State’s Attorney (1932): Archainbaud’s Pre-Code Legal Drama, Starring John Barrymore

George Archainbaud directed State’s Attorney, a pre-Code legal drama, starring John Barrymore.

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

State’s Attorney
States-attorney film poster.jpg

Theatrical Poster

Thematically, the film bears resemblance to Barrymore’s similar role in Universal’s “Counsellor at Law,” a better picture on any level.

The movie was remade twice, in 1937 and 1951, under the title “Criminal Lawyer.”

The story was very loosely based on the life of criminal lawyer William J. Fallon, who defended numerous homicide cases without any convictions.

Barrymore plays alcoholic defense attorney Tom Cardigan who handles cases for his childhood friend, gangster Valentine “Vanny” Powers (William “Stage” Boyd). Powers thinks it would be a good idea for Cardigan to become Attorney General, expecting favors in return for Powers delivering the votes. But Cardigan warns him that if he goes to “the other side,” Powers should expect no favors.

Cardigan defends homeless woman June Perry (Helen Twelvetrees), accused of “tapping at the window” and, after secretly fitting her with a wedding ring, frees her by noting the presence of said ring. He then takes her home and June becomes his mistress.

Cardigan’s success as Attorney General makes him likely candidate for Governor. A political kingmaker arranges for his daughter Lillian (Jill Esmond) to date Cardigan. During a drunken spree, they get married and he informs June the news.

June returns to her old friends in the Powers mob at a bar, and accidentally she observes Powers murder a man. Cardigan says he will annul his marriage. Later, Cardigan interviews the material witness and finds it’s June, who refuses to return to him, thinking he has betrayed his values to become Governor.

At Powers’ trial, the defense forces her to admit that she could see the killer but didn’t see the murder and didn’t recognize Powers. Cardigan abruptly announces that his assistants will handle the case. He then confesses that he had been sent to reform school—with Powers—for burglary and will not run for governor.

In the end, June congratulates him for his courage and for choosing values over ambition. “Where are you going?” June asks in the last scene. “Where I belong!” Cardigan says. “So am I,” June reaffirms, smiling.

John Barrymore as Tom Cardigan
Helen Twelvetrees as June Perry
Jill Esmond as Lillian Ulrich
William “Stage” Boyd as Valentine ‘Vanny’ Powers
Mary Duncan as Nora Dean
Ralph Ince as Second Trial Defense Attorney
Albert Conti as Mario
Frederick Burton as Second Trial Judge
C. Henry Gordon as Attorney Graves
Paul Hurst as Police Captain Morgan
Oscar Apfel as Mr. Ulrich
Leon Ames as First Trial Prosecutor

Directed by George Archainbaud
Produced by James Kevin McGuinness (associate producer); David O. Selznick (exec producer)
Written by Louis Stevens (story), Gene Fowler (script), Rowland Brown (script)
Music by Max Steiner, Ray Heindorf
Cinematography Leo Tover
Edited by Charles L. Kimball
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date: May 5, 1932 (NY) May 20, 1932 (US)
Running time: 73 minutes


TCM showed the movie on August 12, 2020.