Warren William

The Match King (1932)

The Match King 1932Paul Kroll (Warren William) left his home in Sweden to make a name for himself in America.  When he settles in Chicago, he gets a job sweeping the sidewalks outside of a baseball stadium.  He still dreams of making something of himself though and isn’t above breaking the rules to make it happen.  When he gets one of his fellow sidewalk sweepers fired, he convinces the foreman (John Wray) to keep him on the payroll, but just so the two of them can split the salary he would have received.  Paul and his foreman get to be good friends, but while they’re raking in the money, Paul has been seducing Babe (Glenda Farrell), the foreman’s wife.

Paul has led his family in Sweden to believe he’s already become a successful business man, so when a match factory back home is in danger of closing, his family writes to him for help.  When he makes it back home, he scams a bank into giving him a loan, uses it to buy another match factory, and merges them.  He keeps buying match factories with ill-gotten loans until he owns all the match factories in Sweden.  Then he expands his match empire to other European countries and eventually to other continents.

While in Germany on business, Paul falls in love with actress Marta Molnar (Lili Damita).  Being in love is a terrible distraction for Paul and his business suffers because of it.  Even though he has enough money to leave the business, the business is too far in the red.  He just keeps on taking out loan after loan to keep everything afloat.  On top of that, he hears about a man who has invented an everlasting match that could put him out of business.  To eliminate the competition, he has the man committed to an asylum.

When the stock market collapses, everything falls apart. The only way Paul can get a loan is to use $50 million worth of forged bonds as collateral.  Marta has since gone to Hollywood to pursue a film career and when Paul returns to America, he finds out that she has fallen in love with another man.  It doesn’t take long for the bank to realize his bonds are phony and when they do, Paul knows he is finished and kills himself.

Did anyone play unscrupulous businessmen better than Warren William did during the pre-code era?  I don’t think so.  Between The Match King, Employees’ Entrance, and Skyscraper Souls, you’ve got the perfect trilogy of bad business ethics.  Warren William had the perfect balance of being hard yet smooth that made him perfect for that type of character.  Not only is Warren William as slick ever, the entire movie is slickly produced.  It’s one of those movies that grabs your attention right from the start and doesn’t let it go.  You really want to keep watching to see how far this guy will go and if he’s going to get away with it.

If it seems like Lili Damita was really drawing on Garbo for inspiration for her performance, there’s a good reason for that — Garbo was the first choice for the role, but they weren’t able to get her on loan.  It’s easy to dismiss Damita as being a poor man’s Garbo in The Match King, but for some reason I found her endearing for that exact reason.

My only real complaint about The Match King is that I wanted more Glenda Farrell.  But then again, I almost always want more Glenda Farrell.

Smarty (1934)

Smarty 1934Vicki Wallace (Joan Blondell) gets a real kick out of antagonizing her husband Tony (Warren William).  She does it all in good fun, but one night, she pushes Tony too far and he slaps her.  Vicki decides she wants a divorce, and gets her friend Vernon Thorpe (Edward Everett Horton) to handle it for her.  But before the ink on the divorce papers is dry, Vicki marries Vernon.

Vicki can’t resist teasing Vernon, either, and Vernon is starting to see why Tony smacked her.  If he doesn’t like something, Vicki makes a point to do it.  Vernon doesn’t like Vicki to wear revealing clothes so she buys a very revealing evening gown.  He doesn’t like her still being friendly with Tony, so of course she spends plenty of time with him.  When Vernon finally slaps her too, Vicki decides to get back together with Tony.

Considering its cast, I had fairly high hopes for Smarty.  Unfortunately, the plot just is odd and I had a hard time getting into it. It’s really too bad that I didn’t like the plot because the cast had great chemistry and still managed to put on a heck of a show.  I really wish I could see this exact same cast in a different movie because with better material, they could have made a pretty great comedy.

