Counsellor-At-Law (1933): William Wyler Directs John Barrymore and Bebe Daniels in Screen Version of Elmer Rice’s Play

Adapted from the famous play by Elmer Rice, Counsellor-At-Law is a tale of moral and professional crisis experienced by a successful Jewish lawyer named George Simon, played by John Barrymore in a bravura performance.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

Counsellor at Law

Original poster

The story focuses on several days in a critical juncture in George Simon’s life.

Simon rose from his humble roots in a poor Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to become a shrewd, highly successful attorney.

Earlier in his career, he allowed a guilty client to perjure himself on the witness stand because he believed the man could be rehabilitated if freed.

When rival lawyer Francis Clark Baird learns about the incident, he threatens to expose George, which would lead to disbarment.

The possibility of a public scandal horrifies his socialite wife Cora (Doris Kenyon), who plans to flee to Europe with Roy Darwin.

Devastated by his wife’s infidelity, George is about to leap from the window of his office in the Empire State Building.

Things change dramatically, when his faithful secretary, Regina Gordon (Bebe Daniels), who is in love with him, comes to his rescue.

Dominating every scene he is in, Barrymore displays the full gamut of emotions in a solid role that brings to the surface his considerable skills.

Daniels, perhaps best known for the musical 42ND Street, made in the same year, gives a strong dramatic performance.

William Wyler’s sharply poignant direction elevates the material above its theatrical and melodramatic trappings. By today’s standards, the text is too heavy-handed, replete with long speeches about social class and mobility, issues that were pertinent when the movie was released at the height of the depression,

Clara Langsner, J. Hammond Dailey, Malka Kornstein, Marvin Kline, T. H. Manning, John Qualen, Angela Jacobs, Elmer H. Brown and Conway Washburn reprised their roles from the Broadway production.

Vincent Sherman, who had had previously appeared in the Chicago production of the play, made his debut in this picture.

John Barrymore as George Simon
Bebe Daniels as Regina Gordon
Doris Kenyon as Cora Simon
Isabel Jewell as Bessie Green
Melvyn Douglas as Roy Darwin
Onslow Stevens as John Tedesco
Thelma Todd as Lillian La Rue
Mayo Methot as Zedorah Chapman
Vincent Sherman as Harry Becker
Richard Quine as Richard Dwight, Jr.
John Qualen as Johan Breitstein
Angela Jacobs as Goldie


Directed by William Wyler
Screenplay by Elmer Rice, based on Counsellor-at-Law, 1931 play by Elmer Rice
Produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr.
Cinematography Norbert Brodine
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Distributed by Universal Pictures

Release date: December 11, 1933

Running time: 82 minutes