Counsellor at Law is a fantastic and unjustly forgotten film. Curious and rich, it should be appreciated as one of the most original in the history of American Jewish cinema.
Produced in 1933, right on the eve of the adaptation of the “decency code” at Hollywood, Counsellor at Law was the product of collaboration between two central Jewish figures in American theater and movie industry of the era – William Wyler (not to be confused with Billy Wilder) and Elmer Rice.
While still thought of as a great director, Wyler’s work has undoubtedly suffered neglect. With his grandiose epics and melodramas, his movies are a hard sell for the audience’s current post-modern tastes. A German-born Jew, Wyler came to Hollywood in 1920s, where his uncle, Carl Laemmle, was a founder and head of Universal Studios. Thus, unlike other German Jews who ended up in Hollywood after being driven from their homeland by Hitler, Wyler had no reason to think of America as the place of exile. In copious literature on the master, his Jewishness is hardly mentioned at all. The two well-known and thematically explicit Jewish films in his body of work are Ben-Hur and Funny Girl. According to Bill Krohn, “Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, three of the biggest blockbusters of the post-war era, are all allegories of the Shoah.” Perhaps. Yet is should be kept in mind that Ben-Hur is a clear example of Christian apologetics. Counsellor at Law, Wyler’s first major sound picture, reveals him to be a far more daring director who was supremely concerned with the issues and dilemmas of Jewish diasporic condition. In fact, the only times when Wyler himself openly addresses Jewishness are when he speaks of Counsellor at Law.
Elmer Rice, whose work has long been relegated to the dustbin of history, wrote the film’s script at the height of his fame. Born Elmer Reizenstein in New York, he worked first as a lawyer before turning to writing drama. Many of his plays are thematically Jewish; a few were some of the very first to confront Nazism already in the early 30s. In 1929, Rice became the first Jew to win a Pulitzer price for drama. He wrote Counsellor at Law in 1931, the year it was also first successfully staged on Broadway.
Despite the famous or infamous preponderance of Jews in Hollywood, between The Jazz Singer, produced in 1927, and World War II, there were few films that dealt openly with Jewish themes. The same is true of theater. Counsellor at Law was a rarity in both media. It is thus extraordinary that at the heart of it is the most fundamental question of American Jewish experience, if not modern Jewish history as a whole – that of assimilation. Wyler and Rice’s commentary on assimilation significantly differs from the model resolutions of it in the corpus of American Jewish writing and cinema. Hardly advocating a return to the physical ghetto, the film ultimately celebrates the Jew as an autonomous figure who has no choice but to remain who he is, even after shedding the traditional garb. This condition, the film suggests, must be enjoyed, appreciated and perpetuated.
As one scholar described the situation of the 30s, “Performing oneself as a Jew-without-a-beard is, after all, the first requisite step towards performing oneself as no-Jew-at-all. Indeed, this new type of Jewish body signaled the beginning of an era where ethnic visibility in general and Jewish visibility in particular were no longer desirable. In its place came invisibility, as Jewish characters became less frequently seen on major American stages.” Indeed, an argument can be made that Jewishness is invisible in Counsellor at Law as well – tellingly the word Jewish is mentioned only once in parenthesis in the film’s synopsis which appears on its DVD release – yet to do so would be to crucially misapprehend its very artistic structure and intent. The sense and sensibility of Jewishness and Yiddishkeit act as an organizing principle in the film, permeating its every nook and cranny. I am not speaking so much of the obvious Jewish signs in it: a Yiddish phrase, an occasional Jewish accent, but something that runs much deeper and speaks to its very idea of Jewishness.
The movie’s entire action takes place in a law firm run by the main character, George Simon. Its space, separated from the rest of New York by the majestic looking elevators reminiscent of the sets in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – the link is hardly accidental considering Wyler’s artistic roots – functions as an independent Jewish kingdom, where everything, from Jews to gentiles to objects, is infused with the Jewish spirit. Unquestionably, Counsellor at Law envisions Jewishness in essentialist, rather than specific religious or cultural terms, which one may justifiably find uncomfortable. Yet its presentation of Jewishness is neither contrived nor self-conscious, but unsentimental and at the same time intoxicating. It stands not as an addendum to the story, as would happen so often in later American films, but as its very reason for being.
