Warren William Under the Stars, Part 12: The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt

Here’s the 12th of 16 reviews of the films in TCM’s 24 hour tribute to Warren William, to be aired August 30th, 2012:



Starring: Warren William, Ida Lupino, Ralph Morgan, Virginia Weidler, Leonard Carey


Warren William appeared in nine films as Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf.

For audiences who first succumbed to the lure of movies in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, Warren William will always be remembered as the urbane gentleman thief Michael Lanyard. During that period he appeared in nine films as The Lone Wolf, Lanyard’s larcenous alter ego who was the scourge of society dames across Europe until he gave up his life of crime. The creation of writer Louis Joseph Vance, Lanyard already had a long history, with his first print appearance coming in 1914, followed in 1917 by his inaugural incarnation on film. After nine Lone Wolf movies, Warren William made his first appearance as Lanyardwhen Columbia dumped Francis Lederer following his single turn in 1938’s The Lone Wolf in Paris. The reformed cracksman was a perfect fit for Warren, combining many of the character elements that had been so successful during his career: the handsome, dapper man of action; a strong, authoritative personality, and a playful undercurrent of larceny just beneath the surface. With these elements, Warren embarked on his best remembered work, cementing the final image that the contemporary public would recall of his career.


The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt was prepared with some special attention by Columbia pictures. Solid time and resources were given to this relaunch of the series, and a superb cast was assembled around Warren William, including Ida Lupino, Rita Hayworth, Ralph Morgan and Virginia Weidler. Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer (The Glass Key, The Big Clock) delivered a stylish blend of humor and mystery, with Lanyard drawn into pre-war spy intrigue by a spy ring bent on incriminating him for the theft of some important government documents. At the same time he is fighting off the insistent advances of Val Carson (Lupino), a Senator’s daughter bent on marriage. The chemistry between William and Lupino is surprisingly nimble and effective, as Lanyard tries to stay one step ahead of her man-eating crush. The comedy now and then widens into broad farce (after one particularly contentious episode Val confronts him with rolled up sleeves and a baseball bat), but it still remains enormous fun, mainly through some expert direction, clever dialogue and Ida Lupino’s superbly endearing cartoonishness. Lanyard’s loving nemesis is helped in the cause of romanticus entraptus by his daughter Pat (Virginia Weidler), a character mercifully absent from future films in the series. It isn’t so much that Pat doesn’t contribute to the fun of the action – Weidler is actually quite amusing as the crime-obsessed pre-teen – but rather that Columbia correctly deduced that her presence would restrict the content and locales of any future stories. By the next entry in the series, The Lone Wolf Strikes, all mention of her is gone, which is entirely understandable: considering the troubles she finds herself in here, social work authorities most certainly would have had her removed to a safer environment, perhaps in a travelling circus, or the floor of a meat packing plant. After all the machinations of the various parties in Spy Hunt, the purloined documents are back in the right hands, Lanyard is exonerated and all’s right with the world, which is the finale of practically every entry in the series. In the end, none of it is particularly relevant – in the world of The Lone Wolf, credulity takes a back seat to charm, humor and pure, unadulterated fun – something one should always remember while watching Lanyard crack a safe, banter with criminals or put one over on the local gendarmes.


The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt will be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies at 2:45 AM on August 30th (actually the early morning of August 31st), 2012 as part of their Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.


Warren William Under the Stars, part 11: The Match King

Another in our series of reviews of films in TCM’s August 30th Warren William marathon:


THE MATCH KING *** (1933)

Starring: Warren William, Lili Damita, Hardie Albright, Claire Dodd, Harold Huber, Glenda Farrell


Promotional item for the release of The Match King, 1933

“He began in the gutter. He rose until he ruled the world. Then he died in the gutter.”


