While the timing of Fowler’s book credits it for inspiring this film cycle, it was actually 1929’s In the Reign of Rothstein by Donald Henderson Clarke that first recalled many of the Fallon stories that Fowler soon more colorfully expanded upon. It was Clarke who originated one of the key pieces of the Fallon legacy, when he claimed that Fallon told him he came to New York as a defense attorney because:
“I had convicted a man of murder, and he was all set to be electrocuted when we got evidence, quite by accident, that he was innocent. We had time to save him, but it was a narrow squeak, and it made me feel sick. I decided right then that I wasn’t cut out to be a prosecutor of my fellow human beings. I decided I wanted to help them and not hurt them” (144).
No such narrow squeak in The Mouthpiece, but then none of that movie’s most colorful incidents can be traced to either the Fowler or Clarke books, or even any original newspaper articles. I suspect that most highlights of the film were created by the screenwriters, though it is possible that some of the details were born of gossip around Broadway.
After reporting upon his conversation with Fallon, author Clarke did go so far as to add, “I am sorry that I kept no record of that and similar conversations I had with Fallon.”
Newspaper columnist Michael MacDougall recalled Fallon in a 1962 piece filled with quotes from an unidentified “old timer.” He tells the story of Fallon drinking poison in court, exactly as the incident is relayed in The Mouthpiece, before the Old Timer smiles and says, “That was a heck of a good story, but it never really happened.”
I tend to think if it had, then either Clarke or Fowler would have mentioned it. After all, their biographies were of another time. Neither cited any sources except once, when Fowler cited Clarke, and both books are written in a conversational style that comes across as their author’s own reminisces.
“Reporters and columnists could write anything they pleased about him, as long as they got the name right,” MacDougall’s old timer said of Fallon.
While Donald Henderson Clarke, Gene Fowler, and any other reporters of the roaring ‘20s failed to mention many of William J. Fallon’s most famous exploits, later newspapermen had no such problem. In 1939, Walter Winchell told the story of how Fallon handled a young embezzler with the alteration of a benevolent Fallon, who after settling with the bank allowed the kid to keep the profits. In 1947, Ed Sullivan mentioned Fallon’s showmanship in drinking poison in the courtroom to prove it harmless; Mel Heimer repeated the story in his column in 1951. In these, and other incidents, it seems the reporters are more recalling plot points from The Mouthpiece than any actual occurrence on file from Fallon's own time.
The basic Fallon biography, free of any colorful movie incidents, is as follows:
William Joseph Fallon was born in Manhattan, January 23, 1886. He earned his law degree at Fordham and soon became assistant district attorney in Westchester County, New York, a post he held from 1914-1916. He formed a brief partnership with an ex-classmate in a Bronx-based law firm before dissolving that to come to Manhattan, where he opened up offices on Broadway with another Fordham friend, Eugene McGee, in 1918.
Fallon ate up the Broadway nightlife and was often in the company of headline queen Peggy Hopkins Joyce and former singer and dancer Gertrude “Gertie” Vanderbilt. He had a wife and two children just north of the city, in Mamaroneck, New York, but according to author Clarke the Fallons were separated by this time. The wild New York nightlife of the 1920s also put Fallon in direct touch with many of his underworld clients. Racketeer Nicky Arnstein and “King of the Roaring ‘20s” himself, Arnold Rothstein, were the most memorable and notorious names he defended.
Fallon won acclaim for his skillful handling of juries that led to a record peppered by improbable acquittals and hung juries. The latter would cause major trouble. When William Randolph Hearst’s New York American began digging at Fallon’s remarkable record the result was charges of jury tampering. A brief period underground led to a manhunt for Fallon, who emerged to successfully defend himself against the charges of bribing a juror in 1924. After clearing himself Fallon announced he was going to devote his energies to a civil practice, but Clarke notes that his name wasn’t mentioned in association with many cases.
Bill Fallon, former teetotaler turned alcoholic, died April 29, 1927. He was just 41.
