Warren William Under the Stars, Part 2 The Mouthpiece

Here’s the 2nd in a series of 17 reviews covering the films in TCM’s August 30th “Summer Under the Stars” line up, featuring Warren William: 

THE MOUTHPIECE (1932) Dir: James Flood & Elliot Nugent

The story of The Mouthpiece is almost biblical in its simplicity: a man’s fall from grace followed by sacrificial redemption. While working as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office Vincent Day (Warren William) inadvertently sends an innocent boy to death in the electric chair. His conscience will not allow him to live with the guilt of this fatal mistake, and the result is a drunken odyssey among the lower depths ofNew York’s sleazy saloon culture. After he receives a few words of encouragement from his forward-thinking bartender (Guy Kibbee), Day swallows his shame and cynically reinvents himself as the immensely successful legal defender of the very reprobates and human filth he previously took off the streets. Soon he is so accustomed to the deep-water pressures of living with bottom-feeding parasites that he resolves to plumb even lower, brazenly attempting to seduce his underage stenographer Celia Faraday (Sydney Fox). When Celia’s humble decency compels the wayward attorney to bend his crooked line 180 degrees, he makes the fatal discovery that he has chosen a road from which there is no going back.

When it was released in the spring of 1932, The Mouthpiece scored an enormous box-office hit with depression era audiences, and made a bona fide star of Warner Brothers recently signed contract player Warren William. Only a year earlier William was toiling semi-successfully on theNew York stage and enduring continual comparisons to John Barrymore, leading his new employers to initially assign him to continental melodramas and high society roles. In short order, however, something new emerged, eventually coalescing in this, his sixth film with the studio. Here producers and scenario writers settled on the template for the dominant film persona of William’s early years: the amoral, conscienceless power broker who was forced by circumstances to adopt a remorseless personal dictum: “smash, or be smashed.” Along with the crackling urban energy of studio mates Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, William exemplified a new masculine construction then invading cinema. Unlike the conformist go-getters of the silent era, these men had no use for dead Victorian ideals; they would need more direct means to survive and thrive in the disintegrating social order of depression-eraAmerica.

It is no wonder that Warren William became so popular after the release of The Mouthpiece. As Vincent Day he swaggers along a character arc that takes him from paragon of virtue to conscienceless predator in one uneasy step. During the course of the film he delivers a spellbindingly theatrical jury summation (after tenderly remembering the victim, he turns to the accused and shouts: “Only her MURDERER remains!”), knocks out a hostile witness as he steps out of the court docket, gleefully tricks a bank president out of $10,000 and endures the debilitating shame of seeing himself through the eyes of the only decent person he knows. William even provides some amusing visual shorthand to denote Day’s position on the line between good and evil: his trademark pencil moustache doesn’t appear until the clean-shaven lawyer has completed his journey to the immoral underside of jurisprudence. It is the role of a lifetime for any actor – at least the kind of actor thatHollywood produced in the early sound era – and William wrestles maximum dramatic possibilities from every opportunity. The contemporary press was uniformly laudatory of the film, where the actor was variously dubbed “wonderfully engaging,” “magnificent,” “electric,” “forceful” and “extraordinarily entertaining.” This degenerate persona was so successful for Warren William that Warner Brothers immediately set it in stone: during the next four years he repeated it at their whim, and became Hollywood’s unquestioned king of the underhanded, the immoral and the downright nasty. 

Adeptly packed into a mere 84 minutes, The Mouthpiece is a wonder of economy, indelibly stamped with Warner Brother’s well-tooled assembly line pacing. The script needs only five minutes to take Vince Day from up-and-coming to down and out, and each character is smartly etched with a bare minimum of exposition. Day’s world-weary secretary Hickey (played by the magnificent Aline MacMahon) becomes a remarkably sympathetic and endearing character with just a handful of scenes, and a few lines are all that’s needed to add dimension to the single scene of a helpfulNew York City hack driver. It should be no surprise that a studio where workers were directed to recycle bent nails from old sets would turn out a movie with so little fat. Warner Brothers always did work close to the bone.

The Mouthpiece is part of Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William on August 30th, 2012. It airs at 9:45 AM EST.


