The law offices of Simon and Tedesco are at the core of this film but it’s really George Simon who’s of particular interest to us. Based off a play by Elmer Rice, Counselor at Law is a self-contained office drama of great energetic verve. It’s handled assuredly by a young Hollywood director on the rise named William Wyler — a man who continued to make quality films throughout the 30s and by the 40s and 50s became lauded among Hollywood’s finest filmmakers. Here you can already see him reining in the chaos to hone in on a lucid story that’s witty and at times admittedly tragic.
We’re quickly introduced to an office positively buzzing with activity which sets the scene nicely. There are frequent coming and goings from office to office, mail deliveries, telephone lines crisscrossing this way and that with a reception area full of people.
It soon becomes apparent that there’s a head-spinning regiment of phone calls, appointments, and anything else you can imagine going on in this busy beehive on any given day. It makes a day at work seem like the most rewarding social experiment that you could possibly conduct in that revered tradition of people watching. Because as an audience that’s what we get the privilege to do as Rice’s adapted script constructs the beats of the story as a delightful web of interactions.
John Barrymore gives a frenetic performance as the whirling dervish of a lawyer Mr. Simon. And it feels like a stroke of genius that we never see him enter a court of law but only observe the various people and types he must work with to get his job done. It makes for an engrossing human drama that puts us in touch with a myriad of narratives all at once.
Instead, we get to know so much about his makeup and personal character. He receives multiple visits from his kindly mother who he playfully ribs or from his wife who he lavishes with affection constantly while she remains notably aloof. But that’s simply his way. He’s a mile a minute generally magnanimous soul who does his job well. Many folks in the town are indebted to him and though he’s successful, you get the sense he hasn’t forgotten about the little fellow on his way to the top.
This sentiment lays the groundwork for the film as a piece of commentary. It gets its source from a boy from the old neighborhood who got brought in by the cops for spewing communist sentiments on a street corner. Now his poor mother is asking a favor of Mr. Simon. He obliges only to get ridiculed and belittled by the proud young man.
As such Counselor at Law has a bit of a socio-economic angle as well suggesting the longheld stratosphere that was imposed the day that the first Europeans came off the Mayflower. Any following party has a harder time making it and yet some of the more assiduous ones do. It’s staying there that can be difficult.
But the attacks come from the bottom too. From the fiery youths who look at a self-made man such as Simon as someone who has sold out on his kind; he’s a dirty traitor. There’s no way to win. The American way seems a tough road to traverse and still come out a winner.
One such passing interaction with a past client, in particular, changes his entire day for the worse and a crucial fact that went unbeknownst to him could spell curtains to his career. In a matter of minutes, disbarment seems to be looming over him. He can’t take it.
But the film also has another layer. Love stories are playing out and there are two levels to it. Obviously, there is Simon and his wife who he adores and her “other man.” Then, there’s Rexy (Bebe Daniels), Mr. Simon’s faithful secretary constantly brushing off the frequent advances of a bookish but persistent Mr. Weinberg. But there’s also an unrequited love that’s unspoken and seems the most devastating of them all.
Ultimately, we are privy to the blessing and the curse of the workaholic. By the end of the film, Simon’s true love is still his work even if there’s a hint at something more. Whether or not he can maintain his lifestyle is left to the imagination and perhaps it is better that way. We leave him on the upswing but with questions still to ask. It suggests that the American Dream isn’t always quite what it seems. It can be equal parts joy and tragedy. The question is whether or not it is worth the risk.