Counsellor at Law (1933)

Dir. by William Wyler

In the foreground sits Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman), a young radical who only the night before was beaten and arrested by the police for, as his mother explains it, “making Communist speeches.” He sits here with George Simon (John Barrymore), a high-powered attorney whose office overlooks Manhattan from atop the Empire State Building. Harry is in Mr. Simon’s office begrudgingly, having only come at the behest of his mother, a stereotypically diffident immigrant who had once lived down the street from George’s family. That was back in “the old days,” back before George had worked his way through school and made his name and fortune as a ruthless defender of promiscuous divorcees, corrupt politicians, and rapacious business leaders. “Keep your charity for your parasites!” barks Harry, shaking with rage. Simon, both wounded and piqued by the comment, turns to look at the angry young man. And then the fun begins.

Adapted from a successful stage play by Elmer Rice, Counsellor at Law was a production of Universal Pictures, then still under the control of founder Carl Laemmle and his son, Carl Jr. In 1925, the elder Laemmle had allowed a cousin’s young son to direct his first film, a two-reel western called Crook Buster, and in the eight years since, William Wyler had made forty or fifty pictures for Universal. Except for The Love Trap (1929), a charming romantic comedy and Wyler’s first talkie, none of these early films are, as far as I know, readily available on DVD. While I enjoyed The Love Trap — and enjoyed the natural and nuanced lead performances, especially — I wasn’t quite prepared for Counsellor at Law, which, unlike so many other studio dramas of the ’20s and ’30s, is shockingly contemporary in tone, characterization, and mise-en-scene. It is also the perfect introduction to the films of William Wyler.

Rice’s play premiered at the Plymouth Theatre on November 6, 1931, some six months after the Empire State first opened its doors. It was the second of two new plays written and produced by Rice that year, joining The Left Bank as a great critical and commercial success. Rice sold both scripts to Universal, but only Counsellor at Law made it into production. Carl Jr.’s growing confidence in Wyler was evident in his handing over of such a valuable property to the young director. Laemmle had paid Rice $150,000 for the play, an impressive sum during the Depression, and as a kind of insurance on his investment had also contracted Rice to adapt the play himself. After a quick first meeting between the writer and director in Mexico City, Rice flew home to New York to begin revisions and Wyler returned to Los Angeles to begin casting. Principal photography began three weeks later, and exactly three months after that the film opened at Radio City Music Hall to rave reviews.

Pauline Kael later described Wyler’s film as “energetic, naïve, melodramatic, goodhearted, and full of gold-diggers, social climbers, and dedicated radicals.” That is to say, it is a product of those peculiar days of the early-1930s, when the collapse of world markets revealed for all to see the diseases that plague capitalism and when “being Left” in America was still uncomplicated by Stalin and Mao. Counsellor at Law is no Waiting for Lefty (1935) — Rice was a generation older than Clifford Odets and the other founding members of the Group Theatre, and didn’t share their idealism or fervor — but the play/film is still very much of the era in its ambivalence about (if not quite antagonism toward) economies founded on greed and exploitation. Waiting for Lefty ends, famously, with a chorus of actors chanting “Strike!” as they make their way off stage and past the seated audience. If Counsellor at Law can be criticized for surrendering to a “happy ending” convention that mucks up any would-be “sound-as-brickwork-logic” Marxist reading of the text (to borrow a phrase from Norman Mailer), then it should also be commended for sparing audiences Odett’s brand of didacticism. As would be the case again and again throughout his long career, Wyler mines the source material for its humanity and, in doing so, gives us a compelling critique of specific historical conditions that rises above sloganeering.

Note: I hope to return to this post someday and give Counsellor at Law the formal reading it deserves. It’s really a fantastic film.