This was the first post on the site back in 2007 and now appears to include a bit more plot rehash than I would like. In September 2014, I wrote a new article about THE MOUTHPIECE posted to Immortal Ephemera where I concentrate more upon the legacy of William J. Fallon and the the cycle of movies he inspired. You can jump over to that post by clicking HERE.
This 1932 release is an enjoyable example of both Warren William and more generally Warner Brothers releases of the period. Here we have Warren William at his smooth-talking best as lawyer Vince Day. Day is one of William’s most exciting roles, a prosecuting attorney in the opening scene, he’s quickly crushed after sending an innocent man to die. Day then switches to the defense, manages to sink into the underworld, make a fortune, and finally have his morals resuscitated by the innocence of his young assistant, Celia Farraday (played by Sidney Fox), and her refusal to give in to either him or the corruption of the big city.
Fox, who would otherwise be charming, can be a bit cringe-inducing as her “Kentucky” accent fades in and out throughout the picture, occurring just often enough to remind the viewer that she’s not supposed to be from the city (according to the IMDb the petite Fox was born in New York). The accent is really just silly, and probably the fault of whoever decided on the character’s birthplace–it would have just been better if she were from the sticks somewhere in the Northeast, but I guess the minds behind this picture didn’t think that would be effective enough. This movie moves fast and the details have to be hammered home quick. Thus the lousy accent I suppose.
What we could have used were more scenes with Day’s streetwise secretary, Hickey, played by Aline MacMahon, who is better remembered for her part in another flick headlined by Warren William, Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. In Gold Diggers MacMahon plays the more experienced of the girls living with Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell. Here, as Hickey, she’s the glue in Vince Day’s office, showing various characters in and out of the office with chit-chat in between, coming to the aid of young Celia and her fiancé in a time of catastrophe for the young couple when she practically resuscitates Day from the dead in sobering him up. And it’s Hickey who we feel belongs at Vince Day’s side all along, with just that possibility left looming at the film’s somewhat open ending. But onto the show…
The Mouthpiece opens up right in the middle of courtroom action with William’s Day lowering the boom on a visually tortured murder defendant, a man accused of killing his wife, who’s twisting so bad that you know he senses the inevitable. Sure enough Day gets a first degree murder conviction, but at the hour of execution the D.A. informs Day that the gardener confessed, that’s right, the husband didn’t do it. The D.A. can’t get word through in time, the wrong man is executed. Day is crushed.
Who better to cheer you up though than Guy Kibbee? Kibbee does a fine job as the unnamed bartender, however you only see him a couple of times in The Mouthpiece, whenever William’s character is most down on his luck.
Day, more or less destroyed by the wrongful execution, has become an ineffective defense attorney. Kibbee’s bartender scolds him, he says Day only wants to defends those who are truly innocent and that’s not where the money is.
So Day breaks out the bluster the next time he’s in the courtroom. He cross-examines a very funny typical mug, Mr. Pondapolis (Stanley Fields). Pondapolis is a mediocre prizefighter (40 wins in 70 bouts) who finally admits he’d been knocked out a few times, but not by anyone like Day. Day, in trying to clear his client O’Leary on a murder charge, needs to prove that Mr. Pondapolis could have been knocked cold during a scrum which he claims he was witness too. Day thanks Pondapolis for his testimony and then coldcocks him as he leaves the stand, laying out Pondapolis amid the gasps of the courtroom. After winning, Day stops for a drink at Kibbee’s bar, and voices what the O’Leary case has taught him:
“Sensationalism. Ballyhoo. Barnum and Bailey. Give ’em a three-ring circus and toss in a little Houdini on the side. Give ’em a swell show and they won’t even stop to think.”
And now Day is in familiar Warren William territory. He’s very successful at a respectable job, but more or less running it like it’s a racket. He’s better than most others and he knows it. And so he’ll show us in the next scene, a favorite of mine.
Here we meet Hickey as she ushers in Mr. Barton (John Wray), who’s stolen $90,000 from his company, E.A. Smith & Associates, and in a panic because they’re going over the books today. Barton has $40,000 remaining, which Day puts aside before sending Barton off to another room and contacting Mr. E.A. Smith (Morgan Wallace), a typical cranky businessman, who reluctantly comes to Day’s office after learning he’s been robbed.
Day uses the excuse of the Depression to get Smith to accept a $30,000 settlement in return for no charges being pressed against Barton. Recovering a third is better than nothing in these times. Then Day brings out Barton so Smith can confront him. When Barton tries to speak, Smith quiets him saying, “You’ve lost the right to talk to honest men,” to which Day immediately replies “Don’t worry, Barton, you can talk to us.” Smith is outraged when Barton reveals it was actually $40,000 remaining, of which Day has held back $10,000. “Day,” Smith says, “You’re an unmitigated scoundrel.” Day replies, “Thank you. But I find it much nicer than being just an ordinary one.”
