Deliciously Bad: The Pre-Code Art of Warren William

Warren William leering at Marian Marsh

I rebelled and got the habit of rebelling against anything preconceived, cut-and-dried, foreordained.

There are no treasure trove of in-depth interviews with Warren William but this rare quote speaks volumes for the characters he would play and become famous for. The unscrupulous captains of industry, con-men, hoodlums and lawyers who rebelled and played by their own rules.

If you didn’t like it so what? Get out of the way or get run over. Thanks to William’s craftsmanship as an actor audiences ate it up.

Cheering The Wrong One

Rooting for the person we’re not supposed to is not new. Arguably the most famous in literature was Robin Hood. Although classified as a criminal he was the one we find ourselves cheering for.

But Robin Hood aside there is something about human nature that makes many of us cheer for the rogues.  The people who are playing by their own rules regardless of the consequences.

Hollywood took cheering the wrong one to new levels with Pre-Code. Not to say every film was about bad men and women thumbing their nose at society’s rules. But when they did…

PreCode was not only wide ranging in it’s subject matter but on more than a few occasions totally unapologetic

Without the interference of censors, law-breakers in the movies were often allowed to profit from their schemes, and fallen women became the heroines of many films.

PreCode often blurred the lines between good and evil. The virtuous hero in a white hat wasn’t so virtuous.  Meanwhile the villain was no doubt a scoundrel but for whatever reason audiences couldn’t help but like them.

All Hail The King

No actor of PreCode Hollywood (and truthfully not many afterwards) could match Warren William when it came to playing the sympathetic villain. Why was he so successful? The times of course had a lot to do with it

It was the Great Depression, and audiences were rooting against businessmen, who in real life preached Christian values, but who on-screen in the pre-Code days were portrayed as the predators that the out-of-work and anxiously employed knew them in their hearts to be.

Except latter day audiences still find his portrayals from the rogue’s gallery fascinating to watch.

Warren_William_in_Three_on_a_Match_trailerThat and many of William’s contemporaries were also playing characters of questionable motives but we don’t hear them getting touted as kings of PreCode.

So why did Warren William emerge at the top of the pack? Probably because he had of way of just doing it better.

Warren William Krech was born in December of 1894. Growing up in Aitkin Minnesota it was thought he would follow his father Freeman into the newspaper business. But young Warren caught the acting bug and after graduating from high school enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Following a stint in the Army (where he met and eventually married Helen Nelson) William embarked on his acting career. Anti-German sentiment was still running extremely high in the U.S. so he thought it best to drop the surname.

He would spend eleven years on the Broadway stage in some 22 plays including Twelve Miles Out, Let Us Be Gay and The Vinegar Tree (starring the great Mary Boland) .  That’s a good indicator most of the other plays had brief runs but as Walter Matthau once said the flops are a great way to learn the craft of acting.  Either way William stayed in demand.

After The Vinegar Tree in 1931 William made the permanent jump to Hollywood.

The Perfect Storm

The Jazz Singer had shook the very foundations of cinema. Sound was in and there was no looking back. Hollywood had its share of movie  stars who could “speak” but they wanted more talent particularly from the New York stage

Warren William with his looks talent and mellifluous voice gave them what they wanted and then some.

After making his talking debut with Bebe Daniels in Honor of the Family and his second film Expensive Women co-starring Delores Costello, William would then essay the role would become his template. As a seducer of young women in Under 18 (yeah it’s Precode) William as Raymond Harding was that wonderful mix between suave and total sleazebag.

The leer would be a William’s trademark but it’s obvious that after years on stage he is in complete command of his craft. There’s no “talkie dialogue” as demonstrated by Regis Toomey. William says it and understands the thought behind it.

Next came The Woman from Monte Carlo with the great German film star Lil Dagover (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and another veteran of the American stage Walter Huston. The movie was a dud and ended Lil Dagover’s short lived career in Hollywood.

But it was his re-teaming with Marian Marsh in the comedy Beauty and The Boss where Williams would get in the groove and remain there.

Williams is a bank president. Great at his job during the day. Better with the ladies at night. When the two worlds collide it’s trouble. Beauty and the Boss is a comedy directed by Roy Del Ruth who seemed to have a gift for snappy dialogue and terrific pacing.

In The Mouthpiece he makes the full breakthrough. Vincent Day is a young District attorney who can do no wrong that is until he sends an innocent man to his death.

Then Day joins the other side and becomes a ruthless lawyer for the defense specializing in getting blatantly guilty and crooked individuals off scot-free. Eventually Day sees the error of his ways but not before enjoying himself to the maximum.

And that was the thing. William seemed to truly relish these type of roles.  Over the years a lot of actors have talked about the joys of playing the bad guy or gal.  It gives the performer plenty of latitude to shade and color the character.

ww1Of his Pre-Code output Employee’s Entrance truly capsulizes the Warren William persona.

Kurt Anderson (William) runs the Monroe department store.  He’s a tyrant but his methods have made the store into a money making machine.

One night he discovers a woman (Loretta Young) hiding in his store who wants a job and lets Anderson know she’ll do whatever it takes to get one.  Anderson has no respect for the ladies but he sure can’t leave them alone either.

Then Employee’s Entrance cranks into high gear. Double dealing, suicide, attempted murder, sexual assault and some office pimping.

Yet there’s plenty of ambivalence. Anderson is a monster but his dedication to his job is strangely commendable. He doesn’t just cut underlings down to size he goes after the people that hired him.

But getting back to Warren William, what he does so well is to play an utter cad, but one with good reasons for doing what he does. Deadwood should be replaced. Standing up to the bankers on the board of directors should be done;

Can William in his performances be accused of overdoing it? Yes but there’s no getting around the fact he’s a force of nature and an absolute joy to watch.

Defanging The Beast

Hollywood caved to outside forces and in 1934 started enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code.  The studio system would create stars and movies that captured the imagination of moviegoers.

The Mind Reader (1933)

Unfortunately the in your face push the envelope style of movies which were the hallmarks of Pre-Code would disappear. For every great film from the Golden Era there was a lot of bland to go with it.

The type of characters William soared with were not necessarily out of fashion it’s just at that point Hollywood had to get rid of them.  The enforcement of the Production Code was the beginning of William’s slide into B movies.

Occasional flashes in the coming years can be glimpsed but by and large the Kurt Andersons of the world had been reformed out of existence replaced by men like Perry Mason and Michael Lanyard.

Ironically his last film The Private Affairs of Bel Ami cast him along side the heir to the scoundrel throne George Sanders.

In His Own Right

Warren William died September 24, 1948. Even before his death much of his work was forgotten.

It didn’t help that when his name came up it was usually in conjunction with John Barrymore who William was more often than not compared to unfavorably.

Except he wasn’t Barrymore. The Great Profile was one of the leading lights of his time.

He was also battling demons that would eventually overtake him and in the process lay waste to his once prodigious talent.

William was a quiet man completely dedicated to his wife Helen. He worked right up to the end and while the material he was given was not always up to par none of his skills really diminished.

In movie and theatrical circles Barrymore deservedly holds his own place. But hey nobody ever called him the King of Pre-Code either. 

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