Far Better and Far More Exciting the First Time Around….

The Mouthpiece (1932) Grade: A

The Man Who Talked too Much (1940) Grade: B

Illegal (1956) Grade: B

I love old movies. While I mostly review newer films for Influx, my favorites are still the old time Hollywood films–particularly from the 1930s. And, of these, perhaps the ones I like best are the so-called ‘Pre-Code’ pictures. This refers to a time period in the early 30s when there was a set of rules and standards for films but Hollywood routinely ignored them. While you might think these older films were sanitized and highly moral back in the day, the Pre-Code period was filled with films that had a lot of very adult content–even by today’s standards. Eventually, the public began avoiding theaters and groups like the Catholic Legion of Decency began demanding changes. Faced with lower revenues and too much bad publicity, the studios finally caved in to demands and created a tougher new code in mid-1934–one which practically banned everything! It’s a shame in some ways, because the old Pre-Code films are pretty exciting–and sometimes better than the Post-Code pictures.

A great example of the differences between the styles in these films can be seen in the old Pre-Code movie, The Mouthpiece.  Like many movies of the time, it was remade several times–and these Post-Code versions were rather weak in comparison.   All three versions are shown regularly here in the States on Turner Classic Movies and I’m compulsive enough to have seen them all so you don’t have to!

The Mouthpiece stars Warren William–an actor who was very popular back in the day but who is sadly forgotten today.  Some of this is because he died rather young but most is that after the Code was finally enforced, the rakish jerk he played so convincingly in so many films was now forbidden–and the characters he played in the Post-Code films were awfully bland by comparison.

When the film begins, Vince Day(William) is a prosecuting attorney–and a very successful one.  However, his confidence and swagger are knocked out from under him when a man he convicted and got sentenced to death is executed…and it’s now known that the man was innocent.  Not surprisingly, he quits this job and becomes a defense attorney instead.  What is surprising, though, is that he quickly begins to feel right at home with the other side of the law and soon begins defending the scum of the earth.  He is no champion of justice or the oppressed!  To make it worse, he uses a variety of tricks and theatrics to gain acquittals–even though some of these tricks are clearly the sort of things that could get him disbarred.  But, the tricks do work–and jury after jury is swayed by his courtroom antics.  And, the gangsters in town love him.

When not working, Vince spends most of his time chasing women.  Married or single…it makes no difference to Vince and the film strongly implies that he sleeps around…a lot.  Additionally, he frequents speakeasies (this IS during Prohibition)  and hangs out with underworld types.  All this comes to a head when one of his secretaries, Celia (Sidney Fox) confronts him for his antics when he makes the moves on her.  For some odd reason, he actually respects her and cares what she thinks of him.  Could he have a conscience after all?!  Where all this goes next, you’ll just have to see it for yourself but it certainly won’t disappoint.

So how does The Mouthpiece differ from the remakes?  Well, most of the difference is due to the actor playing Vince.  You could believe that Warren William is a dirty old lecher and crooked lawyer in The Mouthpiece.  However, in the later remakes, George Brent and Edward G. Robinson play the same guy.  Brent is smooth but safe in his characterization and Robinson is much older and seems to have even less libido than Brent!  They’re tricky but not much more.  And, as a result, these excellent actors come off as dull–whereas William NEVER is ever dull!  In fact, during much of the film William’s character chases after Celia even when she is described as ‘jailbait’–a woman who is underage!  Additionally, there is a hard cynical edge and originality that make it hard not to be captivated by The Mouthpiece and it’s simply a better film.  Sure, it’s sleazy…but you can’t stop watching!

There is a sad epilogue to this film.  The diminutive Sidney Fox is terrific in this film, particularly when she confronts Vince for being the blackguard that he really is.  However, only a decade later, at age 34, she died–and her death appears to have been a suicide.  As for William, his career clearly took a turn for the worse after 1934 and he began appearing more and more in B-movies as opposed to the prestige pictures from earlier in his career.  He died from cancer at age 53.  Reportedly, however, in real life he had been nothing like the rogue he played so well in the 1930s.

By Martin Hafer