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.
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.