There could be no more succinct summation of the story of Paul Kroll, the eponymous Match King of Warner Brothers 1933 film. Nestled gloriously between those book-ending gutters, fortunately, you can enjoy a whirlwind of larceny unmatched in pre-Code cinema – or in real life, for that matter, until the era of Enron, Tyco and Bernie Madoff.


The Match King is based on the life of Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish industrialist who cornered the world’s market in matches and subsequently leveraged his international contracts into a multi-million dollar empire that was little more than sophistry and clever accounting. When his holdings were revealed as mere phantoms on a balance sheet, Kreuger shot himself to death inside his Paris apartment. After scamming his way through famously immoral roles in The Mouthpiece, The Dark Horse and Skyscraper Souls (all 1932), Warren William was a natural to play Kreuger, the ultimate real-life con man. Warner Brothers wasted no time in securing rights to Einar Thorvaldson’s novel The Match King, and within months of this worldwide financial scandal, William was before the cameras shooting a barely disguised version of Kreuger’s illicit machinations.


As the film begins, Paul Kroll is a simple custodian outside Wrigley Field in Chicago. He’s nothing more than a cheap hustler, working a ghost payroll scam and also ghost-payrolling his supervisor’s wife on the side. When family members write for his “expert” help with the family match manufacturing business in Sweden, he dumps the wife, absconds with the phantom bank account and buys a first class steamship ticket to Europe. Gaining control of the family empire through bluff and guile, he gradually sheds his petty schemes in favor of a more grandiose plan; the domination of the governments of Europe through matches. To that end he embarks on a carnival of malfeasance involving crooked stock deals, forged bonds, leveraged buyouts and creative accounting so artistic as to be worthy of Da Vinci. This house of cards allows him to wring exclusive match concessions from the teetering governments of Europe in exchange for loans to forestall insolvency. Here, he indulges in his cavalier philosophy of business: “Don’t worry about anything until it happens – and I’ll take care of it then.” No slimy stone is left unturned by Kroll; women are used as carnal spies, an elderly inventor with an eternal match is cast into an insane asylum, and an accomplice is drowned in a lake. There is also a sub-plot concerning a romance with film star Marta Molnar (a stand in for Kreuger’s short-lived affair with Greta Garbo), the one desire that his money or larceny cannot fulfill. Here, Kroll’s sociopathy is most evident: he cares nothing for Marta, and wants her not out of love or respect, but only as a conquest. Paul Kroll is interested only in himself. When his schemes begin to unravel – including the romance with Molnar – it is only a matter of time before his luck runs out.


The Match King is far from perfect; the script is choppy and episodic, and the romantic interludes largely get in the way of the drama. Like many of his other films, William Keighley’s direction is efficient but unremarkable. What intrigue and excitement the film does have (and these are still plentiful) is almost entirely the result of Warren’s magnetic performance as Kroll. He appears in virtually every scene, and his astonishing theatricality charges the film with energy. Grandiloquent pronouncements roll from his lips with absurd confidence (“I’m going to sell matches to the world – and with them, I’m going to BUY the world!”), and one can see why many were duped by his con. By the time circumstances corner Kroll in his Paris atelier, however, we’re no longer sympathetic to his travails. He hasn’t just bilked the financial world, but us as well. His final act on earth, a self-inflicted bullet wound, is not an act of contrition or remorse, simply the easiest way to avoid the degrading hell of prison. Regret is for normal men, not those who live outside the law.     



Kreuger’s devastating cons inaugurated a public outrage that put federally regulated brakes on business avarice that lasted for decades. Gradually his crimes were ground down to mere anecdote, and governments succumbed to the long-disproved idea of letting financial markets regulate themselves. The politicians who have turned a blind eye to the unbridled greed that led to the worldwide economic collapse of 2008 should be locked in a room and forced to watch The Match King. In Warren William they would see the brazen criminals leading Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill-Lynch. The only difference is in the outcome – the modern Paul Kroll today drifts on a parachute of purest gold, instead of falling into the gutter of a Paris street.


