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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
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Release Date: March 28th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1933

Counsellor at Law

Overview -

In his last great dramatic portrayal, John Barrymore commands the screen in Counsellor at Law, a riveting portrait of a beleaguered attorney who's pushed to the precipice by a multitude of forces. This stirring adaptation of Elmer Rice's stage play helped put director William Wyler on the cinematic map and contains fine performances by a top-notch supporting cast. A brand new 2K master revitalizes this long-neglected vintage gem that brims with style, substance, and emotion. Solid audio and a Wyler-centric commentary track also distinguish Kino's excellent presentation of a captivating film. Highly Recommended.

Directed by the illustrious William Wyler (The Good Fairy, Detective Story, The Big Country, Ben-Hur), the briskly paced Counsellor at Law is often cited as the best film to ever tackle the intricacies and pitfalls of the legal profession. George Simon (Hollywood legend John Barrymore, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) is a successful attorney, climbing from a Jewish ghetto to elegant Art Deco offices in the Empire State Building. After allowing one of his former clients to commit perjury to win a case, George realizes he could be disbarred. The scandal convinces his wife to run away to Europe with another man, leaving George shattered and desperate to find out who his true friends really are. Flavored with social commentary and wry humor, Counsellor at Law is an exceptional example of the hard-boiled dramas that defined the Pre-Code cinema of the early 1930s. Co-starring Melvyn Douglas (Angel).


• Brand New HD Master – From a 2K Scan of the 35mm Fine Grain
• NEW Audio Commentary by Film Historian/Filmmaker Daniel Kremer and Catherine Wyler

Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray Disc
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p AVC/MPEG-4
Aspect Ratio(s):
Audio Formats:
English: DTS-HD MA 2.0
English SDH
Special Features:
Release Date:
March 28th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take


If John Barrymore is remembered at all today, it's most likely for the alcoholism that spurred his decline and led to his death at age 60 in 1942 and for being Drew Barrymore's grandfather. Sadly, the talent that vaulted him to the pinnacle of his profession no longer gets the attention it deserves, largely because his best film work occurred before 1935 and much of it - aside from his appearances in the all-star classics Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight - isn't available on home video. As Barrymore recedes further and further into Hollywood's rearview mirror, the more important it is to recognize and celebrate this esteemed actor.

Counsellor at Law gives us that chance and any serious film fan would be loath to pass it up. This probing character study of an attorney on the brink isn't just one of Barrymore's last great films, it's one of director William Wyler's first great films. Distinguished by excellent performances, a literate script, substantive themes, and stylish visuals, Counsellor at Law holds up far better than many early 1930s films and remains surprisingly relevant today.

Set entirely within the suite of offices that comprise the bustling New York law firm of Simon & Tedesco, Counsellor at Law chronicles a couple of pivotal days in the life of founding partner George Simon (Barrymore), a passionate, workaholic attorney with legendary oratory skills. George's peerless ability to sway a jury has earned him a lofty reputation, but when a rival lawyer threatens to expose a fake alibi that got one of George's clients off the hook for robbery (and spared him a life sentence under a three-strikes-like statute), he faces total ruination, abject shame, and - worst of all - disbarment. For George, not being able to practice law would be a fate worse than death. "Take work away from me and what am I?" he opines. "A car without a motor. A living corpse." 

George condoned the lie because he believed his client would go straight if he evaded conviction. And his client did, becoming an upstanding citizen and devoted husband and father. George saved the man's life, but his unethical act might end up destroying his own.

Amid this crisis, George must also deal with everyday workplace issues and manage a host of personal problems involving his mother and no-good brother, his frivolous wife (Doris Kenyon) and her fascination with a dashing family friend (Melvyn Douglas), and his spoiled, snot-nosed stepchildren (Richard Quine and Barbara Perry) who obnoxiously flaunt their sense of entitlement. Other clients of varying repute vie for his time, too, most notably a defiant social activist (Vincent Sherman) who's been beaten by the police for spouting his subversive Communist views. Forget the multi-verse; this is the real everything, everywhere, all at once!

Based on a play by Elmer Rice that starred Paul Muni on Broadway, Counsellor at Law crams plenty of issues and themes into its 82 minutes, examining legal ethics, office and family dynamics, class conflicts, sexual harassment in the workplace, the severity of the justice system, and latent anti-Semitism. Much of it - amazingly - still strikes a chord and remains relevant 90 years later. Rice's screenplay not only seamlessly weaves together myriad plot threads, it also brims with emotion and seethes with tension. As the drama races toward its climax with rapid-fire dialogue juxtaposed against pregnant moments of revelation and despair, we're held spellbound.

That's largely due to Wyler, who stays true to the play's structure without lending his film a stagy feel. Counsellor at Law basically transpires on a single set, but it never feels confined. In Wyler's capable hands, Simon & Tedesco isn't a sterile office, it's a living, breathing organism and Wyler brilliantly depicts its teeming energy. When someone announces "George Simon is here" early in the movie, everyone hops to and scurries around, frantically anticipating their boss' arrival, just as the staff at Runway magazine would gird their loins 73 years later when Miranda Priestly steps into the elevator in The Devil Wears Prada. Once Barrymore strides through the door, the action never stops. People constantly come and go and we get sucked into the frenetic environment. Wyler would weave the same magic 18 years later with Detective Story, which was also based on a play, dealt with the law and other hot-button issues, and took place largely in one location - a police precinct instead of an office suite.

