Wednesday, September 13, 2023
State’s Attorney (1932)
Tom Cardigan (John Barrymore) is a hotshot defence attorney who does a lot of work for gangster Vanny Powers (William 'Stage' Boyd). Cardigan manages to get a streetwalker named June Perry (Helen Twelvetrees) acquitted on a soliciting charge. They fall for each other and she gives up prostitution and moves in with him.
Then Cardigan is offered a job in the District Attorney’s office, a job guaranteed to be a fast-track to becoming first D.A. and then Governor. He becomes a national figure after securing a woman’s conviction in a sensational murder trial.
Marrying the current governor’s daughter Lillian Ulrich (Jill Esmond) seems like a smart career move. Lillian is a very strange girl. She gets very excited by the idea of hangings, especially if it’s a woman who is going to be hanged. If Cardigan could stay sober for five minutes he’d realise that he doesn’t really enjoy being a prosecutor and he doesn’t really like Lillian at all.
In fact he was a much nicer guy when he was a defence lawyer. Ambition and being on the side of the law has made him even more cynical. And a lot more unhappy. Maybe he’ll get to be governor but the price might not be worth it.
It’s a movie that poses some moral dilemmas. Defending gangsters might not be very moral but Cardigan discovers that the respectable world, the world that will lead him to the governor’s mansion, can be just as unsavoury. You still lose your self-respect and your peace of mind.
Barrymore’s performance overall is dazzling. He was at the top of his game. There’s plenty of humour mixed with the legal melodrama and Barrymore handles both the comic scenes and the dramatic scenes with equal assurance. Cardigan is quite a complex character who doesn’t really know what it is that he wants out of life or out of his career.
Helen Twelvetrees is excellent. Her career peaked during the pre-code era and she faded rapidly into obscurity after that but during that pre-code era she did some great work.
This movie is one of five in a Spanish DVD set, Pre-Code RKO Volume 1, which also includes the fine romance The Common Law (1931), the enjoyable melodrama Kept Husbands (1931) and the delightful farce Lonely Wives. The movies are in English with removable Spanish subtitles. It’s a very worthwhile set for pre-code fans.
State’s Attorney is an enjoyable mix of courtroom drama, humour and romance and it deals quite well with the price of ambition theme. Highly recommended.