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Almost anyone who loves the movies of pre-code Hollywood is bound to have an affinity for the wonderfully devilish Warren William, an actor who tended to play characters whose disreputability was unapologetic and unvarnished. The picture that made William a genuine star - and, temporarily at least, a rival to the likes of Clark Gable, William Powell and James Cagney - was the 1932 vehicle The Mouthpiece, directed by James Flood and Elliott Nugent and based on a play by Frank J. Collins. William's character is lawyer Vincent "Vince" Day: As the movie opens, he's a modestly paid district attorney who's so good at his job that he causes an innocent man to be put to death. Guilt-stricken, he turns his considerable talents - which include a flair for showmanship -- to defending low-life criminals, a way of serving penance through self-abasement.
Day comes to enjoy that self-abasement a little too much, drinking, carousing and staying out way too late with an assortment of comely cuties. He's so successful at his work that he begins to believe he can have anything, or anyone, he wants: At the office, he has his eye on an innocent little stenographer from Kentucky (played by a winsome Sidney Fox), though it's his long-suffering secretary, Miss Hickey (the wonderful Aline MacMahon), who truly loves and understands him.
William's performance is superb, and surprisingly nuanced considering he's playing a grandstanding lawyer. William could conjure just the right degree of oiliness when necessary, but he also had a gift for showing gentler shades of remorse and longing, and he puts that gift to work here. William had made other films before The Mouthpiece -- among them the 1931 Expensive Women, with Dolores Costello - and had in fact made his film debut some 10 years earlier, in a picture called The Town That Forgot God. But it was The Mouthpiece that truly set William's career in motion, earning the kind of stellar reviews that some actors wait a lifetime for. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall wrote of William's turn in The Mouthpiece, "It is really one of the outstanding interpretations that has been contributed to the screen."
The Mouthpiece was based on real incidents in the life of New York City lawyer William Joseph Fallon, a defender of thugs and ne'er-do-wells, whose own nickname was "The Great Mouthpiece." Fallon was a flamboyant character, and apparently a quick study: He could reportedly read and memorize a book, nearly word for word, in just a few hours, and use its contents to marvelous effect in the courtroom the next day. Movies about Fallon, who died in 1927, happened to be in vogue in 1932: That year saw the release of two other pictures based loosely on his antics, State's Attorney, with John Barrymore, and Lawyer Man, with William Powell. But neither met with as much success as The Mouthpiece did. The picture, shot in five weeks, was a major hit for the studio, thanks in large part to William. Even the influential Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons singled him out as "one of our better villains because you always like him no matter how wicked his role."
This particular role almost eluded William. The studio originally had Edward G. Robinson in mind for the picture; Robinson was just coming off the success of Little Caesar (1931), and simply had too many gigs on offer at the time. According to William's biographer John Stageland, Warner Bros. offered the role to nearly every other actor in the Warner - First National stable before giving it to William. As Stageland notes, "The fictional Fallon combined character elements that had been so successful for [William] thus far: the powerful, amoral businessman; a bankrupt conscience; predatory sexuality and a deeply buried kernel of decency." The Mouthpiece offered material meaty enough for any star, but William was fortunate in that the studio's previous choices turned it down. "I just play the roles that everyone else won't play," William said later in a good-natured assessment of his career.
William would play other scoundrels that same year: In Skyscraper Souls, he was a ruthless, womanizing banker engaged in an affair with his secretary. In Three on a Match, as the successful lawyer and father Robert Kirkwood, his character was far more sympathetic. But in The Mouthpiece, he is simply great fun to watch, partly because his character is subtly multi-dimensional: William lets you see all those flickering doubts, but he also takes pleasure in the character's hedonism. And he's wonderful with his fellow actors, particularly MacMahon's faithful Miss Hickey. In one sequence she sobers him up, quite efficiently, after one of his typical nights of excess. She almost literally slaps him back to his senses. William's Day responds with a combination of annoyance and grudging gratitude. This may be an over-the-top role, but William always keeps it firmly and delightfully in check.
Director: James Flood, Elliott Nugent
Screenplay: Joseph Jackson (screenplay); Earl Baldwin (adaptation & dialogue); Frank J. Collins (play) (as Frank Collins)
Cinematography: Barney McGill
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Film Editing: George Amy
Cast: Warren William (Vincent 'Vince' Day), Sidney Fox (Celia Farraday), Aline MacMahon (Miss Hickey, Day's secretary), John Wray (Mr. Barton), Mae Madison (Elaine), Ralph Ince (J.B. Roscoe), Morgan Wallace (E.A. Smith), Guy Kibbee (Bartender), J. Carroll Naish (Tony Rocco), Walter Walker (District Attorney Forbes).
by Stephanie Zacharek
The New York Times
John Stageland, Warren William, Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood, McFarland & Co., 2010
New York Press
The Village Voice