Though reportedly the 51-year-old Barrymore struggled constantly and mightily to remember his lines during shooting and had to spend extra time in the makeup chair to conceal the ravages of alcoholism that prematurely aged him, he gives a magnificent performance. He rattles off lengthy speeches with fierce intensity,  expresses tenderness and resignation, and delivers quips with wry humor. As the narrative's stresses mount and weigh upon him, Barrymore's George valiantly strives to keep his head above water, and when he begins to drown, it's heartbreaking to see.

As George's loyal, devoted secretary who harbors deep affection for him, but must hold her tongue while his world crumbles around him, Bebe Daniels files a nuanced, empathetic portrayal. We all know Daniels as stage diva Dorothy Brock in the classic backstage musical 42nd Street (produced the same year), but this far different part shows the breadth of her range. In other roles, a young Melvyn Douglas defines the word debonair as the dandy who goes after George's wife, and Isabel Jewel, perhaps best known for portraying "white trash" Emmy Slattery in Gone with the Wind, provides comic relief as a fast-talking switchboard operator with a sing-song speaking voice.

The rest of the supporting cast is packed with both fine actors and fascinating figures, a couple of whom are better known for their off-screen exploits. Golden Age nerds like me will recognize Mayo Methot, whose stormy marriage to Humphrey Bogart was tabloid fodder, and Thelma Todd, whose death two years later at the age of 29 remains one of Hollywood's most notorious unsolved mysteries. Two future big-name directors also pop up in minor but pivotal roles. Vincent Sherman, who would later helm movies starring Bogart, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Errol Flynn, is especially impressive as the indignant, enraged Communist and 12-year-old Richard Quine, who would direct several major films in the 1950s and '60s, shines as George's insufferable stepson.

Stage plays don't always translate well to the screen, but thanks to Wyler's artistry and skill, Counsellor at Law is a riveting motion picture that still delivers the goods nine decades after its premiere. It's also a last, bravura hurrah for Barrymore, and we're lucky his exceptional performance has been preserved for posterity. If you want to understand why this legendary actor enjoyed such a lofty reputation both during his prime and in the early days of his decline, see this film. He will blow you away.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Counsellor at Law arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review


A brand new 2K master revitalizes this 90-year-old film, and though the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is far from perfect, it exceeds expectations. Noticeable grain that fluctuates in intensity preserves the feel of celluloid and excellent clarity and contrast lend the image plenty of detail and depth. Rich blacks, bright, stable whites, good shadow delineation, and nicely varied grays produce a pleasing picture that's able to weather occasional speckling, scratches, some errant threads, and instances of general wear-and-tear. A few missing frames at the 41-minute mark result in a jarring jump cut that momentarily distracts, but such hiccups are often par for the course when dealing with antiquated movies. Background details are surprisingly sharp, as are the close-ups highlighting Barrymore's weathered complexion and premature wrinkles. All in all, this is an admirable rendering of an under-appreciated vintage film that hopefully will now get the attention it has long deserved.

Audio Review


The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies remarkably clean, balanced sound. Some faint surface noise can be heard during quiet moments, but any hiss, pops, or crackle have been erased. Like most adapted stage plays, dialogue is the star, and though the rapid-fire line deliveries occasionally obscure some phrases, the bulk of the exchanges are easy to comprehend. Sonic accents like typing and ringing telephones are distinct and no distortion afflicts the track, despite its primitive nature and slightly harsh timbre. Remastering audio from early 1930s films is always a challenge, but Kino has done a fine job with this vintage track.

Special Features


Aside from a few trailers for other William Wyler films available from Kino, the only extra is an audio commentary by film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer and Catherine Wyler, daughter of the director. The two talk at length about William Wyler's life, career, and cinematic style, but give Counsellor at Law surprisingly short shrift. They chat about Wyler's penchant for a mobile camera, his perfectionist tendencies, how he dealt with Barrymore's inability to remember his lines, and the film's myriad Jewish connections. Catherine Wyler shares memories from her childhood, chronicles how her father broke into the movie business, and discusses the documentary she produced about his career, while Kremer supplies an in-depth bio of playwright and screenwriter Elmer Rice, charts Barrymore's career, and reflects on Wyler's legacy. If you're looking for an in-depth examination of Counsellor at Law, look elsewhere, but if you're interested in William Wyler and his work, you might want to give this track a listen.

Final Thoughts

A blistering portrait of a tough, benevolent, yet very flawed attorney, Counsellor at Law gives the great John Barrymore one last juicy role and he gobbles it up, filing a bravura portrayal in director William Wyler's taut, substantive film. A literate script and excellent supporting performances enhance this riveting drama that looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray, thanks to a brand new 2K master and lossless audio. Counsellor at Law may not be well known, but it deserves to be rediscovered and revered. Highly Recommended.