After Smith leaves in a huff, Barton asks for some of his $10,000 back, to which Day says, “Yours? You stole it. I earned it.” Barton begs him for a cut, after all, he won’t be able to find another job now. Day tells him, “Go out and jump in the river you cheap tin-horned crook.” This is classic Warren William stuff, Smith got $30,000, Barton kept his freedom, but Day pockets $10,000 for five minutes worth of work and tells anyone who doesn’t like it to go to hell.
During the Barton scene we also meet naive young Celia Farraday, who’s introduced due to her terrible typing. Hickey tells Day, “She’s jailbait and dumb.” After a moment Days says, “Now, I must see her.” In Fox’s first scene we learn that Celia’s been in the city for five months before landing this job. Day, who was ready to let her go before or saw her, or was it before Hickey told him about her, shows mercy upon the young girl complimenting her on her work, all the while leering at her. We know Day’s going to make a play for this jailbait sometime soon.
We next meet Ralph Ince as J.B. Roscoe, a minor role as bail bondsman, but an important one. We see Ince a few times but his only memorable appearances are here, where it’s made clear that he and Day have a strong business relationship–Roscoe springs the clients and Day defends them, and then just before the final scene.
There’s a follow-up scene with Mr. E.A. Smith, who’s gone to the District Attorney to complain. Day gets out of it by producing the waiver that Smith had signed, which to his surprise and the agreement of the D.A., could cause Smith himself to be guilty of compounding a felony.
After a brief scene where Day tries for the first time to advance his relationship with Celia, we move to what’s probably the most famous scene of The Mouthpiece, the poison scene.
Day is defending Tony Rocco (J. Carrol Naish, who does a great job with some facial contortions here) on a murder charge, obviously for poisoning. With great bluster Day declares, “This is the bottle containing the so-called poison,” before drinking the entire contents of the bottle amidst courtroom gasps. No one appears more horrified than Rocco. As the crowd calms Day returns to Rocco, sits down, makes a marking on his watch and then very calmly and softly tells Rocco, “Next time, please use something that tastes better.” Rocco is still doing double-takes and we notice Day has Celia in tow and she’s very concerned as well.
Of course the jury returns a not guilty verdict. Days shakes hands with them, taking his time, then takes off just as the prosecutor approaches him. Quickly Celia asks Rocco if there was poison in the bottle, Rocco, bursting with relief, simply says “No speak English.” Day meanwhile, accompanied by a couple of other men, walks briskly out of the court, down the street and into a building where he quickly makes mention of a stomach pump and how glad he is that the jury didn’t realize the poison took 45 minutes to kill.
Day celebrates his victory with mobsters and molls, but the next meaningful scene is his next shot at Celia, who Day’s pretty confident that he’s impressed with his courtroom antics. Celia is at a chop suey joint with her beau Johnny (William Janney), but they’re date is interrupted when Celia puts in a call to Day, whose servant Thompson (Murray Kinnell) answers and tells her that Mr. Day has insisted she deliver some papers to his apartment. Warren William enters during this conversation and his Day casually says, “Nice work, Thompson.”
Celia arrives to find Day awaiting her in a smoking jacket with Thompson serving up peach brandy. Day makes his move, offering her the good life, he kisses her, and of course, Celia pulls away. She tells him she’s not angry, but she’s not interested either and never will be. Day then pushes the nice girl over the top when he tries to impress her by mentioning that it really was poison in the courtroom, and Celia, rather than
congratulating him on his bravery tells him that stunt was cowardly: “Cheap, dishonest tricks to keep a murderer out of jail.” Not only is Day not going to score here, Celia goes so far as to quit her job, telling him she couldn’t take any of his money because it was blood money, finishing him off by telling him “I despise you. ” Day, obviously stunned by the way the night has turned, apologizes and does his best to get her to stay, at least until he has a chance to fill her position. Celia reluctantly agrees, but only if she’s not paid because she cannot accept his blood money (Okay, that’s a little unbelievable, but realize that Day has to perceive Celia as all that is good and innocent. This goes a little too far, but like I said earlier, this flick is moving fast and points have to be driven home hard from scene to scene).
Fast forward to Celia’s last day. Day is depressed, presumably because he’s fallen in love with Celia, but this is a little off-putting coming from a Warren William character of this type. Being familiar with the way he plays these roles I suspected a different motive at this point, but it turns out I was wrong. Not only is he in love with her, he’s so moved by her innocence that it’s almost as if his body is physically rejecting his own crooked ways. Day gives her $100 check endorsed over from the American Journal of Law for an article he wrote. She accepts this clean money. Day reveals that Celia has actually guilted him into having a conscience. After Celia leaves Days watches from his window as she and Johnny skip across the street. He raises his glass to them in a silent toast and finally I can believe that Celia has gotten through to him in some way.