The Mouthpiece (1932)

As a prosecuting attorney, it’s Vincent Day’s (Warren William) job to see that guilty parties get the punishments they deserve.  But when Vincent mistakenly sends an innocent man to the electric chair, the guilt is too much for him to bear and he vows to never prosecute again and becomes a defense attorney instead.  He starts out defending the innocent and the satisfaction of helping them out is good and all, but then he discovers the real money is in defending the guilty.

Once Vincent starts working with the seedier crowd, business is booming.  He even has to hire Celia (Sidney Fox) as a second secretary to help out Miss Hickey (Aline MacMahon), his main secretary.  Celia is young, beautiful, and very naive.  Vincent is very attracted to her, but she only has eyes for her fiance Johnny (William Janney).  However, she admires the work Vincent does, thinking he’s honestly protecting innocent people.  One day in court, she watches in awe as he drinks a bottle of poison from the evidence to prove that it’s harmless.  Little does she know that afterward, Vincent went straight from the courthouse to a two-bit doctor to have his stomach pumped.

Later that night, Vincent has Celia come to his apartment under the guise of needing some work done, but he comes on to her instead and she turns him down.  Worst of all, she finds out the truth about what happened in court that day.  Completely disillusioned, she gives her two weeks notice, but refuses to be paid for it.  She doesn’t want to take any money gotten through such dirty ways.  Vincent has no problem meeting women, but Celia’s rejection really stings him badly.  On Celia’s last day, Vincent gives her a check for a hundred dollars and proves that he earned it through legitimate means.

Celia and Johnny are planning to get married right away, but then Johnny is framed for stealing some bonds and gets arrested.  Of course, Celia knows Vincent is the only one who can help him, but when she tries to find him, he’s gone off on a very long bender.  Miss Hickey sobers him up and he gets to work clearing Johnny’s name and getting the person who was really responsible for stealing the bonds arrested.  This move costs him the trust of the criminal underworld, but that doesn’t bother Vincent at all since he’s decided to go straight again.  As he leaves to see Cecile get married, he’s gunned down outside his office.

I have been very excited to see The Mouthpiece for a long time now, since I’d heard Cliff from Immortal Ephemera speak very highly of it.  I was not disappointed at all, it’s now my favorite Warren William movie.  This is exactly the kind of character Warren William is best known for playing and he plays Vincent to the hilt.  The Mouthpiece also has a phenomenal supporting cast.  Aileen MacMahon was a flawless choice to play Vincent’s loyal secretary and Sidney Fox sure had that wide-eyed and innocent act down pat.

The Mouthpiece also has a nice, fast pace and great dialogue, so it’s rather surprising that it’s not a more well-known movie.  I don’t see it on TCM very often, nor has it even been released by Warner Archive.  Let’s hope that changes, because The Mouthpiece deserves to be rediscovered.  Any fan of pre-codes would go crazy for it.

Beauty and the Boss (1932)

Bank president Baron Josef von Ullrich (Warren William), like so many men, very much appreciates a beautiful woman.  But there’s just one place he doesn’t want to see them — in his office.  He keeps his bank running like a well-oiled machine and he’s afraid having a beautiful woman as his secretary would be too distracting.  So when he decides that it’s too hard to keep his mind on work with Olive (Mary Doran) as his secretary, he fires her, but starts seeing her outside of work.

When Susie Sachs (Marian Marsh) hears that Josef needs a new secretary, she finagles her way into seeing him without an appointment.  She very desperately needs the job and at first, Josef tries to get rid of her, but she refuses to go and eventually ends up winning him over.  She shows him just how hard she can work and most importantly, she’s very plain looking, so Josef gladly hires her.

Susie proves to be the perfect secretary, but when she accompanies Josef to Paris to take care of some business, she spends a lot of time keeping Josef’s many admirers at bay.  Not because he doesn’t want to see them all, but because she’s fallen in love with Josef.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to have anything more than a professional interest in her. One of the ladies she sent away was Olive and when Josef finds out about that, he sends Susie over to Olive’s apartment with some flowers to make up for it. While at Olive’s, Olive tells Susie that men will never notice her as long as she acts more like a machine than a woman.

