- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

Nothing obliges Academy Awards voters to do right by famous acting families, but some oversights remain more puzzling, historically, than others. Take the case of the Barrymores.

Lionel (1878-1954), the eldest, and the first to pursue consistent employment in the movie industry as a member of D.W. Griffith’s troupe at the Biograph studio, won an early Best Actor trophy in the 1931 melodrama “A Free Soul.” His lucky role: an alcoholic, self-reproachful criminal attorney, presumed to bear some resemblance to the father of author Adela Rogers St. Johns — Earl Rogers, a celebrated defender in Los Angeles in the early decades of the 20th century.

Ethel (1879-1959) preferred to remain a beloved adornment of Broadway until returning to the screen after a long absence to portray Cary Grant’s cockney mother in Clifford Odets’ “None But the Lonely Heart” in 1944. This “comeback” secured her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She was frequently in movies from that point on and received three subsequent nominations in the same category.

John (1882-1942), a matinee idol on Broadway and a romantic leading man on the silent screen, has left the most glamorous legacy, in part because dissipation killed him prematurely. According to biographers, he became a precocious drinker at age 14 while enrolled at Georgetown Academy. Inexplicably, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, although a flurry of roles in the early 1930s, when Hollywood was keen to exploit both his presence and voice in talking pictures, would have justified serious consideration: “Svengali,” “Topaze,” “Grand Hotel,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Counsellor at Law,” “Twentieth Century.”

All missed opportunities. One of the constraints during that period is that only three nominees made the finals, but it’s curious that John Barrymore was never among them. In the split eligibility year when Lionel won, 1930-31, Fredric March was a nominee for the film version of “The Royal Family of Broadway,” in which he played a caricature of John Barrymore.

If empowered to rewrite Oscar history, I’d be tempted to sacrifice Charles Laughton as the Best Actor of 1932-33, the final split year, in “The Private Lives of Henry VIII” and elevate John Barrymore in “Counsellor at Law.” William Wyler’s admirably crisp and stirring adaptation of Elmer Rice’s play, a Broadway success of 1931, still hums like a precision instrument. Set entirely in a bustling law office — Mr. Rice was an attorney who had turned to playwrighting — it’s one of the most entertaining and evocative workplace movies ever made. All that activity revolves around Mr. Barrymore’s beleaguered character.

An Oscar for John Barrymore would have given the Academy a beguiling early landmark: awards for the Barrymore brothers while portraying, coincidentally, criminal attorneys. I recommend a double bill of the DVD editions of “A Free Soul” and “Counsellor at Law” at your earliest convenience. The films were produced at MGM and Universal and the video copies are very attractive.

“Counsellor” stands the test of time decisively; indeed, you’re reminded of how much human interest and stylistic assurance filmmakers could once demonstrate in only 81 minutes. “A Free Soul” needs almost every allowance available to period pieces, but that’s a trifling matter. One grants allowances readily in the case of Clark Gable as the seductive gangster Ace Wilfong, whose love affair with Norma Shearer as playgirl Jan Ashe, the spoiled daughter of Lionel Barrymore’s character, Stephen Ashe, precipitates most of the melodramatic desperation, once considered daring.

“A Free Soul” was the hit movie that confirmed Mr. Gable’s stellar promise; audiences found his virility as stimulating as Jan Ashe found Ace Wilfong’s. Mr. Gable is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and only homicide prevents Ace from having his way with the heroine. The Ashes don’t mind consorting with an underworld figure up to a point; Ace’s insistence that the smitten Jan become his for keeps arouses all their latent hypocrisy.

Stephen Ashe is out of the picture a good deal of the time, while Jan is becoming a plausible slave of passion, succumbing in evening gowns by Gilbert Adrian that seem indistinguishable from negligees. Lionel Barrymore presumably won his Oscar with a preposterous, concluding courtroom plea, during which Stephen, as a surprise guest advocate, accuses himself of failing the liberated Jan.

It’s a classic of outrageous, inadmissible self-pity, but “Counsellor at Law” seems far more astute by avoiding the courtroom entirely, preferring a cross-section of George Simon’s tangled activities as they play out during three tense and revealing days of office interplay. The episodes build toward a brilliantly timed and enacted moment in which despair almost gets the best of the hero, a compelling mixture of admirable and oblivious or foolhardy attributes.

In retrospect, John Barrymore’s Oscar eligibility seems enhanced by a splendid office ensemble, extending from Isabel Jewell’s inimitable switchboard operator Bessie to Bebe Daniels’ lovelorn secretary Rexie and J. Hammond Dailey’s invaluable gumshoe McFadden, who frustrates Simon by taking his own sweet time to summarize a snooping mission that could save the attorney’s career. Two minor roles were cast with future directors: Vincent Sherman as a fuming radical and Richard Quine, then a juvenile, as a snooty kid. The former gets to glare ominously at the latter in one priceless scene. “Counsellor at Law” is a treasure trove of premeditated and serendipitous highlights.

TITLE: “A Free Soul”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1931, decades before the advent of the film rating system; elements of erotic candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Clarence Brown. Executive producer: Irving Thalberg. Screenplay by Becky Gardiner and John Meehan, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns. Cinematography by William Daniels. Art direction by Cedric Gibbons. Wardrobe by Gilbert Adrian.

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Video; part of the “TCM Archives” set “Forbidden Hollywood: Volume Two”

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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TITLE: “Counsellor at Law”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1933)

CREDITS: Directed by William Wyler. Produced by Henry Henigson. Screenplay by Elmer Rice, based on his play. Cinematography by Norbert Brodine. Art direction by Charles D. Hall. Film editing by Daniel Mandell.

RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes

DVD EDITION: Kino Video

WEB SITE: www.kino.com

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