John Farr recommends three films from legend William Wyler’s early oeuvre.
Counsellor at Law (1933)
Perched high atop New York in his law office, attorney George Simon (John Barrymore) runs a busy, lucrative practice handling or rather, manhandling – a dizzying array of high-profile cases. GS, as he is known to his staff, may run with (and occasionally bilk) the rich and powerful, but he also remembers his roots as an immigrant toiling on the streets of Greenwich Village, something his status-conscious socialite wife, Cora (Doris Kenyon), seems almost ashamed of. When George is faced with disbarment for an incident of misconduct in his past, his high and mighty world is turned upside-down.
WHY I LOVE IT:
William Wyler’s engrossing, head-spinning drama features Barrymore in a knockout role as a hotshot attorney with a formidable track record, a notable penchant for hard-luck cases, and a fawning softness for his well-to-do wife, whose affection does not seem nearly so unconditional. As a series of mini dramas play out around Simon- involving agonized clients from the old neighborhood, interactions among his chirpy young staff, and the unspoken, unrequited love of faithful secretary Regina (Daniels), “Counsellor” inexorably builds to a tense climax. Filled with vivid performances by a slew of fine character actors, “Counsellor” is a rapid-fire drama of class and privilege, love and lucre.
Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston), a business tycoon, decides to retire and take an extended trip to Europe with wife Fran (Ruth Chatterton). Unfortunately, Sam’s financial success has only increased Fran’s latent vanity and social-climbing tendencies. No longer distracted by his work, Sam sees his wife’s weaknesses for the first time, as she openly flirts and cavorts with a European aristocrat. Sam must confront the problem in his marriage, then find a way to regain some happiness for himself.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Director William Wyler and screenwriter Sydney Howard have crafted an adult, perceptive romantic drama, beautifully played. They wisely minimize the soapiness inherent in the premise, leaving an honest and surprisingly moving film about love lost and re-discovered. The Oscar-nominated Huston is superb.
Julie Marsden (Bette Davis) is a willful New Orleans belle engaged to banker Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda) in the antebellum South. Julie is also needy and manipulative, which soon drives Pres away. He later returns with a wife, which foils Julie’s plans for a reconciliation. After finding new ways to cause mischief among the menfolk, Julie seizes one final chance to redeem herself.
WHY I LOVE IT:
“Jezebel” was Davis’s consolation prize for not landing the part of Scarlett O’Hara. Inevitably compared to “Gone With the Wind” (released one year later), this lavish melodrama stands on its own, thanks to Wyler’s expert direction and his camera’s loving attention to Warners’ biggest female star. Davis, who nabbed her second best actress Oscar for this, is superb and looks glorious, while Fonda is suitably restrained as Pres. Don’t miss the famous scene at the ball.