Within a year of arriving at Warner Bros. in 1931, a decade after his first failed attempt at Hollywood success, Warren William was a star. He became an archetypal Pre-Code personality, and that persona was largely shaped by The Mouthpiece, co-directed (or directed successively) by James Flood and sometime-actor Elliot Nugent. Mouthpiece typed William as an aggressive trickster, one of the era's arch con-men, a guy who could put anything over with an intimidating gift of gab. His movies usually follow a meteoric story arc with William rising from nearly the bottom to starry heights, often through bluster and bluff, before receiving a comeuppance that could be redemptive or damning, depending on the movie's message. He was an ambiguous model of success during the Depression, often displaying superhuman drive that spilled over into sexual aggression, when his sexuality wasn't distorted by material ambition, while appearing to affirm a cynically comforting or crusading conviction that successful people often cheated their way to the top. In some of these pictures, he starts out as a well-meaning or at least harmless person, only to leave the impression that success itself, perhaps when it becomes an end unto itself, corrupts the successful. The Mouthpiece is a good example of what I mean.
William plays Vincent Day, a successful prosecutor whose world falls apart when he learns that a condemned prisoner he'd prosecuted is innocent but has been executed moments before a reprieve could reach the prison -- the rest of the picture couldn't have taken place in the age of the cellphone. Vince apparently made an honest mistake and is crestfallen, renouncing prosecution to become a defense attorney. In this field he is not successful, but a friendly bartender (a broguing Guy Kibbee) tries to set him straight. The real money is in defending the guilty, not the innocent. Taking that advice, Vince has a courtroom epiphany when he discredits a prosecution witness, a boxer who boats that he can't be knocked out under any circumstances, by flooring him as he leaves the witness stand. Here Vince learns the value of showmanship and grows more cynical and self-interested about his profession. A typical day has him saving an embezzler from prosecution in return for a third of the takings and saving himself from arrest by producing the employer's written refusal to prosecute and earning the employer a reprimand from the district attorney. His ultimate coup comes while defending an accused poisoner (J. Carroll Naish). With the vial of poison Naish allegedly used available as a prosecution exhibit, Vince persuades the jury that his client is innocent by guzzling the liquid as Naish himself looks on in horror. He knows that's real poison, but Vince has made a very carefully calculated risk. He knows (as the prosecution, implausibly, doesn't) exactly how long the poison takes to take effect. He bets his own life that the jury will be so impressed by his stunt that they'll acquit Naish almost instantly. He wins that bet and makes it back to his office to have his stomach pumped (in a nice tracking shot) with time to spare.
Vince faces a more grave moral dilemma later. He's been lusting after his pretty new stenographer (Sidney Fox from Murders in the Rue Morgue) while ignoring the obvious affections of his top secretary (Aline MacMahon), but she loves a younger man and comes to despise Vince after learning the truth about the poison stunt. She's going to leave with the boy, a bond salesman, and start a new life away from the bad old city, but one of Vince's gangster cronies happens to rob the poor guy of his bonds while leaving the kid vulnerable to the charge that he stole the bonds himself and made up the robbery story to cover himself. You can tell that Vince is tempted to let this happen, but chivalry prevails. Claiming that the crooks owe him a favor, he demands that the perp confess in return for a promise of the lightest sentence possible. No dice, but if Vince rats the man out his own future will be in jeopardy....
I don't know how the labor was divided behind the camera, but Mouthpiece looks pretty seamless and while neither Flood nor Nugent plays for the Warners A team of directors, they give the picture the characteristic studio snap. It's a perfect picture for putting an actor over and William takes advantage of every opportunity. His persona would be refined further in later pictures, however, and there's a rough-draft quality to Mouthpiece compared to the comedies and grim morality tales to come. The big negative for me is the poison scene; it's so implausible that no one on the prosecution side, or even on the jury, would ask the most fundamental question about how long the poison takes to work that it nearly takes you out of the picture. But I suppose it's not inconsistent with the general Pre-Code attitude toward law-enforcement and authority in general, which is that the establishment is pretty stupid. From the perspective of the Depression, you can hardly blame moviemakers or moviegoers from taking that attitude or even rooting for characters like those William played who took what they could get however they could get it -- up to a point.
This is the first of a series of William reviews based on a weekend's viewing of the films shown on Turner Classic Movies on August 30th. While you wait for the next installment -- and there'll be some other reviews in between -- here's what I wrote about William last December, the last time TCM dedicated significant time to the great man.
And thanks to TCM as usual, here's the trailer for The Mouthpiece.