Posted by Susan Doll on August 27, 2012
Earlier this month, the Morlocks participated in a blogathon in which we explored the films of Toshiro Mifune, the legendary Japanese movie star who was part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. While I was happy to give one of the worlds’ most talented actors his due, my first choice for the blogathon was Warren William, who will be spotlighted this Thursday, August 30.
Warren William is largely forgotten today, though he was a prolific film actor for Warner Bros. during the Depression. He did not have the reputation or long career of peers Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or William Powell, but William makes an interesting study for a couple of reasons. The Warner Bros. films of the early 1930s were ripped from the headlines of the day. They featured characters who struggled with issues of employment whether they were scrambling for a job, conniving to keep their job, or turning to crime because legitimate work eluded them. William’s urbane, well-dressed persona was suited to this hard-scrabble world because he could play the cold-hearted millionaires, abusive bosses, and society sophisticates who clashed with the working folk. Also, his career peaked in the early to mid-1930s, which parallels most of the pre-Code era (1930 to 1934). Several of William’s films include the edgy situations, randy characters, and provocative dialogue that we have all come to love about pre-Code movies.
Born in Minnesota in 1894, Warren William Ketch had originally planned to become a journalist like his father but chose to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts instead. After serving in the army during WWI, and touring France with a theatrical troupe, he became a stage actor in New York during the 1920s, shortening his name to Warren William. He made a few silent films, but given his mellifluous speaking voice, he was well suited for the talkies. He signed with Warner Bros. in 1931, landing the lead role in Honor of the Family. As with most of their leading actors, Warners worked William to the point of exhaustion—and exploitation—throughout the early Depression. He starred in 35 films between 1931 and 1936, appearing in nine in 1934.
That year, William was touted as the lead for the film version of Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, a role he eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, an unknown actor named Errol Flynn landed the part, which made the newcomer a major star. Feeling insulted, an angry William asked to be released from his contract, but Jack Warner refused, instead relegating him to lesser roles and B-movies. William finally left Warners in 1936 to work at Paramount, though he also appeared in films for MGM, Columbia, and even Monogram. He managed to star in a variety of genres, including westerns such as Arizona, Wild Bill Hickok Rides, and Trail of the Vigilantes. His suave manner, rich, dulcet tones, and reputation as a dapper dresser are the opposite traits of the typical cowboy hero, but he tended to portray villains in these films. In the late 1930s, he enjoyed a measure of success playing private investigators in classic detective tales, including Perry Mason, Philo Vance, and Arsene Lupin. I was surprised to learn that William portrayed a version of Sam Spade in the 1936 interpretation of The Maltese Falcon, Satan Met a Lady, though the character’s name was changed to Ted Shane.
During the 1940s, William’s bread and butter was playing retired and reformed jewel thief Michael Lanyard, also known as the Lone Wolf, in Columbia’s sleuthing series, which took advantage of the actor’s ability to play well-spoken, debonair characters. He also popped up in more notable films during the war years but generally in secondary roles, including a turn as the doctor in The Wolf Man, where his part consisted mostly of noting that the victims’ throats had been “ripped out” or “torn open.”
William died of multiple melanoma in 1948 at the relatively young age of 53. This means he was only in his mid-30s when he raced through three dozen films at Warners’ as the urbane, authoritarian sophisticate, though he seemed much older. As Joan Blondell once remarked, “[He] “was an old man even when he was a young man.”
William’s elegant, educated, and sometimes elitist persona fit an archetype that was prevalent during the Depression. Other actors with similar star images included Adolphe Menjou, William Powell, Fredric March, and John Barrymore, though each actor stamped their personal signature on this archetype, which was typical of the personality-oriented acting style of the day. His pencil mustache, slicked-back hair, and long, elegant nose gave him a distinguished profile not unlike Barrymore’s, and his perfect diction recalled Powell or Menjou. However, William excelled at playing heels whose polished appearance and smooth tones masked a cold heart or ruthless agenda. His characters could be sympathetic as in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Three on a Match, or downright merciless as in Employees’ Entrance.
It was William’s ability to reveal a wicked self-amusement or a heartfelt self-awareness through the rapid-fire Warners’ dialogue that not only distinguished him from the pack but also made him the perfect incarnation of the Depression era’s version of the 1%. The era bred disdain for American social institutions that had let down the working and middle class, and William excelled at playing characters who represented those institutions, including calculating politicians, shyster lawyers, crooked bankers, and corrupt businessmen/bosses. As the Depression eased up, and Warner Bros. shifted away from gritty, topical subject matter, the studio and William left behind his special brand of well-toned heel. Subsequently, William is far less memorable in the films of his later career, with perhaps one or two notable exceptions.
My recommendations for Warren William’s much deserved day on TCM showcase his persona as honed by Warner Bros. in their gritty, Depression-era films. As time passes, these films become more revelatory of the everyday issues and concerns of the era, making them more appealing to me. It’s like opening the door to another time and place and, yet, many of the issues and events in the storylines are remarkably relevant for today.
