal? Is it any surprise that on board will be Roy Darwin? It came as a surprise to George, and a heartbreaking one. George Simon faces the loss of everything he holds dear, his career and his wife. We do not wonder that he considers suicide.

Directed by William Wyler and written for the screen by Elmer Rice, Counsellor-at-Law is a fast-paced and engrossing piece of theatre transferred seamlessly to the screen. There is a sense of energy and constant movement throughout the scenes. In the large reception area and library of the offices, the constant movement of characters and the rat-a-tat-tat of Jewel's delivery at the switchboard keeps that impression alive. Barrymore is enthralling as George Simon who is a ball of energy even when sitting still. Wyler's camera moves around the actor, closes in on his face so that his thoughts fairly jump at you through the screen.

Isabel Jewell as Bessie Green

Barrymore's centrepiece performance is surrounded by an outstanding ensemble. Bebe Daniels is sympathetic and strong as Rexy. Doris Kenyon coolly unlikeable as Cora Simon. Isabel Jewell a riot as the loquacious switchboard operator. Onslow Stevens as Simon's partner John Tedesco an understanding friend. Clara Langsner plays George's sweet and smart mother. Mayo Methot as a murderess freed by Simon, and Thelma Todd as a client who thinks big are examples of the kind of women in George's orbit beyond his beloved wife and wonderful secretary.

Angela Jacobs as Goldie Rindskopf 

Some members of the original Broadway production repeated their roles on the screen. Angela Jacobs is quite fun as Tedesco's secretary Goldie Rindskopf known to her co-workers as "The Duchess". T.H. Manning plays Peter Malone, a political operative from the old neighbourhood with a deep loyalty to George Simon. John Qualen is Johann Breitstein a man who was desperate for Simon's help, received it, and may now be instrumental in the lawyer's downfall. J. Hammond Dailey plays Charlie McFadden, a reformed crook who would do anything for his boss, George Simon. Note: Qualen and Manning also appeared in Elmer Rice's Street Scene, stage and screen.

John Barrymore as George Simon

Counsellor-at-Law is sensationally entertaining and a fine example of a film adaptation of a play, a pre-code drama, exemplary ensemble work, of William Wyler's skill, and John Barrymore's talent and star power. If you have yet to enjoy this film, please do give yourself that treat.


Two future directors are among the outstanding cast of Counsellor at Law.

Vincent Sherman as Harry Becker

Vincent Sherman made his film acting debut as the hot-headed Harry Becker. Sherman would act on the screen sporadically during the next few years and make his directorial debut with 1939s The Return of Dr. X. Other features: All Through the Night, Mr. Skeffington, The Hard Way, Nora Prentiss, Adventures of Don Juan, Harriet Craig, etc.

Richard Quine as Richard Dwight Jr.
Barbara Perry as Dorothy Dwight

Counsellor-at-Law was also the debut film year for teenage actor Richard Quine. He would act into his 20s and later take uncredited bits in some of his own movies. His first solo directing credit on a feature is for Sunny Side of the Street, a Frankie Laine vehicle for Columbia in 1951. Other features: the musical My Sister Eileen, Pushover, The Solid Gold Cadillac, Full of Life, It Happened to Jane, Bell Book and Candle, Strangers When We Meet, etc.


  1. This is one of John Barrymore's films I have yet to see. You've made it sound so entertaining. And I like the idea of him in role as a man of integrity torn by circumstances.

    1. I have seen it a few times over the years and each time I find a new aspect to admire. I'm sure you will feel the same way. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  2. You have no idea how long I've been chasing this film. Everybody recommends it. Still haven't seen it. I guess I'll have to buy it. Did you see a good copy of it?

    1. I borrowed my sister's DVD. It is from Kino and I've no complaints about the quality. It is where a took those screen caps and I think they look pretty good. A think Universal has it on their archives. It may be better. I shouldn't think they would overprice it, but you never know. Good luck.

    2. Yes, Universal has it and it is quite expensive, $20. BTW, I'm glad they chose Barrymore for the film version, not Paul Muni. Barrymore is simply more charismatic.

    3. My motto is "Sooner or later there will be a sale."

      I'm a fan of both actors, for different reasons. I'd like to see Muni's take.

  3. Paddy Lee, another really good write-up of a movie that I have never seen. What a good cast in this movie. John Barrymore one of the great actors, but another personal tragedy.

    Thank you, hopefully I will see COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW in the future.

  4. Thank you so much.

    I find something to enjoy in Counsellor-at-Law with each new viewing. Excellent work by all involved.

  5. Will I do a list of Caftan Woman's film recommendations once I have free time? You can bet on it. And Counsellor-at-Law will certainly enter the list - even if I prefer Paul Muni to John Barrymore... a sin, I guess?

    1. A Caftan Woman List? I love it.

      I also love Paul Muni. John Barrymore is excellent in the movie, but I would love to have seen Paul Muni play this role.

  6. Wonderful article Patricia. I saw this movie again not that long ago, and I agree, it is one of John's best performances. Thanks for taking part in the blogathon.

    I also invite you to read my contribution to the blogathon.

  7. Another great recommendation! I liked Le's comment, above, where she mentioned compiling a Caftan Woman Recommendation List. I think I'll be doing the same thing. :)

  8. It's one of John Barrymore's best screen performances. Sometimes, he overplayed his film roles, acting perhaps as if he were still on the stage. But he's in control in this film and I'm not sure Muni could have been any better. That nifty trivia fact, too!

    1. Yes. Barrymore is at his best here. He finds the core of George Simon and lives there.

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