Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Mouthpiece

Films In Focus

By Ed Garea

The Mouthpiece (WB, 1932) – Directors: James Flood, Elliott Nugent. Writers: Joseph Jackson (s/), Earl Baldwin (adaptation & dialogue), Frank J. Collins (play). Stars: Warren William, Sidney Fox, Aline MacMahon, John Wray, Mae Madison, Ralph Ince, Morgan Wallace, Guy Kibbee, J. Carrol Naish, Walter Walker, Stanley Fields, Murray Kinnell, Noel Francis & William Janney. B&W, 86 minutes.

If we were to choose any actor as the perfect heel in the Pre-Code era I think Warren William would win by seven furlongs. To paraphrase William’s biographer, John Stageland, William specialized in playing characters noted for a bankrupt conscience, predatory sexuality and a deeply buried smidgen of decency.

And yet, according to Stageland, Warner Bros. offered the role to nearly every other actor in the Warner-First National stable before giving it to William. The only reason he got the role at all was because everyone else had turned its down. The movie made him a star.

The Mouthpiece is a film based on the career of noted attorney William Joseph Fallon, who made his reputation defending all kinds of criminals and getting them acquitted. One of his most famous clients was Arnold Rothstein, who he defended against charges of fixing the 1919 World Series, and for whom Fallon was on permanent call. Fallon (who dubbed himself, “The Great Mouthpiece”) could, according to his biographer Gene Fowler, read and memorize a book in just a few hours and use its contents to devastating effect in the courtroom the next day. 

Gene Fowler’s best-selling biography of Fallon, The Great Mouthpiece, published in September 1931, four years after Fallon’s death at age 41 from alcohol related causes (he had been a teetotaler for much of his life until Prohibition), inspired a rash of movies about his exploits. Three were released in the month of May 1932 alone, beginning with The Mouthpiece (May 7), followed by RKO’s State’s Attorney, starring John Barrymore and Helen Twelvetrees (May 20), and Columbia’s Attorney for the Defense, starring Edmund Lowe and Evelyn Brent (May 21). Warner Bros., which began the trend, ended it with Lawyer Man, starring William Powell and Joan Blondell, released January 7, 1933. Two films released before the publication of Fowler’s book with Fallon-inspired characters were Paramount’s 1930 For the Defense, with William Powell and Kay Francis; and MGM’s 1931 A Free Soul, with Lionel Barrymore as the Fallon character, Clark Gable as the hood he defends, and Norma Shearer as Barrymore’s daughter and Gable’s paramour.

As The Mouthpiece opens we meet Vince Day (William), an overworked ADA prosecuting a defendant accused of murdering his wife. Everything we see in the courtroom, from Day’s oratory, to the faces on the jury, to the face of the defendant himself, tells us his conviction is a foregone conclusion. And so it is – a conviction for first-degree murder, with the death penalty to be applied. However, at the hour of execution the D.A. (Walker) informs Day that the defendant was innocent; the gardner confessed to the murder. The D.A. phones the governor, but it’s too late; an innocent victim is dead and Day, absolutely crushed by the news, resigns in disgrace. After drowning his sorrows in Guy Kibbee’s watering hole, Day vows never to prosecute another case and begins a new career as a defense attorney.

At first he’s a success, getting his clients acquitted. But very little money is coming his way. Back at the watering hole, friendly bartender Kibbee gives him some advice. Day had been defending the wrong people – those who were innocent. The big money lies in defending the guilty.

The next time we see Vince Day he’s back in the courtroom, defending his client O’Leary, who is accused of murder. Using bombast and outrageous stunts he gets his client acquitted. Back at the watering hole he tells bartender kibble what he’s learned:  Sensationalism! Ballyhoo! Barnum and Bailey. Give ’em a three ring circus and toss in a little Houdini on the side. Give ’em a swell show and they won’t even stop to think.”

Next we see Day’s secretary, Miss Hickey (MacMahon) usher in a new client, Mr. Barton (Wray). Barton has embezzled $90,000 from his employer, E.A. Smith & Associates and is in a panic because the company is going over the books. Day asks Barton how much of the embezzled money he has left. $40,000, replies Barton. Day asks him to hand it over and sends him to another room to wait. Day then calls Smith (Wallace), tells him he’s been robbed, and invites him over to his office. There he tells Smith he’ll return $30,000 of his money if Smith agrees not to prosecute. Smith agrees. When Smith later learns from Barton that he gave Day $40,000 the employer is outraged and walks out in a huff. Barton asks for a cut of the remaining $10,000, telling Day that he won’t be able to find another job. But Day cold-heartedly tells him, “Yours? You stole it. I earned it.” 

While this is going on Celia Faraday (Fox), a naive young girl from Kentucky, has come into the office seeking a job. Hickey tells him, that “she’s jailbait and dumb,” but after meeting her and learning she’s been in the city for five months looking for a job, Day hires her. His sights are set on seducing the young woman. 

When Day learns that Smith plans to file charges against him for helping himself to the stolen $10,000 he produces a copy of the waiver Smith signed for the return of his $30,000 in the DA’s office, forcing Smith to either back down or face a charge himself of compounding a felony. 

There’s a brief scene where Day begins putting the moves on his little Kentucky Kernel, Celia, but she is so naive and innocent she has no inkling of what he means under the double-talk.

Now comes the movie’s most famous scene, one that people with whom I’ve discussed the movie always bring up. Defending Tony Rocca (Naish), accused of murder by poison, Day holds up the poison bottle. “This is the bottle containing the so-called poison,” he declares before gulping the contents down to the accompaniment of gasps from the gallery. While everyone tries to recover we notice the presence of Celia who also looks most concerned.

