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.

About magnificentscoundrel
John Stangeland is the biographer of 1930's film icon Warren William, a lazy business owner and a washed-up comic book artist. He's not bitter, though.

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