Cast & Crew
When prosecuting attorney Vincent Day's legal arguments result in the execution of an innocent man, he swears he will never prosecute another case. He successfully defends his new clients, but earns very little money until a friendly bartender points out that the big money comes from defending the guilty, not the innocent. Vince embarks on a new career, winning his cases by showmanship rather than on points of law. When an embezzler begs Vince to save him from prison, Vince convinces the embezzler's employer, Mr. Smith, to accept a partial reinbursement in exchange for keeping the crime a secret from company stockholders. Smith reluctantly agrees but later learns that Vince is taking a large portion of the money as his fee rather than returning it to the company and files a complaint against the lawyer. Vince argues that by agreeing not to prosecute the thief, Smith is guilty of compounding a crime and escapes punishment. Vince, who is quite a ladies' man, is charmed by the naivete of his new secretary, Celia. He attempts to seduce her, but in her innocence, she does not understand the meaning of his actions. She watches admiringly in court as Vince downs a bottle that supposedly contains the poison used by his client to murder someone. Later that evening, Vince lures Celia to his apartment and offers to make her his mistress. By chance, he reveals that his taking poison was a trick as he had his stomach pumped after his client was declared innocent. Celia is disgusted by Vince's lack of ethics and quits her job. She plans to get married and move back to Kentucky. Vince is shamed by her rejection. On the day that Celia is to leave, he offers her a check, which he earned writing an article for a law journal. Celia's departure is delayed, however, when her fiancé Johnny is arrested for stealing bonds. Miss Hickey, Vince's faithful personal secretary, rouses him from a severe hangover to defend Johnny. Vince uses his underworld connections to discover who actually stole the bonds and framed Johnny. He asks the real thief to confess as a favor to him, and when the thief refuses, Vince has him arrested. The underworld is outraged that one of their own would form an alliance with the police, and before Vince can inplement his plans to go straight, they gun him down outside his office.
J. Carroll Naish
Jack La Rue
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
The character played by Warren William was supposedly based on William Fallon, a notorious New York lawyer.
Contemporary sources note the film's similarity to the life of New York City's famous criminal lawyer William J. Fallon, who was known for his use of psychology to sway juries. Fallon was also considered to be the inspiration for the 1932 RKO film State's Attorney (see below). The 1940 Warner Bros. film The Man Who Talked Too Much was also based on the Collins play. In 1955, a remake entitled Illegal was produced by Warner Bros. with Edward G. Robinison as the lawyer. That film was directed by Lewis Allen from a script by W. R. Burnett and James R. Webb.