This ostensibly light and comedic film is a tragedy, whose catharsis results not in punishment, but in the hero’s reclamation of his fundamental nature, in other words Jewishness. This hero – George Simon – is an unusual tragic character. Originally, he was played on Broadway by the famous Paul Muni, a pseudonym of Muni Weisenfreund, whose beginning as an actor was on the Yiddish stage. Rice particularly liked his performance. When Muni declined to be cast in Wyler’s film, the role went to John Barrymore. The legendary film critic Pauline Kael, herself also Jewish, pointed out that his performance in the film was “one of the few screen roles that reveal his measure as an actor. His “presence” is apparent in every scene; so are his restraint, his humor, and his zest.” Wyler’s own later comments on Berrymore’s performance reveal the complexities of his approach to Jewishness. He says in an interview recorded in 1979:
Well, of course that was a very exciting time, because this is when I was at Universal. When they gave me this assignment, I felt, “Jeez, working with Berrymore!”… [Barrymore] said, “Yes, you’ll be able to help me a lot, I need some help. You’ll be able to help me with this part.” And then I realized… I didn’t realize until we started shooting, you know, what he meant. He played the part of this Jewish lawyer, and lots of people thought he was miscast because he didn’t look like a Jew. Well, what does a Jew look like? Some look Jewish and some don’t. So he probably felt he had to do something. Well, the part of the lawyer in this was a man of the world, highly educated, highly articulate. So the first day he plays a scene, he’s supposed to come in, pick up the phone, and talk, that’s all. And he did some peculiar gestures, and here I had to criticize John Berrymore… I thought, “But what he’s trying to do is be Jewish.” I said, “The way you picked up the phone…” He said, “You didn’t’ like that?” I said, “Well, frankly no.”… Well, he was constantly trying, and finally I said… there was a scene in the play when his mother comes to visit him and that’s where you see… that’s when he was to talk to his mother and he’s got some Jewish gestures and a few Jewish expressions, and that’s where the ghetto comes… And that’s the only time, nowhere else. I mean, you see where he was from, the Jewish East Side, but the rest of the time he was a very sophisticated man of the world. He mustn’t act like a Jew from the East Side… Well, I finally got him to cut it out, I wouldn’t stand for it.
What this fascinating recollection exposes is that for Wyler, Jewishness is most definitely not a stereotype, but it is also much more than a place of origin. It is a locus of incredible artistic energy. For, first and foremost, George Simon is an artist at what he does – an artist and, like the clever biblical Jacob, a Jewish trickster. In this is both his moral effrontery and strength.
Counsellor at Law is a supremely socially conscious film. In one scene, Simon speaks to a young Jewish leftist radical, who’s been arrested for participating in a demonstration. He berates him for his behavior and tells to accept a guilt plea at the trial. The young man retorts, “If the Cossacks want to beat me up, let them do it.” Simon is confused, “This is America, not Russia,” he exclaims. “It’s worse than Russia ever was under the Czar” is the reply. In the actual text of the play, the man’s outcry is even more personal – “If the Cossacks want to beat me up, let them do it. They killed my grandfather and my uncle and the only way they can keep me quiet is to kill me, too.”
Apart from being a testament to the political moods of the time, this exchange directly links the social and the Jewish. The young radical thinks solely in the context of Jewish history – for him, it constitutes one continuous opposition between Jews and the rest of the world. Thus, he misplaces countries and eras. Simon, who’s been trying to turn a deaf ear to this Jewish logic with his attempt at shedding his Jewish skin, fails first to grasp his point. How he ultimately gets what the young guy meant is what the film is all about. Wyler mentions in an interview about Counsellor at Law, “I think that was the fist time in a picture where anti-Semitism was touched on a little bit… But it was just gently. You wouldn’t dare say the word, but it was touched upon.” Indeed, it was touched upon gently, as befits a nuanced work of art, but profoundly. What makes Counsellor at Law beautiful is that, despite its very sober eye on assimilation and the Jews’ place among others, it is neither about fear nor martyrdom. It is about survival and doing so with gusto and love. This is what makes it as relevant in 2015 as it was in the ill-fated year of 1933.
Marat Grinberg is an associate professor of Russian and Humanities, and chair of the Department of Russian, at Reed College.