Susie realizes that if she ever wants to get Josef’s attention, she needs to take Olive’s advice and reinvent herself. She gets herself a beautiful evening gown, a little bit of perfume, has her hair styled nicely, and suddenly, she’s a whole new woman with a whole new outlook on life.  Naturally, Josef can’t help but notice the change in her…and he likes it!

When you think of Warren William movies, you don’t typically think of delightful romantic comedies, but that’s exactly what you get with Beauty and the Boss.  I hadn’t realized going into this movie that it was supposed to be a comedy, so I was in for a very pleasant surprise. It’s another one of those great short-but-sweet overlooked pre-code gems that I love finding.

I love a classic, totally reprehensible Warren William cad, but it was refreshing to see him in something more lighthearted for a change.  Josef is still a bit of a cad, but he’s a far more likeable cad than we see in Employees’ Entrance or Skyscraper Souls. Marian Marsh and Mary Doran were both very memorable as well.  Some of Marian Marsh’s rapidfire line deliveries truly have to be heard to be believed. The way she rattles off some of her lines could easily give Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday a run for her money.

The Mind Reader (1933)

Chandra (Warren William) and his friend Frank (Allen Jenkins) have tried their hands at just about every carnival scam there is and haven’t had much luck with any of them.  But then they realize where the real money is — fortune telling.  Chandra becomes Chandra the Great, and while he’s performing, Frank hides under the stage and uses a secret microphone to feed questions from the audience to Chandra. Frank also uses the shows as a chance to steal purses from some of the audience members.

After a show one night, the owner of a stolen purse comes back with her niece Sylvia (Constance Cummings) to look for it.  Chandra is very attracted to Sylvia, so he tries to impress her by pretending to have a “vision” of exactly where the purse is.  Chandra and Sylvia start seeing each other and he swears up and down that he’s really in it to help other people.  Even when he hires her to be his secretary, he manages to keep his real motives hidden from her for a while.  Even when she does start to figure it out, he convinces her the act is really just an advertisement for his ability to help people.

Chandra and Sylvia get married, but he isn’t able to keep up his charade for much longer.  When a person commits suicide after getting some bad advice from Chandra, Sylvia begs him to give it  up and go straight.  He becomes a door-t0-door salesman and Frank becomes a chauffeur, but then the two of them come up with a new scheme.  Frank has the dirt on all the wealthy men in town and knows exactly when they’re cheating on their wives.  Chandra poses as a psychic again, Dr. Munro this time, and sells his services to their wives to tell them when their husbands are with their other women.  It doesn’t take long for the unfaithful husbands to start getting angry with Dr. Munro, and when one comes looking for revenge, Chandra shoots the man in self-defense and flees, inadvertently leaving Sylvia to take the fall for him.

The Mind Reader is a pretty enjoyable Warren William vehicle, but not one of his best from the pre-code era.  Warren William is very good in it and Chandra is very much the unethical heel he is best known for playing, but Chandra has more redeeming qualities than Williams’ characters in things like Employees’ Entrance or Skyscraper Souls.  It’s a rather unusual pre-code, which isn’t a bad thing, but I think I would have liked the movie more if the ending weren’t so forced.

I’ve got to hand it to The Mind Reader, though, for containing what has got to be the most canted angle shots I have ever seen in one movie.  The canted angles represent how crooked Chandra and Frank were, and this movie has more canted angles than an episode of Batman.

All in all, it isn’t a bad movie, but if you’re looking for a definitive pre-code Warren William movie, I’d definitely recommend Skyscraper Souls or Employees’ Entrance over The Mind Reader.

What’s on TCM: August 2012

How is it already time for another round of Summer Under the Stars?!  As usual, TCM has done a great job of coming up with a nice blend of stars who are no strangers to the SUTS schedule and stars who have never been featured before.  The more I look at the schedule, the more excited I get to start my Blogging Under the Stars marathon.

