The talkies came, the stock market crashed, and Hollywood ran a race against hysteria. For those who like their movies short, snappy, and sensational, not to mention brazenly unencumbered by the Production Code straitjacket, the early 1930s glitter like gold. Every other year or so, Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein acknowledges this halcyon period with an all-35mm pre-Code fest. This summer’s edition has a pre–New Deal edge as well, focusing on that most seductive of scoundrels, Minnesota’s own Warren William (1894–1948).
Packaged by Warner Bros.—the most prole-oriented of studios—as the suave, cynical personification of ruthless capitalism run amok, William plays a tyrannical department-store manager with a bust of Napoleon in his office in Employees’ Entrance (1933). Showing this Thursday on the first of four William double bills, the film is the actor’s quintessential vehicle: A workaholic, physically intimidating sexual predator, William twice beds winsome shop girl Loretta Young (the first time when she needs a job, the second after she marries his assistant) and repeatedly bests his timorous board of directors: “My code is ‘smash or be smashed.’ ”
Employees’ Entrance capped William’s career year, which was also the Depression nadir: 1932. Released that spring, the sex comedy Beauty and the Boss cast him as a libidinous Viennese tycoon with a penchant for debauching his secretaries, while The Mouthpiece, a shyster drama based on the career of flamboyant trial lawyer William Joseph Fallon, made him a star—elegantly turned out and energetically out-sleazing two rival Fallon impersonators, John Barrymore in State’s Attorney and William Powell in Lawyer Man, with what the New York Times called “really one of the outstanding interpretations that has been contributed to the screen.”
Lecherous as he might be, William’s version of Fallon turned out to have a heart of gold. Not so the high-powered developer-cum-banker he played in the racy, money-obsessed, highfalutin MGM loan-out Skyscraper Souls. Something like Donald Trump’s ego ideal, William schemes and betrays with impunity, never losing his cool or cheerful leer, towering over the prone form of helpless maiden Maureen O’Sullivan as his self-named office building, the world’s tallest, dominates the New York skyline.
The actor was now a genre onto himself. The Match King, which Warner opened in December 1932, a month before Employees’ Entrance, was a virtual one-man show—identified by reviewers as “Warren William’s latest picture,” and even promoted for the star’s 22 costume changes (“Improving in 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”)—setting the record for any male player in the studio’s history. Inspired by the career of the rogue industrialist Ivar Kreuger, who, ruined by the Depression, shot himself only weeks before the movie went into production, The Match King was ferociously topical and, even more than most William vehicles, feels newly timely today with its succession of loans, bankruptcies, and credit defaults.
Cornering the European match market, as well as a succession of Garboesque dames, William’s amoral go-getter is his ultimate villain—cheerfully engaging in forgery, blackmail, even murder to get his way. Warners’ 1933 follow-up The Mind Reader has a similar trajectory, albeit in a more sordid milieu, with William rising from carnival con artist to society clairvoyant. In these six films, the overbearing William character is practically a force of nature. Nothing—not even a bullet—can silence his lascivious chortle or wipe the friendly leer from his face.
What was the source of his appeal? In his Pre-Code Hollywood, film historian Thomas Doherty notes the “breezy contempt for the American system” found in the workplace dramas and fictionalized biopics of the early ’30s. “In film after film, the administration of justice and the practice of business appeared as scams and rackets.… Corrupt politicians, crooked bankers, shyster lawyers, and quack doctors practice professional malfeasance as part of the job.… The portrait of the self-made man, the rags-to-riches individualist who had been an American exemplar since Ben Franklin paved his way to wealth, took on dark and sinister shadings.” In 1932, America stared into the abyss and saw Warren William—Dracula, King Kong, and the Public Enemy in one tailored, brilliantined, wickedly self-amused package.
Crisis averted, William was just another mustached profile with perfect diction. As presaged by Three on a Match (1932), a typical Warners mélange of sex, crime, and drink, with William cast against type as a sympathetically victimized rich guy, New Deal optimism would render the “Heel of Heels” passé. Warners cut William down to size, casting him as a gentleman detective in their second version of The Maltese Falcon and as the original Perry Mason. Sic semper tyrannis or, to quote The Mouthpiece: “As the street sweeper said to the elephant, it’s all in a day’s work.”