John Barrymore did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying George Simon in Counsellor at Law.
John Barrymore was a name synonymous with great acting as was later the case with Laurence Olivier, then Robert De Niro, and most currently Daniel Day-Lewis. It has been said that his film career never reached the heights of his stage career and it is interesting that he could be cast in especially small roles like in Marie Antoinette for example. That is not the case for Counsellor at Law where he is front and center for almost the entirety of the film. The film's opening minutes even begin as basically a build up to Barrymore's entrance as we simply hear his secretaries keep telling many people that Mr. Simon is not in yet, until finally the film reveals Barrymore taking care of business. Once Barrymore comes on the scene the film practically becomes an almost nonstop acting showcase for him as the lawyer George Simon has to go from one problem to another whether it has to deal with his work as a lawyer or his marriage to a shallow wasp.
Barrymore begins in basically a rapid fire sort of approach as Simon juggles one case to another in quick succession. Barrymore actually is a bit of a marvel her and it is wonderful watch him in the role here. Barrymore certainly has a theatrical style of performance to be sure, but he still knows how to attune himself for film. His style though also really works for the character of the driven lawyer who obviously would not be opposed to doing a bit of theatrics in the courtroom if it called for it. The film almost plays a bit like a screwball comedy with the way Barrymore handles the dialogue in a rapid fire way early on. Barrymore though is great in selling the material and really giving it a constant energy. All the various exposition in these early scenes could quickly just have become muddled in no time or just could have come off as simply boring. Barrymore brings the material to life making it all clear in concise while doing it with a great deal of style.
Barrymore is in absolute command every minute as he is on screen and he is absolutely convincing as this powerful and passionate lawyer. We don't even need to see him in the courtroom to know how good he would be as Barrymore is so assured in his portrayal of Simon's various wheeling and dealings. When on task Barrymore shows Simon to be always assertive and have his situations within his grasp when they are technically just routine matters for the counsellor. Barrymore is exceptional here though in there is a palatable wit he brings to the part that may very well not have been there with a lesser performer. There really aren't any lines that are innately funny in nature, this is no a screwball comedy by any means, but whenever there is a chance to make a comment a bit comedic Barrymore does. It's particularly fine work because Barrymore makes these little humorous moments completely naturally, and just along with everything else that is going on with his character.
The character of George Simon does not have it easy though and many things from his past come to haunt him all in a short period of time. One of the first things is his shallow wife who quickly demands that he leave a case that would otherwise be a social faux pas, although at the same time she is obviously about to embark on affair away from Simon with a man much of her world. Then he finds himself threatened by disbarment due to having helped guy with somewhat questionable methods earlier on, and finally he has to try and help a radical from his old neighborhood. Barrymore is really quite interesting in the way he plays Simon's reactions to these various things in that he still is pretty rapid fire with it showing that seemingly nothing can stop Simon's drive as a lawyer. It's an odd trick but one that Barrymore pulls off quite graciously. When Simon deals with his wife Barrymore eases back on the intensity rather nicely but only for a moment to show that in one place in his life he has hesitations is in his troubled relationship with his wife.
So many of these films from the early 30's are rather brisk in their running time, and this is film is no exception to that rule. Barrymore's rather swift manner though makes it so he himself avoids ever seeming rushed in his portrayal of Simon's difficulties. Barrymore plays it well by showing as a growing intensity in Simon as one thing after another seems to go wrong for him, but Barrymore never stops keeping Simon on task even when things are going all wrong for him. It's never seems odd though as it always seems exactly how his character should behave as the only thing he really knows in life is too work hard, and constantly. Barrymore does not stop really until a final moment when he finally realizes that his wife has basically left him. Barrymore suddenly completely drops the drive of man, showing that in his wife is one place that Simon never fully understood leaving him completely confused and out of his element for once. It has a powerful impact because Barrymore built to the moment so carefully and convincingly throughout his performance. Although apparently there were many difficulties faced by William Wyler, who directed the film, in regards to Barrymore none of this can be seen in the film itself. The tremendous of Barrymore as an actor can be seen in this performance that stood as a true challenge, a challenge he more than met.