The man had lived a life, and Donald Henderson Clarke took the first step towards spinning it into legend. Before the Fowler book came along there was also a 1930 Paramount release inspired by Fallon, For the Defense, starring William Powell. This film took at least one incident direct from the Clarke book (when the Powell character’s car is stolen and returned outside of court) and also included a courtroom scene involving nitroglycerin that, more than anything, seems to be the basis of The Mouthpiece’s very similar scene featuring a vial of poison in evidence. Gene Fowler’s biography, The Great Mouthpiece, followed in 1931 and added even more color to Clarke’s telling. Fallon’s story was ripe for Hollywood.
The Mouthpiece proved a hit, making a star of its lead Warren William, and earning notices just as strong for supporting player Aline MacMahon, in what was only her third feature film.
Fallon’s origin story as told by Donald Henderson Clarke plays without the narrow squeak at the beginning of The Mouthpiece, when William’s Vince Day sends an innocent man to his death in the electric chair. When the district attorney’s (Walter Walker) call to save the man is only moments late, Day resigns. After drowning his sorrows in underused Guy Kibbee’s bar, Day reemerges as a shady defense attorney. He grandstands in the courtroom and celebrates in booze-fueled parties with his underworld clients after his victories clear them.
While the highlights of The Mouthpiece come inside the courtroom, the heart of the movie is firmly inside Day’s offices where secretary Hickey (MacMahon) watches over him. Hickey is a longtime companion, who is presumably well acquainted with Day from better days gone by. She remains soft on him despite catching him in an office tryst with a showgirl (Noel Francis) and even after he zeroes in on the young secretary that she describes to him as, “jail bait and dumb.”
Celia Farraday (Sidney Fox), the jail bait in question, can’t type a lick, but Day is immediately charmed by her. While Hickey reminds us that there must be more to Day than what we are shown on the surface, it’s Celia who allows those missing bits of humanity to surface.
After failing to romance the naive youngster, Day is eventually shamed into reforming. He becomes distant towards J.B. Roscoe (Ralph Ince), bail bondsman and Day’s main link to his underworld clientele. Day is finally pushed over the top when Celia’s boyfriend (William Janney) is framed for a crime that was actually committed by one of Day's own mobster clients. Celia’s rejection has sent him on a bender and Hickey is the only one who can pull him out of it.
Co-directed by James Flood and Elliott Nugent, First National’s The Mouthpiece premiered at New York's Winter Garden Theatre, April 20, 1932. It was a box office hit that most critics praised.
While Photoplay spoke well of William, Fox, and MacMahon, neither The Mouthpiece nor any of its stars made that magazine’s list of the best features or performers for that month. On the other hand, Screenland magazine rated The Mouthpiece as one of the better releases in their July 1932 issue, with only Grand Hotel and Scarface receiving a better grade (Evans). In the more traditional media, Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times was especially impressed with William’s star turn. He wrote: “It is really one of the outstanding interpretations that has been contributed to the screen.”
Fallon’s daughter was unsuccessful in attempting to prevent the film from showing in Syracuse, though she did have the managing director of one theater arrested, fined and fired (”Strand Mgr.”). In response, Warner Bros. adjusted their ad campaign in New York, removing references to that city’s “most notorious criminal lawyer” from promotions, and continued to run the movie in Syracuse and elsewhere as well (”Inside”). The Mouthpiece did so well that Warner’s film department had to order 26 extra prints to meet demand around the country for the movie in major theaters (”Extra”).
At the end of 1932, Warner Bros. included The Mouthpiece among their list of five best money-making movies for that year (”Warner’s 5”). (The other titles were: Five Star Final, The Star Witness, The Crowd Roars, and Doctor X.)
The Mouthpiece made Warren William a star at Warner Bros. William had come to Warner Bros. from Broadway and played supporting characters in each of his five previous talkies for the studio. The rakes he had played in early films, such as Expensive Women and Under 18, were not so much cads as they were sophisticated society men, who made the proper moral choices by the end of these movies. In Beauty and the Boss, William showed flashes of the more predatory tendencies that would soon highlight his pre-Code classics. His Vince Day of The Mouthpiece, while perhaps more mannered than some of the characters to soon follow, provided a leading role that established a new type. Unfortunately for William, that type was only destined to exist throughout the remainder of the pre-Code period through mid-1934.
