Saturday, November 07, 2009

Counsellor at Law

I saw this swell movie the other day and thought I would put in a word for it on the internet. It's a fairly early (1933) work of the director William Wyler, who is evidently one of my favorite directors as I have several of his films on my favorites list, though I was not aware of this until I was looking into the matter just the other day. This guy directed an unbelievable number of blockbusters and movies that are beloved of middlingly sophisticated cinephiles such as myself--the Laurence Olivier Wuthering Heights, Jezebel, Mrs Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, just for an initial sampling--while the critical elite tends to be considerably less enthusiastic. Even among these however this film, I suspect because it is comparatively uncelebrated, has lesser known stars, is modest in scale and pretension and so on, tends to be favorably regarded, and deservedly so.

The screenplay was written by Elmer Rice, a major playwright of the time whose work I am not otherwise familiar with, and adapted from his own play. It has that quality I often praise in old movies of using energetic dialogue almost without breaks to propel the story forward. This movie with its office setting also uses it quite impressively as a means of establishing an atmosphere of bustle and heady activity. The woman who plays the switchboard operator for example is not central to the main action of the plot, but her manner of chirping and rapid-fire patter in the center of the office while the other characters come and go on their ways around her is an excellent effect. The liveliness of the law office depicted in this movie, with its dramatic situations, colorful characters continually passing through the office, grovelling underlings and clients and attractive and worshipful secretaries actually had me thinking it wasn't too late to go to law school after all for a hour or two afterwards, though after I had sobered up I considered that this was probably not what being a lawyer on a day-in day-out basis was really like, and that even if it was, I wouldn't have the energy of the lead character/star attorney in the film to make it happen myself.

This movie had a great cast, though I had never seen any of the principals before: John Barrymore, who is kind of famous, and Bebe Daniels were the two main stars, but there were a lot of minor roles that I thought were outstandingly played, the receptionist being one, the brilliantly credentialed but socially inept young lawyer Weintraub (I think that was the name) who keeps unsuccessfully asking out the Bebe Daniels character, the other young guy who is some kind of intern and has to fill in for the women when they eat lunch and so forth. The accounts of the filming of this movie ironically depict Barrymore as frequent drunk and unable to remember his lines and Wyler as unpleasant and borderline abusive to the minor cast members, which is not anything like the feeling one gets from the finished product. But such is the case, it seems, with a lot of quality art.

There was a very good dialogue that I wish were available on Youtube between the great lawyer and an unrepentant young communist agitator whom the lawyer has agreed to help for the sake of the man's mother. The communist goes on a rampage against the rich and privileged, to which the lawyer responds forcefully that he came to this country in steerage himself and scraped and clawed his way to the top and that anyone else had the opportunity to do the same, at which the communist was not cowed but went on to denounce him as a class traitor, all through which, and this is what I found most interesting, the lawyer made no attempt to cut him off or throw him out of the office or personally denigrate his accuser, but let him have his say, without, however, backing down from his own point of view. There was no attempt to resolve the question one way or another. Similarly the lawyer himself was presented as being rather morally ambiguous in his myriad business, but sympathetic and attractive nonetheless because of his great appetite for work, his personal attitudes towards people in accordance with each's authentic merits, and so on. Seeing this movie, in concordance with watching the World Series and reading the New York Times coverage of it and other events, reiterated one of the fundamental tenets of American life which was not properly conveyed to me as a young man, which is that if you haven't made something of yourself in New York (or maybe California), you really don't matter, at least as far as any kind of publicity or literary assessment of you is concerned. Do not get me wrong. I love New York. I am resentful every day toward my immigrant ancestors who were evidently intimidated by all the cool and ambitious people getting on the New York boats and shambled off to the safer and less threatening Philadelphia boat instead, dooming their descendant to grown up in a realm where apparently nothing rising to the level of culture significance ever transpires, or ever can transpire. It was idiotic of me, as it would be of any young person of my particular interests, not to have done anything to try to live there and make a go of something when I was young. That said, the self-congratulation of the current crop of New Yorkers and New York writers and other public figures mainly for being New Yorkers and New York writers irrespective of the ultimate quality of their work or being in any other way especially interesting is getting to be a little tough to take. I know this happens because NY people are, in their daily relations with other NY people who outrank them, envious, insecure and perhaps often unhappy, so they make themselves feel better by imagining that, say, Philadelphia is populated more or less exclusively by knuckle-dragging cretins, and that if said commentator were to move there himself he would stand out almost grotesquely as by far the smartest, most sophisticated and socially dominant person in the whole city (a prospect of personal greatness which is surprisingly quite terrifying to most people), and I have to remind myself of this.

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