Just don’t let it sour you on finding The Mouthpiece (1932) to see Warren William in his pre-code breakout role. I’ve always wondered if Edward G. Robinson, a Warner Brothers’ star at the time of The Mouthpiece, had been upset that he didn’t get the original role, or if perhaps he felt Illegal would serve as an homage to his old Warner’s stablemate William. At any rate the over-60 Robinson is so tired recreating the role that brought stardom to the under-40 William that I always have trouble keeping my own eyes open through this remake.
Illegal (1955), the third screen version of Frank J. Collins 1929 play The Mouthpiece, airs on TCM this coming Saturday night, October 22 at 10 pm EST as part of a night of Nina Foch movies. To see my write-up of Foch in the far more entertaining My Name Is Julia Ross (1945), also airing that night, head on over to Immortal Ephemera.
Illegal, unlike the superior earlier movie, has had a DVD release, paired with The Big Steal (1949) as one of 10 movies in the Warner Home Video Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 4. Illegal actually comes with some DVD extras including a featurette specifically about the film and a Behind the Cameras segment with Gig Young talking with Warner’s legal adviser about Illegal and other courtroom movies. Edward G. Robinson makes a pretty funny cameo in this short. Neither of these segments specifically acknowledge The Mouthpiece.
The highlight of the disc is the commentary track overlaid on the film featuring film historian Patricia King Hanson and Nina Foch. While Hanson does make a quick mention of The Mouthpiece she refers to the star as Warren Williams, with an s, which you know bugged me.Foch is a riot on the commentary which she concludes by referring to her “vicious portrayal of these works.” She talks throughout and while she’s upbeat and tells several little stories about her co-workers, she doesn’t try to hide her dislike for Illegal at all, ripping it throughout–“Stiff!” Of her own performance she says, “I didn’t feel relaxed or comfortable in this movie.” An interesting line by Foch comes after Hanson impresses her with a bit of movie trivia and the then 82-year-old admits “I don’t think pictures are worth that kind of effort you bring to them.” Another classic, considering the set the DVD comes in: “I don’t know why this is included in film noir, but anyway.”
The story of The Mouthpiece has its basis in the career of real life Roaring 20’s defense attorney William J. Fallon. The films are all based to some degree on the 1929 play, The Mouthpiece, by Frank J. Collins*. The 1932 film of the same name starring Warren William was the first of three versions. Illegal would be the last in 1955. Sandwiched in between is a version I haven’t seen going under the title of The Man Who Talked Too Much starring George Brent and Virginia Bruce.
*The June 11, 1929 edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle includes a detailed review of Collins’ play. It’s interesting to see that the original Hickey was a man. Some of the incidents mentioned in the article ring familiar from the Warren William version of the film, especially the story around the Sidney Fox and William Janney screen characters. The Joe Garland character, played by pre-code favorite Jack La Rue in the 1932 film, is described throughout the review as a “coke fiend.” Overall the Daily Eagle didn’t care for the play though the reviewer concedes that it’s “never completely uninteresting.”
Following are some side by side, more accurately stacked, comparisons of some of the best scenes in both The Mouthpiece and Illegal. Shots from the earlier film come first in each example. Illegal pretty much copies these word for word, which will give you a decent idea of what goes on in The Mouthpiece. But Warren William has a lot more vitality in The Mouthpiece than the stoic Edward G. Robinson has in Illegal.
Beyond these scenes the films do differ. In The Mouthpiece pre-code William is on the prowl for a very young and sweet Sidney Fox. In Illegal over-the-hill Robinson plays father figure to Foch, who’s involved with Hugh Marlowe. Really the most interesting aspect of Illegal its’ most famous bit of trivia: the artwork shown in the film are actually valuable paintings on loan to the studio from Robinson’s personal collection. If you catch Illegal it also features Albert Dekker and a brief early film appearance by Jayne Mansfield.
The frantic call to the death house:
The death house walk:
The lights dim, too late:
Knocking out the snorting, sniffing tough guy:
The embezzler’s last resort:
The blackleg lawyer gets called out at the D.A.’s office, but turns the tables:
The famous poison courtroom scene:
After the verdict:
I’m a huge fan of Edward G. Robinson, star of several of my all-time favorites throughout the 1930’s and 40’s. But Illegal just didn’t feel right. I’d be especially curious to hear what you thought of it if you have never seen Warren William in The Mouthpiece, though I’d love to hear from you if you’ve seen both movies as well!