Warren William Under the Stars, Part 1: Lady For a Day

Today’s post is the first in a series of reviews of the 17 films in TCM’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William, airing August 20th, 2012:

Warren William and May Robson in Lady For a Day (1933)

LADY FOR A DAY (1933) Director: Frank Capra / Screenplay: Robert Riskin

Once Upon a Time there is a superstitious Broadway Dude named Dave. The Dude is a man in the business of calculating probability and chance, who avails hisself of the services of a crooked-toothed old street peddler known to the gentry as Apple Annie. An apple bought from her, he believes, gives him a leg up on all the other local calculators; what with said apple he cannot lose in his chancin’. But herewith Annie gums up the works by findin’ herself in a predicament: after years of prevaricatin’ to her very own daughter about being a duchess, Annie is about to be exposed as the street-peddling, whiskey swilling, moth-eaten old battle-axe that she is. Said exposure will ruin the business of Dave the Dude; of this he has never been more sure than anything in his life. Therefore, Dave, with his colorful but not-so-bright cohorts of long association, set out to reinvent Miss Annie as – wait for it – Missus E. Worthington Manville; a proper lady of class and dignity. Herein humor ensues.

Lady For a Day, based on the 1929 short story Madame La Gimp by Damon Runyon, is one of the recently reclaimed treasures of early 1930’s Hollywood. Thought lost after the negative went missing in the 1950’s, it quietly re-emerged in the late 70’s as a secondary classic in Frank Capra’s filmography, and has since slowly gained in esteem among film fans. This was the director’s first major success in his career at Columbia Pictures, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including best screenplay, best actress, best director and best film of 1933. The following year Capra and company swept those same categories (plus the best actor award) for It Happened One Night, but in 1933 the Academy was not so kind; Lady For a Day was shut out by the Hollywood power base. In addition, Capra himself was publicly humiliated when he mistakenly answered the call for Frank Lloyd to pick up his best director statuette for Cavalcade. History has given Capra his revenge, however – Cavalcade has been forgotten as an old-fashioned relic, while Lady For a Day remains an entertaining confection for modern audiences.

As described above, the film is essentially a contemporary update of Pygmalion, transferred to New York, and substituting the wizened sot Apple Annie for the Cockney ragamuffin Eliza Doolittle. Runyon’s story, ably expanded by writer Robert Riskin, populates Lady For a Day with the fetchingly disparate characters he was known for: the swells, dames, dudes, gangsters and assorted hangers on of Depression-era Broadway. This meant a series of plum roles for the great character actors of the period: Nat Pendleton, Glenda Farrell, Guy Kibbee, Halliwell Hobbes, Walter Connolly, and especially the acerbic Ned Sparks as the contradictorily named “Happy” McGuire. Among this cast are nestled the mainsprings of the film, May Robson as Annie, and Warren William as Dave the Dude. Here, both actors are at the top of their form, with the 75 year old Robson giving a star making performance as the drunken street peddler, and William never better than as the gangster with a deeply buried heart of gold. On Broadway from 1919 to 1931, William lived and worked among the real-life characters – high and low – that made up Runyon’s milieu. He drew on his personal dictionary of the time to create a portrait of Dave the Dude that is both hilarious and remarkably human. And if you are a student of period haberdashery, there is no better place to ogle a smartly fitted vintage waistcoat orLondon drape suit than on the perfectly proportioned figure of the King of Pre-Code Hollywood.

Lady For a Day works best by observing the friction between cynicism and optimism, a theme that Capra returned to again and again during his career. Being indebted to Runyon’s source material, the contrast is played here mostly for laughs, luxuriating in the grudging transformation of jaded gamblers, cops, politicians and hobos to the cause of familial love. The light tone makes the film one of the director’s most enjoyable, unconcerned with the social comment of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and without the exhausting pace of Arsenic and Old Lace. Like many of Capra’s best works, Lady For a Day is a fable of the modern world seen through his eyes; one wherein reprobates make good, the fallen regain faded dignity, and cynics eventually conclude that maybe some causes are worth fighting for after all.

Lady For a Day will be broadcast at 8:00 PM (EST) on August 30th, 2012, as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.