As expected the jury finds Rocco Not Guilty. After shaking hands with the jurors and prosecutor, Day leaves the courtroom accompanied by a couple of other men and briskly walks down the street and into a building where he has his stomach pumped, remarking how glad he is the the jury didn’t know that the poison took 45 minutes to work. 

As Day is celebrating his victory at a party Celia is dining at a chop suey joint with boyfriend Johnny (Janney). Celia puts in a call to Day and is told by his servant, Thompson (Kinnell), that she is to deliver some papers to his apartment. As she arrives, Day is there to meet her in a smoking jacket. Day makes his big move, kissing her, but she pulls away, telling him she’s not interested. Day then tries to impress her with the revelation that there really was poison in the bottle, but instead of being impressed, she’s disgusted to the point of where she quits her job.  Day, floored by the way the night has turned out, apologizes, asking if she would stay on until he finds a replacement and she reluctantly agrees.

On Celia’s last day Day gives her a $100 check endorsed over from a law journal for an article he wrote. As this is clean money, she accepts. But that night, a distraught Celia, along with Hickey, arrives at his apartment, looking for him. Hickey, reckoning he’s at Guy Kibbee’s gin mill, finds him there and brings him back home. Along with Thompson she cleans him up to properly receive Celia.

Celia is in a panic because Johnny, a bank messenger, he was robbed of some bonds, but the police believe he was an inside man and arrested him. Day bails him out and has him sent over to his apartment. Sending Celia out of the room Day grills Johnny, but comes to believe in his innocence after Johnny tells him that he wouldn’t be able to look Celia in the face if he stole money. He tells both Celia and Johnny that he’ll clear this up in time for their wedding.     

Day learns from bail bondsman Roscoe (Ince) that Joe Garland (an uncredited Jack La Rue) committed the theft. He asks Garland to confess as a favor to him, and when the thief refuses, Vince has him arrested.

Back in Day’s office, Celia and Johnny show up to thank him and invite him to their wedding. He says he’ll do his best to be there. After they leave Roscoe enters, telling Day the boys aren’t happy because he ratted. Day not only tells Roscoe where to go, but also mentions that he has a file that contains information about the boys and their activities that will be handed over to the police if anything happens to him. Roscoe’s not buying it. He leaves as Hickey comes in.

Day tells Hickey he’s tired of “crooked streets and crooked people” and is returning to civil practice. After ordering flowers over the phone he leaves for the kids’ wedding. Looking out the window, Hickey sees trouble coming. She calls out to him and chases down the stairs trying to catch up to him.

As Day pauses to buy a newspaper, a driver across the street makes his car backfire, followed by a gunshot. Day slumps into the wall, but then straightens up and slowly makes his way into the cab as Hickey catches up to him. As the cabbie asks, “Where to?” Day replies, “Emergency hospital. And you better hurry.” As Hickey pulls her hand back from Day she sees it’s covered in blood. Day laughs, telling her the joke’s on Roscoe and the boys because those papers really do exist. As the film ends he looks at Hickey. “Good old Hickey,” he says. “You’re always around when I need you, aren’t you, Sweetheart.”


The Mouthpiece is pure Warren William, establishing the template for later portrayals of men without consciences. As Day, William is pitch perfect. Not for a minute do we doubt either his characterization or his performance. When he appears he commands the screen and we end up only caring what he’s up to this time.

As Hickey, Day’s loyal secretary, McMahon gives another one of her patented performances. Though we’ve seen it before, most notable opposite Edward G, Robinson in Five Star Final, she never ceases to impress us with the variety of her loyal characters. Instead of being just a one-note actress, MacMahon brings a sense of spontaneity into the role. Though we know just what she’s going to do – this is a Warner Bros. film, after all – we enjoy the verve she brings with her. It’s a shame there weren’t more scenes with her. 

Sidney Fox, in the role of the ingenue, comes off rather uneven, as her Kentucky accent seems to drift in and out throughout the film, a problem that can be attributed to bad writing in having a New York actress attempt to be a Southern lady. The diminutive Fox (4’ 11”), born Sidney Leifer in New York City, began her career at Universal in The Bad Sister (1931), opposite Conrad Nagel, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis (in her first film). She received a strong push from the studio, fueled in part by rumors that she was Carl Laemmle, Jr.’s mistress. Named one of 13 “Wampas Baby Stars” of 1931, she also began making the covers of such movie magazines as Modern Screen and Movie Mirror. But her career fizzled out in 1934 after only 14 films, the most memorable of which was the 1932 production of Murders in the Rue Morgue (for which she was amazingly billed ahead of Bela Lugosi). Her last three pictures – Midnight (1934), Down to Their Last Yacht (1934) and School for Girls (1934), for Poverty Row studio Liberty Films – did nothing to reverse her downhill slide, although she remained a romantic leading lady throughout her career and was never reduced to bit parts. After leaving Hollywood she found some work here and there on the Orpheum Theatre circuit, on radio and a brief return to Broadway in a replacement role. Then, nothing. Her stormy marriage to Universal editor Charles Beahan in 1932 helped her slide into depression and illness. On the morning of November 15, 1942, the 34-year-old actress was found dead in her Beverly Hills bedroom by her husband after consuming a number of sleeping pills.

In the final frame, The Mouthpiece is an entertaining effort whose performances from William and MacMahon raise it above the level of ordinary programmer. It was remade twice, in 1940 as The Man Who Talked Too Much with George Brent in 1940, and in 1955 as Illegal with Edward G. Robinson. Neither remake comes close to matching the original. Stick with this one.

1 comment:

  1. Too bad he had to die in the end. Secquils would have been nice