by Allan Fish
(USA 1932 86m) not on DVD
A chain of circumstantial evidence
p Lucien Hubbard d James Flood, Elliott Nugent w Joseph Jackson, Earl Baldwin ph Barney McGill ed George Amy m Bernard Kaun art Esdras Hartley cos Earl Luick
Warren William (Vincent Day), Sidney Fox (Celia Farraday), Aline MacMahon (Miss Hickey), John Wray (Barton), Mae Madison (Elaine), Ralph Ince (J.B.Roscoe), Guy Kibbee (bartender), Stanley Fields (boxer), J.Carrol Naish (Tony Rocco), Murray Kinnell (Thompson), Walter Walker (D.A.Forbes), William Janney (Johnny Morris), Morgan Wallace (E.A.Smith), Charles Lane (hotel clerk), Berton Churchill (judge),
Gentlemen of the jury, my case is simple. The accused is an actor too long dismissed as lightweight by serious film buffs. It’s true, he was miscast as Julius Caesar in de Mille’s Cleopatra – but he’s hardly the only person to have been so miscast by C.B., this is the man who cast Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane – and he was later relegated to the somewhat interminable Lone Wolf series. Yet let it not be forgotten, Cary Grant has such disasters as Madame Butterfly, None but the Lonely Heart and Night and Day on his C.V., while Bogart had The Return of Dr X, The Oklahoma Kid (as vampire and cowboy respectively) and The Two Mrs Carrolls. To come to the crux of the matter, Warren William is one of the most unjustly overlooked figures in pre-code cinema and one who needs to be reclaimed.
The first words he speaks in The Mouthpiece are the same four words as begin this entry. He’s a hotshot D.A.’s assistant charged with taking an open and shut murder case and getting a conviction. He gets the conviction and the young defendant is sentenced to Old Juicy, but then the real killer is apprehended it’s too late to stop the execution. Guilt-ridden, he resigns and gives up his job to defend innocent people. When there prove to be few of them he is cajoled into representing the guilty as the most successful mob mouthpiece in New York. Everything goes swimmingly – money, society women, the occasional sampling from the stenographer pool – until one such piece of jailbait, Celia, attracts his attention. He falls for her but she doesn’t want him, preferring instead her young beau Johnny. When Johnny gets framed for a robbery he takes his case for Celia, but finds that to do so will cross the mob he himself is a tool of.
From those wonderful, care-free days before the code, this is another gem of the Warner production line too long tossed aside in favour of brighter but more puerile entertainments. Take one scene where he gets an embezzler off by legally conning his employer out of $10,000. “You’re an unmitigated scoundrel”, he is told. “Thank you”, he smiles in response, “but I find it much better than being an ordinary one.” In a later scene, he’s once again beholden to the far-sighted efforts of his cynical secretary (who secretly loves him). “To make you fall in love with me, what else would it take?” she says. “A magician”, he replies, closing the door behind him before she has chance to tell him to “go to hell.” Further pleasure can be had with the choice euphemisms, such as being in ‘consultation’ (essentially the same as what Sid James would later call ‘Tiffin’’), and with the supporting cast, with the inimitable Fields as a boxer with a glass jaw, Kibbee as a barman, Wray as the embezzler sent off and told to throw himself in the river (he’d later be back to point a gun at Longfellow Deeds), Naish as one of his excitable Italian-Americans who William gets off, and the delectable ingénue Fox (who sadly committed suicide a decade later). Best of all, there’s Aline MacMahon, once again the sidekick who knows the protagonist better than she knows herself. Holding all at bay, there’s William, in the best exhibit for the defence against his neglect, with that sub-Barrymore profile. It isn’t a perfect film, and while Roy del Rush would probably have brought it in at eight reels rather than nine, it’s still a vibrant example of a soon to be lost adult school of drama, brave enough to leave his fate up the viewer in the fadeout. Savour, too, the visual illustration of the failed reprieve, as the lights dim after the switches are pulled; “it’s too late”, the D.A. murmurs putting the phone down, “I could hear the hum of the juice over the wire.”