The Match King will be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies at 2:15 PM (EST) on August 30th, 2012, as part of their Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.  

Warren William Under the Stars, Part 10: Gold Diggers of 1933

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 Dir: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Warren William, Guy Kibbee, Aline MacMahon, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks


Music rights for Gold Diggers of 1933 were a bonanza for Warner Brothers publishing.

A large part of Turner Classic Movies’ August 30th Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William consists of the decadent fun of suicide, murder, infidelity, corruption and just plain meanness. However, nestled within this ocean of sin is the joyful island of Gold Diggers of 1933. If you need a break from the mayhem, this is the place to moor for 90 minutes and enjoy a supremely entertaining mélange of comedy, songs and choreography from the Golden Age of movie musicals.


The “Gold Diggers” in question are three down-on-their-luck chorus girls, Trixie (Aline MacMahon), Polly (Ruby Keeler), and Carol (Joan Blondell), recently released from a bankrupt Broadway musical. Barely able to keep the big-bad-wolf from the door, the roommates are forced to steal milk for their meager breakfast, but still manage to maintain a wry sense of humor (“If there was a wolf, we’d eat it,” says Blondell). Living across the courtyard from the girls is Brad (Dick Powell), a composer without portfolio who has attracted the attention of Polly, and been attracted in turn. Fortunately for everyone, an angel in the guise of their former producer Barney Hopkins (the incomparable Ned Sparks) arrives to sell the girls on the idea of a new revue. At that moment Brad just happens to be working out a new composition, and – surprise – Hopkins likes what he hears. When Brad offers the flat-broke producer money to mount the show, Hopkins is able to secure the girls, the composer and the funds in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, as rehearsals begin there is a major complication – it turns out that Brad is the errant scion of a wealthy family that cannot countenance his dalliance with low theater folk, much less his impending engagement to Polly. Hence, they dispatch Brad’s pompous older brother J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William), and attorney Fanueil Peabody (Guy Kibbee) to restore some sense to the boy, or buy off the girl. Through a series of wonderfully amusing misunderstandings, Blondell and MacMahon begin digging for gold in Bradford and Peabody’s deep, upper-crust pockets. These parallel comic elements shine as some of the best in the film; Warren William demonstrates a subtle comic touch, with his body language and facial expressions carrying far more than his words. Watching his reactions in the scene where Blondell chisels him out of the price of an expensive hat is positively priceless. Meanwhile, the teaming of Kibbee and MacMahon revealed unexpected chemistry, launching an unlikely series of films featuring the pair (including the 1934 version of Sinclair Lewis’ novel Babbitt). There can never be enough said about Ms. McMahon – she is a bright spot in almost any film where she appears, and her portrayal of the acid-tongued Trixie is another winner in her magnificent pre-Code oeuvre.


Behind the comedic goings on in Gold Diggers are the magnificent songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin; the film is populated with tuneful melodies (“We’re in the Money”), risqué revues (“Pettin’ in the Park”) and solemn torch songs (“My Forgotten Man”), plus the unique choreography of Hollywood’s master of excess, Busby Berkeley. Berkeley’s singular vision is particularly evident in “Shadow Waltz,” where a bevy of 60 zaftig chorus girls cavort with neon violins, and “Pettin’ in the Park,” featuring a creepy man-child (Billy Barty) who watches rain-drenched girls change their skimpy clothes behind backlit scrims. A few of the stage sequences are a trifle long winded, but overall this is one of the truly iconic Berkeley-designed musicals, and a must-see for fans of his eccentric touch.