Next scene is Day getting totally loaded at a party with a lot of loose looking women around. Meanwhile, a distraught Celia has found Hickey and the two of them are looking for Day, but butler Thompson says has hasn’t seen him. Hickey figures that he’s at Guy Kibbee’s bar and this is where she springs into action: she smacks Day into consciousness, pours coffee down his throat, hustles him out with the aid of her cabdriver, gets him into a cold shower with Thompson’s help, shaves him, and finally brings Day around to where he can receive Celia and find out what the problem is.
It turns out that her boyfriend Johnny has been arrested. Johnny, who works as a bank messenger, got jumped and had some bonds stolen. The police think he’s in on it. Day makes a call to post bail and get him released from the Tombs and sent over to his apartment. When Johnny arrives Day tells Celia that her presence is confusing him and asks for a moment alone with Johnny. As soon as Celia disappears from the room Day confronts Johnny, tells him he’s a liar, tells him he did it, gets a little rough with him, but Johnny swears he’s innocent. Finally he tells Day that he wouldn’t be able to look Celia in the face if he stole money, and Day relents. This is familiar, it’s what Day felt himself when he presented Celia with the check from his article. The girl is honest and good. He believes Johnny, he just had to make sure and now he’s convinced. He tells both the kids that he’ll clear this up in time for their wedding.
Days finds out from bail bondsman Roscoe that Joe Garland (Jack La Rue) pulled the bond job. Days goes over to Garland’s and tries to get him to take the fall. He offers him a sharp defense which he promises will lead to the shortest term ever for this crime. Garland tells him to use it on his own boy, he’s not interested. Day leaves, the next scene shows Joe Garland and his girl trying to skip town but getting reeled in by the cops at the train station–Day ratted on him.
Finally back in Day’s office, Day seems resigned to being an honest man. After a brief scene with Hickey, Celia and Johnny show up to thank him and invite him to their wedding at five o’clock. He says he’ll do his best to be there. Celia’s opinion of Day has changed: “I think you’re the most marvelous man in the whole world.” She kisses him goodbye. Roscoe enters as she leaves and tells Day the boys want to talk to him. The boys aren’t happy, he says, if Day told on one of them what’s to stop him from squealing on others. Days tells off Roscoe, tells him he can tell the boys the same and makes mention of a file he’s been keeping which tells all about the boys and their misdeeds–a file to be opened upon Day’s own demise. Roscoe doesn’t buy it. He leaves, Hickey comes in.
Day tells Hickey he’s going back to civil practice. He’s tired of “crooked streets and crooked people,” a reference he made to Celia earlier about the big city. Day phones in an order for some flowers and leaves to go off to see the kids’ wedding. Hickey takes a look out the window as Day departs and sees trouble across the way. She panics, calls to him and chases down the stairs trying to catch up to him.
Day pauses outside to buy a newspaper. Across the way a driver makes his car backfire and then a gunshot follows. Day slumps into the wall, but then rights himself. He slowly makes his way into the cab where Hickey catches up to him. “Where to?” asks the cabbie, to which Day replies, “Emergency hospital. And you better hurry.” Hickey pulls a hand back from day and it’s covered in blood. Day laughs as he tells her the jokes on Roscoe and the boys, those papers really did exist. “Good old Hickey,” he says. “You’re always around when I need you. Aren’t you. Sweetheart.” The end.
I can only assume Day survived because otherwise why not show him dead? The ending seemed optimistic to me. Day paid a price for his misdeeds, but not the ultimate one, and can now go onto live a square life with Hickey at his side.
This is yet another Warren William film whose backdrop of the Depression has allowed a
character who is more or less a scoundrel to win us over by his sole virtue,
perseverance. Crushed when life beats him down with an unexpected twist, Vince Day rises and deals out his own twists along the way. The result of the opening scene caused his initial demise, afterwards Day strives to control his own destiny. If he’s driving then he’s in control and as long as he can stay ahead of the game then there won’t be anymore unfortunate surprises. It takes sweet Celia to reel him in and show Day that there’s something admirable about doing the right thing and being a good person. His innocence may be gone, but Vince Day can still make the world a better place if he chooses too.
It’s the character in between that I like though, the Warren William character–the guy Day is from the time he realizes success comes with a Barnum & Bailey show until the time Celia’s goodness finally takes him over when he presents her with that honest check. That Day in between is slick-talking, very sure of himself, wisecracking, a womanizer, pompous, just an all around fun character on film. If Day were a real person, he’d be just that sort of guy that you both despise yet admire all at the same time. It’s this sort of complicated character that Warren William excels at putting across even in the most low budgeted of formula films.