I considered the DVD box of State’s Attorney with some confusion, because I remembered John Barrymore playing a lawyer in an excellent movie from 1932, but this title wasn’t familiar. A little research clarified matters: Barrymore also starred in William Wyler’s Counsellor at Law, an excellent, fast-talking comedy-drama that doesn’t feel dated at all (and which is on DVD from Kino). Well, this made-on-demand item from Warner Archives isn’t that film, and it must be added that director George Archainbaud isn’t Wyler.
Barrymore, famous profile in prominent display, plays off his public image as a broken-down alcoholic in the role of Tom Cardigan, an eloquent, self-loathing mouthpiece on retainer to a bootlegging pimp (William Boyd). When Cardigan gets one of the man’s prostitutes (Helen Twelvetrees) off the hook for a solicitation charge, partly by playing up to the female judge in a speech about motherhood, he promptly shacks up with her (the hooker, not the judge) in a fabulous art-deco pad, and we know we’re firmly in the pre-Code era. When he’s offered a post as Assistant District Attorney, we know we’re firmly in Hollywood.
Now on the other side of the law, Cardigan aggressively prosecutes his former employer while setting his cap for the governor’s chair and hastily marrying a dangerous society dynamo (Jill Esmond, best known as Laurence Olivier’s first wife) for about five minutes. Of course this gives his girlfriend the old heave-ho, but we’re a few more plot twists away from the manifestly unconvincing wrap-up about success vs. happiness. Although the plot is busy, it feels slow, even plodding, and we’re rarely positioned as closely to the proceedings as we should be. Nor is this story terribly interesting, nor more than a minor show for Barrymore’s comfortable theatrics. If you see only one Barrymore lawyer vehicle from 1932, it needn’t be this one.