September 03, 2010
by Cliff Aliperti
Yes, you probably know him, but there's a pretty good chance you're missing out on the best of Warren William. While his legacy gains in stature by virtue of having appeared in several hit classics which have found their way into mainstream DVD release: "Lady for a Day" (1933), "Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933), "Cleopatra" (1934), "Imitation of Life" (1934), and "The Wolf Man" (1941) spring immediately to mind, I think it can be safely said that most don't remember these pictures because of Warren William.
Warren William appeared in 65 films, including 2 silent pictures filmed on the East Coast during his time on Broadway, with the bulk of his output being released between 1931 and 1947, just prior to his 1948 death at age 53. I've managed to collect 60 of them to this point, which isn't too bad considering that I'm all but certain that at least 2 of the missing movies are confirmed as lost. But my point in mentioning this is that to see all of these films I've had to scrap together a collection made up mostly of homemade DVD-R's picked up over years of scouring internet red light districts, sites with listings which often disappear to move elsewhere later.
As much as I cross my fingers with hopes that Warner Archives begins releasing some of these in a somewhat more official format going sometime soon, to date the really good stuff isn't available from any mainstream distributor.
Luckily I found Warren William at a perfect intersection in time when I had only somewhat recently discovered eBay and my VCR was still working. My last VCR finally broke down and I've long since sold off my videos (go ahead, kick me) but back then I had hundreds, basically any film I'd ever heard of or wanted at the time. My favorite discovery inside my stacks upon stacks of VHS were titles from the Leonard Maltin Forbidden Hollywood Collection which highlighted pre-code films such as "Red-Headed Woman" (1932) with Jean Harlow and "Three on a Match" (1932) which despite starring Warren William is really an Ann Dvorak movie, and an incredible one at that.
But the gems came as I continued hunting down other titles in the collection. Frankly prior to acquiring "Skyscraper Souls" (1932) and "Employee's Entrance" (1933) I'd never heard of Warren William myself. Sure, I'd seen quite a bit of him as I was familiar with all of those titles mentioned up above in the first paragraph, but my movie watching was much more casual in those times and it took this period of total submersion for me to begin to really gain an understanding of how it all tied together.
"Skyscraper Souls" starring William while on loan-out to MGM came first, but he was so good that his home studio, Warner Brothers, featured him in the very similar "Employee's Entrance" soon thereafter. If you've yet to be initiated this pair is where every budding Warren William fan should start as they serve as perfect introduction to Warren William, the star, ultimate pre-code cad.
The characters, banker David Dwight in SS and department store head Kurt Anderson in EE, are ruthless businessmen who are pretty much already at the top but continue to claw their way as high as they possibly can combating the Great Depression practically through sheer will alone. These characters will gladly stab men in the back to move forward while treating women as disposable items of pleasure, one of just a few ways the characters have to blow off steam. Here's the thing though, despite all that, despite driving ex-employees to suicide, despite forcing himself on every woman in sight, Warren William makes these characters likable.
What? Yes, because despite all his flaws, and not only are they numerous but sometimes even criminal, William's ruthless businessmen also manage to display such a passion for not only their jobs but in getting those jobs done and done better than anyone else could that you can't help but to admire him to some degree. Sure, some viewers are going to be absolutely disgusted by his behavior, I'll grant you that, but there's no doubt that as unorthodox as it may seem Warren William is the hero of these films.
As for other recommended titles of a similar vein, he broke out as a crooked lawyer in "The Mouthpiece" (1932), slick-talked Guy Kibbees' campaign in "The Dark Horse" (1932), played a character based on scheming Ivar Krueger who verbalizes his hopes to "buy the world" in "The Match King" (1932), plays the bogus Chandra in "The Mind Reader" (1933), and is a doctor practicing without a license in "Bedside" (1934), perhaps the most off-the-wall title of them all including Donald Meek raising guinea pigs from the dead and David Landau's superb junkie.
The dates of those films I've just mentioned should point out a pattern which goes a long way in defining why Warren William wound up largely a shooting star. While the timing of the Great Depression is a major element in the appeal of his long line of crooked heroes it's the film industry itself which would inadvertently squash his long-term stardom with its enforcement of the code in 1934. Not one of the characters mentioned since "Skyscraper Souls" would be possible in any way remotely resembling the finished product Warren William brings to the screen after the pre-code period.
But there is yet another completely different side to Warren William's career. While his sleuthing movies seem to get much more play than his pre-code baddies they also have yet to see mainstream DVD release.
Warren William was the first Perry Mason on screen, playing the role four times beginning almost immediately after the run of pre-code movies mentioned above. He also played the part of Philo Vance twice, but really entrenched himself in the part of Michael Lanyard a.k.a. The Lone Wolf playing the part 9 times between 1939-1943 for Columbia Pictures. He also sort of played Sam Spade though his character was redubbed Ted Shane in the roundly (and I say wrongly) despised "Satan Met a Lady" (1936).
His detectives have all the charm of his earlier leads, but are much more standard leads in line with what the code called for. The old edginess was replaced by wisecracking with William's Mason and Lanyard being a couple of the more amusing series detectives for fans to run across. As reformed thief Lanyard in The Lone Wolf series William is often paired with character actor Eric Blore as his butler, Jamison, and the two play off of each other hilariously, much more so than I believe anybody behind the low budget productions could have hoped.
Warren William's film output decreased throughout the 1940's with his final film "The Private Affairs of Bel Ami" in 1947, after which he became involved with radio. He's listed as director of the newly formed Telways Radio Company and in 1946-47 hosted the "Strange Wills" program, a series based around probate lawyer John Frances O'Connell played by william himself. But William had worked less through the 1940's because he was ill. He eventually succumbed to multiple myeloma in 1948, age 53. His wife passed New Year's Eve that same year. They had no children.
I expect had he survived longer Warren William would have gone on to become a television presence--I could easily see him in one of the numerous Western series of the 1950's--with occasional forays back into film. Obviously that's speculation. As it is with his passing now over 60 years ago he is largely forgotten. Circumstances led to an early peak for William, but later mystery series kept him in front of the public long after his initial success and so at least when he is remembered today it might be for one of two types of distinct portrayals. Which do you prefer, pre-code cad or wisecracking sleuth?