The Mouthpiece (1932). Based on the career of flamboyant trial lawyer William Joseph Fallon, this drama established William as a major player at Warner Bros. and marked the first time that he played a character devoid of morality. The real-life Fallon was a gambler and libertine who was also counsel to the notable and the notorious during the early Depression, including Arnold Rothstein, alleged fixer of the 1919 World Series, and Nickie Arnstein, Fannie Brice’s gambler husband. Though William’s character is called Vincent Day in this film, Fallon had been dubbed “the Mouthpiece” by the press, so there is no mistaking the reference. William’s fellow urbane sophisticates, John Barrymore and William Powell, also turned out movies that year based on the headline-grabbing Fallon—State’s Attorney and Lawyer Man, respectively.
Skyscraper Souls (1932). William was loaned to MGM for this timely tale of a developer turned banker—two professions that inspired anger in the hearts of millions during the Depression. William stars as womanizing David Dwight, who keeps his wife at bay by sending her on endless vacations so he can toy with his secretary, played by Maureen O’Sullivan. The secretary hires a young assistant, who becomes a new target for David’s advances. Not content to wreck everyone’s personal lives, he ruins their finances when he launches a successful bid to get full control of his skyscraper by manipulating the company’s stock price.
Three on a Match (1932). I occasionally show this melodrama in my classes, partly because of the taut, fast pace established by Mervyn LeRoy, who was one of the first to use montage sequences to suggest the quick passage of time, and partly because of the sensationalized content. Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis star as three friends who meet up after several years. The story picks up their lives in adulthood, with Dvorak playing the most outrageous character. It seems she has grown weary of her role as wife and mother and takes up with a handsome gambler, leading to drug addiction and child endangerment. William plays a sympathetic role as her husband who becomes involved with Blondell’s character. Blondell’s street smarts and wisecracking slang complemented William’s educated sophistication and proper diction, and the two were reteamed for Gold Diggers of 1933.
The Match King (1932). By the end of 1932, barely two years after signing with Warner Bros., William was a such a big star that reviewers referred to The Match King as “Warren William’s latest picture.” This tawdry story of ruthless, diabolical industrialist Paul Kroll was based on the career of real-life entrepreneur and financier Ivar Kreuger, who had built a global empire by monopolizing the match industry through unethical and illegal business practices. Once again, the character’s name was changed to protect First National and Warner Bros., but the title of the film is a clear reference to Kreuger, who was called the Match King in the press. The studio need not have worried about libel, because Kreuger, who had lost his vast fortune in the financial calamity of the Depression, shot himself a few weeks before production began. This film helped establish William as a dapper dresser, because the studio publicity department churned out press releases about his 22 costume changes in 79 minutes. Each costume represented an improvement on the “texture and tailoring until, as time goes by and his position becomes apparently impregnable, he wears the finest that human hands can weave and put together.”
Gold Diggers of 1933. William received top billing in this legendary backstage musical that featured many of Warner Bros. now-famous stars—Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, and Joan Blondell. He plays Lawrence, big brother to Dick Powell’s Brad, who is the rebellious youngest son of one of New York’s wealthiest families. Brad prefers to pen snappy Broadway show tunes while hanging out with his chorus girl neighbors than to hobnob with the upper crust. Lawrence arrives on the scene to whisk Brad away, insulting the working-class show folk with his classist attitude and narrow-minded views—until he falls for sassy, wise-cracking Joan Blondell. When Blondell cuts Lawrence down to size and melts his frosty heart, it must have been a cathartic moment for working folk everywhere.
Employees Entrance (1933). As the tyrannical manager of a department store, William manipulates his employees by threatening dismissal or promising promotion. He hires women based on their willingness to indulge him with sex, and he pimps out his shop girls to distract his enemies. He intimidates, cajoles, berates, and preys on his employees, holding their future in the palm of his hand with no regard for his responsibilities in the work force. His character, Kurt Anderson, represents ruthless capitalism with no constraints, which is a capitalism with no conscious. As he snarls to his timid board of directors, “My code is ‘smash or be smashed.’” William also played licentious bosses in the comedy Beauty and the Boss (1932) and the drama Under 18 (1931), leaving me to speculate that this was par for the course for working women of the Depression.
The Mind Reader (1933). The storyline of this melodrama reminded me of Nightmare Alley. It was written by Wilson Mizner, a former associate of Harry Houdini who had helped the magician expose charlatans. William stars as Chandra the Great, a con artist who develops a phony fortune-telling act with two partners. After he meets and woos young Sylvia, played by Constance Cummings, she implores him to go straight. How young is Sylvia? Well, his partner feels compelled to remind him of the Mann Act! Chandra attempts to go straight, but he quickly takes advantage of an opportunity to become a mind reader named Dr. Munro, who caters to wealthy clients. Look for Mayo Methot, who was Bogart’s third wife, in a small part.
Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1999.
Strangeland, John. Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. McFarland, 2010.
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