Some of the days I’m most looking forward to are: Myrna Loy (August 2), Marilyn Monroe (August 4), Toshiro Mifune (August 9), Ginger Rogers (August 12), James Cagney (August 14), Lillian Gish (August 15), Jack Lemmon (August 22), Gene Kelly (August 23), Kay Francis (August 21), and Warren William (August 30).  I have seen woefully few Akira Kurosawa films, so I am really looking forward to Toshiro Mifune’s day.  As a fan of silents and pre-codes, I was thrilled to see Lillian Gish, Kay Francis, and Warren William got spots on this year’s line-up.  Lately, I’ve been really getting into Tyrone Power movies, so I’m glad to see he got a day this year.  And since I’ve always wanted to see more Jeanette MacDonald movies, I’ll definitely be tuning in a lot for her day.

The complete Summer Under the Stars schedule is available to be download here.

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Cleopatra (1934)

After being kidnapped and forced out of Egypt, left to die in the desert, Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) turns to the only person she knows can help her — Julius Caesar (Warren William).  She makes her way to see Caesar and just as he is about to officially support her brother Ptolemy over Cleopatra, she makes her grand entrance, unfurled from a rug.  She knows how badly Caesar wants to conquer India, and to make it worth his while to help her, she promises him that he could use Egypt to make his way to India.  Caesar still doesn’t quite trust Cleopatra, but she manages to prove her loyalty to him and seduces him, starting a very passionate affair.  Caesar’s affair with Cleopatra becomes the talk of Rome and has some people very worried for what it could mean for Rome’s future.  When Caesar brings Cleopatra to Rome, those close to him beg him to end things with her, and he ignores them and carries on with his plans to address the senate.  But some people, desperate to save Rome from Caesar and Cleopatra, kill him before he can get to the senate.

With Caesar gone, Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) and Octavian (Ian Keith) are named Rome’s new rulers and it is Marc’s responsibility to avenge Caesar’s death by killing Cleopatra.  He arranges a meeting with Cleopatra in a public place so that his soldiers could ambush her, but she knows better.  Instead, she has Marc join her on her barge, where she plans to win him over with food, liquor, jewels, and dancing girls.  She seduces him and the two of them also begin a passionate love affair.  Meanwhile, back in Rome, Octavian has officially declared Marc a traitor and sends King Herod to Egypt to tell this to Cleopatra.  He also has Herod tell her that if she kills Marc herself, Rome will be friendlier to Egypt.

Cleopatra doesn’t want to kill Marc, but some of her advisors recommend that she do it for the good of Egypt.  King Herod also warns Marc of his traitor status and Marc naturally starts getting nervous when he hears that Cleopatra is testing out poisons on prisoners to be executed.  And although she does plan to poison his wine at a dinner she throws for him, they find out that Rome has declared war on Egypt before he has a chance to drink it.  He goes off to fight with the Egyptians and is defeated.  Cleopatra rushes off to offer Octavian all of Egypt in exchange for Marc’s life, but Marc assumes that she is turning her back on him and stabs himself.  Cleopatra returns in time to find him still alive and explains what she has done, but he soon dies in her arms.  With Marc gone and the Romans breaking down the gate to the palace, Cleopatra decides to end it all with a snake bite.

I believe it was Cecil B. DeMille who once said that if a movie set in a biblical or historical setting, you can get away with anything.  His rendition of Cleopatra is proof of that.  This would be an excellent movie to show to someone who thinks classic movies were all so innocent.  With all of Claudette Colbert’s skimpy costumes, her handmaidens in equally skimpy costumes, adultery, murder, and all sorts of other debauchery, their jaws would be hitting the floor so fast.  Cleopatra was released near the end of the pre-code era, and what a way to end an era!  I don’t even particularly like historical dramas, but I thought this version of Cleopatra was fantastic.  With all the crazy debauchery and the big battle scenes, Cecil B. DeMille was so completely in his element here.  This movie needs to be seen to be believed.