State’s Attorney (George Archainbaud, 1932)

John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees

I’ll soon be writing about Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1936), but first wanted to post a few thoughts about a couple of earlier movies which have links with it. One, of course, is What Price Hollywood? (1932), George Cukor’s great pre-Code drama which is said to have been the inspiration for Wellman’s film. But there was also a lesser-known movie released just one month  before Cukor’s, which also had a plot strand of a younger woman trying to save a talented older man from his drink problem – the courtroom comedy-melodrama State’s Attorney (1932), directed by George Archainbaud and starring John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees. I’ve now seen this twice and really think it deserves to be better-known – both the leads are brilliant, and the dialogue is very sharp and witty. Sadly it isn’t on DVD, though it did get a US release on VHS. I think it does sometimes get shown on TCM in the US, though, and at present it is available for streaming on “YT”, though the picture isn’t that great. (I also found the film stuck in the second “reel”, but was ok  if downloaded to view on realplayer).

All three of the writers on this movie, Louis Stevens, Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown, also worked on What Price Hollywood?, so it’s not surprising that there are sometimes similarities and echoes between the two. Another link is that David O Selznick was executive producer of both these RKO movies – and later went on to produce A Star Is Born. It’s also a sad fact that the male stars of  State’s Attorney and What Price Hollywood?, John Barrymore and his one-time brother-in-law Lowell Sherman respectively, were alcoholics in real life and are partly portraying their own problems – Sherman is also said to have partly based his portrayal on Barrymore. In the later years of his career, Barrymore increasingly played versions of himself on screen, endlessly going over his own tragedy. A more famous film where he does this is the following year’s Dinner at Eight, directed by Cukor, where another young woman tries to save him from himself.

It seems as if there were a lot of movies in the 1930s about men with alcohol problems – I wonder if this maybe had something to do with the Depression, as a dramatic way of expressing the despair which many people watching the movies would have felt in their own lives. I suppose it also serves partly to counter-balance the glamour of a world like the legal profession or Hollywood – Barrymore’s character, Tom Cardigan, might have a grand apartment (and a butler, a touch which seems a bit unlikely to me), but his table is littered with half-empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays, showing the hopeless mess of his personal life. Women reluctantly working as prostitutes, as heroine June does in this film, is also something which often happens in pre-Codes and again points up the desperation of many people in the Depression. Of course, the sleazy underworld of bars and vice seen in these pre-Codes also has a self-destructive glamour of its own.

In the courtroom scenes, Barrymore uses his looks to full effect as he puts on outrageously stagey defences and speeches which have women in the public gallery practically swooning in admiration. Cardigan is shameless in using absolutely anything to serve his purpose, including tear-jerking references to his dear old mother, who might well be a myth. (The  previous week in court, we’re told, he claimed to be an orphan who had never known his parents!)

Whether or not he knew his mother, the young Tom grew up in the gutter and was put through law school by a gangster, Vanny Powers (William “Stage” Boyd) who now has him on his payroll to defend members of his mob. Cardigan first meets June Perry (Twelvetrees) when he is asked by Powers to defend her on a charge of soliciting, by tapping the window of her apartment to attract the attention of a man passing by. He clears her, although it is plain enough that she is guilty – and takes her home with him, where she instantly moves in. (In a post-Code remake, Criminal Lawyer (1937), starring Lee Tracy, the lawyer gets the heroine a separate room and a respectable job as a cook – but this is a pre-Code, so there is no need to bother with all that.)

When Powers suggests that Cardigan should become District Attorney, so that he will be his inside man, he is at first reluctant to take the job. But he then decides to make the change, and warns that, as soon as he is on the other side of the law, he will stop working for Powers and fight him with all his might. Tom is also ambitious and harbours hopes of stepping up from DA to governor – but he will need the right kind of wife, and June doesn’t fit the bill. He has also been flirting with society girl Lillian (a brittle Jill Esmond), whose father can help his career. During a drunken night out he impulsively marries her, only to regret it bitterly when he goes home to confront June, and realises that she is his true love after all. I won’t go into all the later plot twists, some of which get rather complicated, but, as this is a comedy-romance, it doesn’t have the tragic outcome that was waiting for Barrymore in real life.

