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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW (1933)

In 1932, John Barrymore co-starred with Greta Garbo in GRAND HOTEL, with his sister Ethel in the undervalued RASPUTIN & THE EMPRESS and with Katherine Hepburn in her debut pic, A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT. The experience seems to have jarred him into rethinking his position on film acing and, over the next two years, until his constitution gave way, he turned out a series of virtuoso acting lessons in the art he had so long disdained. Vanity & disintegration in DINNER AT EIGHT, so raw people thought he was simply being himself; high comedy in REUNION IN VIENNA, a B’way hit of dubious quality; top-notch light boulevard comedy in TOPAZE; ham acting in Howard Hawks classic TWENTIETH CENTURY; and, best of all, this stunning dramatic perf in William Wyler’s masterly adaptation of Elmer Rice’s B’way smash. In COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW and MEN IN WHITE, Rice created the sturdy templates for all the classic film & tv legal dramas & doctor shows to follow. But only LAW still feels thrillingly immediate with its blistering pace and indelible supporting roles. Barrymore plays NYC’s top criminal lawyer, a non-religious, assimilated Jew (with a rich, WASP wife) who neither forgets, regrets or is ashamed of his Lower East Side past. The multiple story arcs have him defending rich & poor clients, his own hollow marriage & his personal reputation amidst a mix of ethnic NYC types who constantly move thru the office. Wyler’s staging and camera moves are brilliantly handled, a continuous ear-to-ear grinning pleasure to watch. It would be foolish to single out any of the great supporting performances (nowadays the whole cast would sweep the acting awards), but Bebe Daniels deserves special knokkis as Barrymore’s loyal, love-struck secretary. Alcohol would soon rob us of Barrymore’s best efforts, and the enduring appeal of DINNER AT EIGHT and TWENTIETH CENTURY would skew our view of his talents (in his prime he only played drunks & hams), but seen whole his work from 1932-34 is enough to keep the legend alive.

CONTEST: Two future Hollywood directors have acting roles in this film. Without resorting to IMdB or Search engines, name the players & their parts to win our usual prize, a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up on any NetFlix film of your choice.

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