Paul 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.