The whole legal plot has nothing all that striking in common with What Price Hollywood or A Star Is Born, except for its satirical tone and the way it points up corruption and nepotism in the system. But the similarity comes in the central relationship between the couple – as he starts off by “saving” her, and she then strives to save him in return – and, above all, in the alcohol theme. Cardigan is  seen drinking in every mood, from a playful opening scene where he talks about a brandy as if it was a woman, saying he could marry it, to a despairing, dark sequence where he goes on a late-night ride by horse-drawn coach and shares a hip flask of whiskey with the driver. You almost get the feeling that they are going to drive straight to hell. Interestingly, Cardigan only drops into an Irish accent in his conversations with the Irish coach-driver (JM Kerrigan), who also shares a scene of black comedy with him in a bar.

John Barrymore in the film's bleakest drinking scene

June strives to get Tom off the booze, and at one stage cancels his order for a case of whiskey. “Don’t you want me to have any fun?” he asks plaintively – this line really reminded me of a moment in What Price Hollywood? where Sherman’s agent suggests he should give up drinking, and he replies “What, and be bored all the time?”  Getting back to this film, there are some touching domestic scenes between Barrymore and Twelvetrees, and a great feeling of tenderness between their characters. A big difference between this film and the Hollywood-themed dramas I’ve mentioned is that in this one June does not have a career of her own and isn’t in the public eye – but, nevertheless, it is clear that she runs Tom’s household, knows his legal business and is really his partner in all but name. She also has a lot of dignity and refuses to be a doormat for Tom, leaving him when he marries, but without any histrionics. The break-up is an amazingly quiet and unmelodramatic scene. I haven’t seen any of Twelvetrees’ other films but she is very good in this, though she has too little screen time, and I would like to see more of her work. I’d also be interested to see more films directed by George Archainbaud, as this must be one of the best 1930s films I’ve seen where the director isn’t well-known. At just 79 minutes, it moves very fast and I occasionally had to pause it for a second to absorb a line I’d just missed.

19 thoughts on “State’s Attorney (George Archainbaud, 1932)

  1. Well, Judy, you keep digging deeper into Wellman’s films and I have come to realize how little I have seen of his work. At least when you write about A STAR IS BORN i can make claim to having seen it. STATE ATTORNEY sound interesting and from the VHS box the video release was quite a few years ago.


    • Thanks, John – this one isn’t Wellman, though, but a director I’d never heard of before called George Archainbaud. He seems to have mainly made Westerns – judging by this movie I think he must have been pretty good despite being so obscure!


  2. It’s curious how rarely we see alcoholism presented seriously — or even at all — in films today, yet across the earth people are experiencing levels of depression, recession, economic calamity. I read alcoholism has gone up in the US — foreclosures are frighteningly high now. Yet movies carry on showing upper middle people drinking wine and liquors elegantly.

    My guess is the persistent terrific prejudice against drinking since cars became so ubiquitous.

    Also in a way the quiet prostitution of women during such periods is not seen in movies any more either. This has a long history in fact — and prostitution is up too.

    Movies today show families running desperate cleaning businesses or having terrible times (Winter’s Bones).

    I wonder if this older glamor plot — for they are so glamorous performed a form of excitement for people then. After all grinding poverty is not exciting and these movies are exciting with lots of melodramatic turns and continual changes in experience that make life interesting. Not at all what unemployed people know.

    My recent blog is on the movie and book Marnie and while Marnie is post-code and 1960s, its roots and type belong to these earlier movies with the characters dressed in the same glamor kind of clothes and intense melodrama the mood.



    • Thank you, Ellen – I haven’t seen ‘Marnie’ as yet (or read the book) but will aim to see the film and comment on your blog. I’d be interested to know more about the treatment of alcohol in the movies over the years – it seems to me as if there was a lot of it in the 1930s in particular, although this perception on my part may be partly skewed by the fact that I tend to go for melodramas and these are the films which are most likely to have this kind of theme. Anyway, I am going to see if there is a book on this theme and will let you know if I find anything interesting.


