Counsellor at Law (1933)
Directed by William Wyler, this is the best early film of his I've seen!
The film opens in the hustle and bustle of a law firm in the Empire State Building, New York City. It gives a terrific sense of the hurried and harried lives of several individuals in the Simon & Tedesco office, as well as the physical layout of the suites themselves. We are introduced to the receptionist/phone operator (Isabell Jewel), the office errand boy (Robert Gordon), the junior associates, the head secretaries and several of the clients as well. Plus, we get a sense of what it would be like to work in such an environment through the interaction between each of these characters. The receptionist has a "sing song" voice for the callers, another for the errand boy who tries to flirt with her and fills in for her on her lunch breaks, and another still for the professionals in the office. A junior associate Weinberg (Marvin Kline), who we later find out is from Harvard and thought of highly by the partners, wants desperately to date Simon's secretary "Rexy" (Bebe Daniels). However, she spurns his attempts, even though he appears to be a perfect, if persistent gentleman. Tedesco’s secretary Goldie (Angela Jacobs) is a rather quiet woman, very aware of her position in the firm, who seems to spend most of her time walking through the lobby to the commode and back. Of the clients, we meet a woman (Mayo Methot), for which Simon just obtained an acquittal for murdering her husband, and another woman (Thelma Todd, just a cameo really, unless you count the time she's primping;-) who also wants to see him this day.
FINALLY, we are introduced to "the man" himself, and the actor whose name is singularly above the film's title in the opening credits, the title character George Simon, played by John Barrymore. Simon is a man who began his life humbly, in a poor Jewish ghetto, but who has worked his way up tirelessly such that he now receives "hot tips" from Senators in Washington and has "landed" a trophy blonde wife named Cora (Doris Kenyon). During this ascension, however, he hasn't forgotten from whence he came nor the people from his squalid beginnings. Plus, we get a sense that his secretary was with him through most of the struggle, for she admires him greatly and, though she steadfastly keeps it to herself, would love to be so much more to him if he would merely "open a door" for her. It is clear that he cannot function without her solid, professional service. He depends upon her greatly, and she continues to deliver even though some of the things he asks her to do are against his own interests. Most of these stem from interactions between Simon and his wife Cora, who uses her personal influence with him to interfere in his professional life, and to his detriment. Cora is a "society woman" he successfully wooed, but who doesn't like the "scandalous" nature of some of her husband's legal successes and dealings. In fact, we soon find out how selfish she is, that Simon is her second husband, and that her two nearly teenage, snobbish children regard him with disdain, retaining their biological father's last name.
Barrymore plays Simon forcefully, and very believably, as a man who wouldn't know what to do if he wasn't working "a mile a minute" at all times. Though sensitive to the intricacies and nuances of every legal matter, he is oblivious to adoration of his secretary or the true character of his wife and her friends, until the very end. It is through her that he must have met Roy Darwin (a very youthful looking Melvyn Douglas), a close friend of Cora's who seems to have found a discrete & open wallet (for his gambling vice?) in Simon. We get "connected" to Simon's past through several characters who call on him at his office including an old woman (Malka Kornstein) from his neighborhood whose Marxist son (Vincent Sherman) got in trouble with the law. We also meet Simon's mother (Clara Langsner), who keeps tabs on him, and visits to ask her son to continue to provide financial support for his "good for nothing" brother. It is ironic that he willingly gives "loans" to the society leach Darwin, but (at least initially) refuses to help his own brother.
Simon is by no means a Saint. He trades on inside information he receives and a good part of the last 45 minutes of the film is about how he deals with a skeleton in his closet. Another friend from the old neighbor, Peter Malone (T. H. Manning), arrives to give Simon a "heads up" that a lawyer on the parole board, Francis Clark Baird (Elmer Brown, in his only credited role), is preparing to brings charges that would disbar Simon for his conduct in a case he won 12 years ago. During this part of the film, we finally meet his partner John Tedesco (Onslow Stevens), get more familiar with a former criminal who now works as Simon's house detective, Charlie McFadden (John Hammond Dailey), and meet his client Johan Breitstein (John Qualen, Street Scene (1931)) from the aforementioned case. I won't give away the ending, but I will say that as frenetically as this film's "chock full of dialogue" story flies by, Barrymore's character's mood swings are even faster, especially in the last scenes. And, even though the film is a scant 80 minutes, the characterizations are rich and credible.