Some of Warren William’s best Warner Bros. releases during this period included in films such as The Dark Horse, Skyscraper Souls, The Match King (each 1932), Employees’ Entrance, and The Mind Reader (both 1933).
The Mouthpiece remains entertaining and William’s performance is an exciting discovery for those unfamiliar with the film.
The courtroom highlights are weaved into the story of a magnetic character who undergoes a realistic reformation. Despite Day’s misdeeds, it’s hard not to cheer for William all the way through The Mouthpiece, especially as he begins to make the right choices. Sidney Fox is lousy, but her part is so important to Day’s story that she goes to prove anybody could have played Celia.
At the other end of the spectrum, Aline MacMahon is outstanding as William’s secretary and neglected love interest. Perhaps her Hickey should have been smart enough to put down the torch she carries for Day, but a long history is implied and her absolute loyalty is admirable. MacMahon and William only teamed once more, as love interests in the non-musical portion of Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). It’s a shame they weren’t paired more often after that, but Warren William moved on to younger and more glamorous leading ladies, while MacMahon, with a few exceptions, stuck in supporting roles.
The Mouthpiece remains the best film of the William J. Fallon inspired series of movies. It was remade twice, as The Man Who Talked Too Much with George Brent in 1940, and Illegal starring Edward G. Robinson in 1955. Both subsequent entries are vastly inferior to the original.
The Mouthpiece was finally released on home video in April 2016 as part of Warner Archive's five movie DVD-R set Forbidden Hollywood Volume 10. This final entry in the Forbidden Hollywood collection also includes another top Warren William pre-Code performance in The Match King (1932).
See my 2007 article about The Mouthpiece at WarrenWilliam.com for more details of what happens in the movie. Be warned, this older post features a lot plot rehash and does go over the ending of the film.
- Clarke, Donald Henderson. In the Reign of Rothstein. 1929. Fifth ed. New York, Grosset & Dunlap, 1930.
- Evans, Delight. “Reviews of the Best Pictures.” Screenland. Jul 1932: 52.
- “Extra Prints Needed.” Film Daily. 11 May 1932: 8.
- Fowler, Gene. The Great Mouthpiece. 1931. New ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1962.
- Hall, Mordaunt. “The Mouthpiece (1932) Shrewd Strategy of a Crook Lawyer in ‘The Mouthpiece.’ New York Times. 21 Apr 1932.
- Heimer, Mel. “My New York.” Post-Star. 11 April 1951: 4. Web. Old Fulton NY Postcards. 8 September 2014.
- “Inside Stuff - Pictures.” Variety. 3 May 1932: 41.
- MacDougall, Michael. “The Inside Straight.” Reading Eagle. 21 October 1962: 52. Web. Google News. 8 September 2014.
- “Strand Mgr. Found Guilty and Fired Over ‘Mouthpiece’ Suit in Syracuse.” Variety. 17 May 1932: 4.
- Sullivan, Ed. “Gossip of the Nation.” Philadelphia Inquirer. 10 march 1947: 18. Web. Old Fulton NY Postcards. 8 September 2014.
- “Warner’s 5 Best.” Film Daily. 22 Dec 1932: 1.
- Winchell, Walter. “Up and Down Broadway.” Milwaukee News Sentinel. 12 November 1939: 4-D. Web. Google News. 8 September 2014.
John Stangeland says
As always, a beautifully researched and written piece, Cliff. After all the work I’ve done you still come up with things I never found! And where did that awesome WW caricature come from?!
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, John, I always get an extra kick out of your kind words on a Warren post. I’ve become a tad obsessed with discovering the origin of the poison scene, which I think now is a twin to the William Powell nitro scene in For the Defense (1930) – no luck yet. I found the caricature in a digitalized copy of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 13, 1932, page 22. There’s an illustrator’s signature on it that I can best make out as “Firestone.” Thanks again, pal, hope you enjoyed Aline day on TCM!
That so sad about real guy I think some people who that gifted just seem they had some many demons
Cliff Aliperti says
Fallon just seemed to get swept up with that Roaring ’20s nightlife. Seemed to have a swell time until near the end, it’s just the end came so very soon!