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STATE’S ATTORNEY (director: George Archainbaud; screenwriters: Roland Brown/Gene Fowler/based on a story by Louis Stevens; cinematographer: Leo Tover; editor: Charles L. Kimball; music: Max Steiner; cast: John Barrymore (Tom Cardigan), Helen Twelvetrees (June Perry), William Boyd (Vanny Powers), Jill Esmond (Lillian Ulrich), Mary Duncan (Nora Dean), Oscar Apfel (Ulrich), Ralph Ince (Defense Attorney), Albert Conti (Mario), Frederick Burton (Judge), Leon Waycoff (City Prosecutor), Paul Hurst (Police Captain Morgan), Raoul Roulien (Senor Alvarado); Runtime: 79; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David O’Selznick; Warner Archive Collection; 1932)
The dialogue is sharp, but the script is weak.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

George Archainbaud(“Men of Steel”/”Night Life”/”Easy Pickings”) directs a lively but cynical Pre-code courtroom morality melodrama that has John Barrymore steal the film by flamboyantly playing the debonair and brilliant but arrogant hard drinking attorney Tom Cardigan, whose early career success is due to his mob connections. The dialogue is sharp, but the script is weak. The directing is only middling. Writers Roland Brown and Gene Fowler turn in a banal screenplay that goes nowhere. It’s based on a story by Louis Stevens. A weaker, sanitized version was remade in 1937 and was titled Criminal Lawyer.

When streetwalker June Perry (Helen Twelvetrees) is accused by a corrupt police informer of tapping on her window panes to drum up her prostitution business with a passing male, gangster club owner Vanny Powers (William Boyd), the lawyer’s close friend, Cardigan, ever since their reform school days as youths, pays a large sum for the mob mouthpiece to defend his employee in night court and save his club from its name from being tarnished. June is successfully defended by Cardigan’s lies, and then quits the oldest profession to turn over a new leaf as she moves in with the lawyer as his squeeze.

It also begins Cardigan’s reform efforts. He gets elected District Attorney and turns over a new leaf of actively prosecuting criminals–no longer beholden to his former gangster pals, to their dismay. A drunken Cardigan falls in love with loose-living socialite Lillian Ulrich (Jill Esmond) and marries her on a whim, and believes her influential dad (Oscar Apfel) could pull the strings to get him a governor’s nomination. The disappointed love-sick June takes a powder. Later she’s a witness to Vanny killing a rival thug and realizes that if she testifies she could be killed and thereby avoids Cardigan. But Cardigan fights for justice, despite his past flaws, and while chasing after June to testify realizes that she is the one he loves and annuls his marriage. It concludes with a thrilling courtroom scene, that seemed as phony and unbelievable as the story, as the DA prosecutes his former mob boss. Despite such nonsense, it’s nevertheless entertaining as soap opera as no one should take the story for reality. It was an escape film for a Depression audience, that probably appreciated it more than a modern-day audience could.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”