Counsellor at Law (1933): Starring John Barrymore in a Jewish Role, Offered to and Declined by Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson

After directing several inconsequential films, William Wyler was happy to get a prestigious project based on a play that had enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Producer Carl Laemmle Jr. paid $150,000 for the screen rights, then an unusually high price, and to ensure the film’s success he hired Elmer Rice to adapt his own play.

InĀ  earlyAugust 1933, Wyler met Rice in Mexico City, where he was vacationing with his family, for discussions about the script. Rice was loath to mix business with pleasure and assured the director he would begin working as soon as his holiday ended. On August 22, he shipped a first draft from his New York office to Universal. Wyler approved of the screenplay, and principal photography was slated to begin on September 8.

Laemmle wanted to cast Paul Muni as George Simon, a role he had created on stage, but the actor declined because he feared being typecast as Jewish. Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Schildkraut, and William Powell were also considered.

In the end, Laemmle decided to cast against type John Barrymore in order to capitalize on his box office appeal. Both Wyler and Rice wanted to cast performers from the stage productions, and although screen tests were made, most roles were filled by studio contract players. Vincent Sherman, who had been in the Chicago production, was signed to reprise his small role of Harry Becker, a young radical with Communist leanings; he later became a prolific film and television director. Another cast member, Richard Quine, then 13, went on to a career as a director, writer and producer.

Soon after shooting began, Wyler realized that the material that Rice had excised was necessary, and he began incorporating it back into the screenplay. Eventually he worked with both the screenplay and play script at hand, a procedure he would follow when making The Little Foxes in later years.

Barrymore had signed for $25,000 per week, and Wyler was ordered to film all his scenes as quickly as possible. What should have taken two weeks ultimately took three-and-a-half because the actor could not remember his lines. After 27 takes to complete one brief scene, Wyler decided to resort to cue cards placed around the set.

Also causing delays was Barrymore’s heavy drinking, which frequently gave his face a puffy appearance that required the makeup crew to tape his jowls. Between dealing with Barrymore and trying to comply with Laemmle’s demands to complete the film on schedule and within the allotted budget, Wyler was tense and irritable and tended to take out his frustrations on the supporting cast.

Three months after shooting began, the film opened to critical and commercial success at Radio City Music Hall on December 11, 1933.