  3. “It seems as if there were a lot of movies in the 1930s about men with alcohol problems – I wonder if this maybe had something to do with the Depression, as a dramatic way of expressing the despair which many people watching the movies would have felt in their own lives.”

    Judy, although you subsequently broach the idea of this element balancing the white collar legal profession, I think you initial supposition above is the one that holds the strongest sway. You have found another film here that I’ve never seen, but as disappointed as I am, I can say the absence of any kind of a laserdisc or DVD release is what prevented me. Still, I’m sure a few television airings and the VHS release you mention could well have been negotiated. Seems like this is one TCM that’s essential, as the performance of the leads alone make it a must. I always loved Helen’s last name “Twelvetrees.” Seems like Wellman is drawn to people with “tress” in their name, as one of his honored cinematographers was James Van Trees. Aside from that quip though, I want to again commend you for your astonishing and tireless work on this series. You do seem to be outdoing yourself every time out!


    • Thanks very much for the kind words, Sam – as I’ve just said over on WITD, this isn’t a Wellman movie, though, but directed by the little-known George Archainbaud. (If anyone reading this posting knows any more about Archainbaud, I’d be interested to hear, since this is the only film of his I’ve seen.) I seem to have confused people by mentioning Wellman in my first paragraph, but I’ve just altered the header to the posting which will hopefully avoid any further confusion on this score.

      Anyway, I’m getting to be a big fan of John Barrymore so I want to see as much of his work as possible too – this seems to be what happens, as you know, Sam, one movie leads to another! I also agree about Helen Twelvetrees being an interesting actress, and having a great name.


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  5. Judy, I’m so sorry. What an embarassment on my part, and proof that my attention last night was blinkering. I’m reading through the essence, and I continue to see it as a Wellman. Geez. I will of course change the into to the link at WitD.


    • No worries, Sam, and thank you very much! I think it would probably be a good idea if I put the names of the directors in the headers to my postings anyway, so I will do that in future.:)


  6. This is another movie I hadn’t seen so I jumped over to YT to check it out. What struck me is how little Cardigan’s alcoholism had to do with anything. It doesn’t really play a part in the story and it doesn’t come to any meaningful conclusion. He just drinks A LOT. I was wondering if maybe the studio decided to write that in so they could still shoot on days when Barrymore showed up drunk. That way they wouldn’t miss any production time and it would make sense to the story if he’s slurring his words. This is mere speculation and may be far from the truth, but the idea did pop in my head. It may also be why he continued to play so many alcoholics through the 1930s.


    • Glad you were able to see the movie, Jason, and thanks for commenting. That’s an interesting point about the drink being separate from the legal storyline to a large extent.

      I should really read more about John Barrymore’s career, but it seems to me as if he was still at the top as an actor in 1932 despite all his problems. He made five films that year and had demanding lead roles in four of them, only playing second fiddle to brother Lionel in ‘Rasputin and the Empress’… so I don’t think the drink can have been affecting his performances much at that stage – though I do think the knowledge of his real life inevitably gives this part of the story an added poignancy. I have read that by the late 1930s Barrymore could only really play versions of himself, though, as you suggest. Anyway, I think he is fantastic in this, as he was in another legal drama the following year, ‘Counsellor at Law’, where he shows he could speak just as fast as James Cagney or Pat O’Brien!


    • And in fairness to Barrymore, he would be just as sharp in “Twentieth Century” in 1934, keeping up with Carole Lombard. I was thinking I need to read more about him as well as I was writing the comment above.


  7. I’d say melodrama is still super-popular — heavy emotional movies — the aesthetics of filming have changed (now color, no longer glamor clothes) and plots show close-knit families and friends more. Also at least here in the US we are getting a lot of movies showing the desperation of the times (The company men about losing jobs). And alcoholism is high. The kind of scene where humor is made out of alcoholism: the person falling all over herself, the supposed funny slurred speech — are really rare where at one time they were ubiquitous. It’s become a taboo condition in film while sexual explicitness is now graphic.


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  11. So glad that State’s Attorney is getting some attention; too bad it’s not on DVD. One other thing about it — the title music is great, a real low-down jazz tune.


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