Story: Tom Cardigan (John Barrymore) is a lawyer with immense courtroom skills, able to navigate even the most complex cases with ease and even charm, the latter of which is important when you rely on juries like Cardigan does. While he enjoys being a defense attorney and using his skills to ensure his clients go free, rightfully so or not, he has found himself wondering if there is more to life than trying to keep criminals out of prison. He doesn’t love the idea of being a prosecutor, but such a position offers other perks and opportunities, ones he would like to partake in. But more often than not, his ambition leads to alcohol and Cardigan is often soused in his off hours. Can he find what is missing in his life or will he simply drink himself to death instead?
Entertainment Value: State’s Attorney might seem like a courtroom drama or legal drama, and it is to a point, but it is also much more than that. The narrative is solid and does a lot for an under 80 minute run time, with both a well crafted story and some interesting character work. This leads to a brisk pace that never runs slow, as there is always some progress in terms of story or character, or just an interesting scene going on. The tone is mostly serious, but not overly so, as there is often a current of humor that runs through the material, though that humor can be a little dark. Cardigan is not a well man for the most part, so he gets into some wild situations and his banter with others is a lot of fun, but there is humor even beyond the lead character’s persona. The humor works best when it is rooted in the characters, as the movie is good about developing both characters and their relationships. In short, State’s Attorney is a well made picture that earns a recommendation.
While there is a terrific ensemble of talent here, John Barrymore has the lead and without a doubt, this is his show. He has fantastic screen presence that makes any scene seem important, whether it is a serious courtroom examination or a drunken exchange in the heat of the moment. I love the scenes between Barrymore’s Cardigan and a coach driver, as Barrymore gets three sheets to the wind and puts the poor driver through awkward social encounters. When the camera opens on the two at the bar, I cracked up and Barrymore plays a drunk so well, it is quite memorable. He also flexes his dramatic chops here and really delivers on the tense courtroom scenes, while his banters with his costars is always top tier, without fail. If you’re a fan of Barrymore, this is a must see performance, while those new to his work should make this one of the earliest movies you pop in. The cast also includes Helen Twelvetrees, William Boyd, Mary Duncan, and Jill Esmond.