Gold Diggers of 1933 hit theaters at the height of the Great Depression, and it does not skirt the issue like so many other studios’ feel-good musicals to follow. Hopkins himself tells us that his revue is “about the Depression,” and it is borne out through the hard edge of the stage show, and in the deep desperation of the characters; we are always aware of the fact that the girls are only one step away from dissolution. In fact, when it looks like the show will fail without Brad’s appearance on stage – something he is reluctant to do because of his wealthy family connection – MacMahon angrily reminds him that if there is no show, there will be many girls who will have nowhere to turn but the streets. “I wouldn’t want that on my conscience,” she sadly says. Within the playful exuberance of song and dance it is a small reminder from Warner Brothers that there are consequences of the economy direr than MGM and other Hollywood studios would care to acknowledge. 


Gold Diggers of 1933 will be broadcast by Turner Classic Movies as part of their Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William, on August 20th, 2012 at 5:00 PM.



Warren William Under the Stars, part 9: Skyscraper Souls

SKYSCRAPER SOULS ***1/2 1932 Dir: Edgar Selwyn

Starring: Warren William, Maureen O’Sullivan, Veree Teasdale, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford


Source material for a pre-Code classic: Faith Balwin’s novel “Skyscraper.”

“[People who create] serve nothing and no one. They live for themselves. And only by living for themselves are they able to achieve things.” 


The quote above is not from David Dwight, the ruthless financier of MGM’s 1932 drama Skyscraper Souls, but it describes his personal code of social Darwinism as well as anything from the film, or the Faith Baldwin novel Skyscraper from which it is derived. It is paraphrased from a speech in Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel The Fountainhead, where the architect Howard Roark makes effort to justify his destructive actions in the cause of individuality. David Dwight is a blurry prototype for Rand’s idealized hero; someone who believes that rules are only for lesser men, not those who create.


Dwight (Warren William) is the nexus of Skyscraper Souls, a portmanteau of interconnected stories set in the mammoth Dwight Tower, a phallic spire which dwarfs even the recently completed Empire State Building on New York’s skyline. Swirling around Dwight are the hopes and desires – big and small – of people from every walk of life: prostitutes and power-brokers, working men and the wealthy. If it sounds like a king-sized version of MGM’s Grand Hotel, you’re not far off; after seeing Grand Hotel’s box office figures it took only five months for the studio to create this sleazy doppelganger, at once gloriously less glamorous and far more exciting. Here, the weight is not as evenly distributed as in Grand Hotel – the meat of the action takes place around Dwight, who is attempting to get complete ownership of his skyscraper from the bankers and financiers who are trying to use their fractional pieces to oust him from a position of power. Dwight is simultaneously involved in a carnival of infidelity; while his wife roams the sumptuous hotels of Europe, he has been carrying on a long-lasting affair with his secretary Sarah (Veree Teasdale), then simultaneously opens work on Sarah’s new stenographer Lynn (Maureen O’Sullivan). When his latest affair is discovered, he calmly tells Sarah that she is being retired to the country. “A man needs youth,” he says. “Without it life is stale – meaningless.” The fallout from this parallelogram of lies is decisive and shocking – proof that human emotion can scuttle the best laid plans regardless of grandiosity or importance.      


The sub-plots around Dwight are also riddled with the kind of salacious morsels that abound in pre-Code Hollywood. A lonely jeweler (Jean Hersholt) is unaware that the woman he wants to marry is a local prostitute (Anita Page); a woman decides to leave her husband for a store clerk (Wallace Ford), resulting in his death; and a businessman (George Barbier) is financially ruined by Dwight at least partially because of his drunken attempt to despoil Lynn, Dwight’s own predatory conquest of the moment. While entertaining, these pieces sometimes take too much time away from the central entertainment of Skyscraper Souls: Warren William. His portrayal of Dwight’s mastery of every situation – except one – is a tour de force of classic Hollywood style. William is the charged heart of the picture, alternately kinetic and clever, tender and tough. When he delivers a wild-eyed, messianic speech about the value of creation, you have to admire his ability to pull off such operatic theatricality. It is an immensely entertaining performance, and remains one of the great joys of the early sound era.    


It may be no coincidence that Ayn Rand was in Hollywood at this precise moment, attempting to forge a career as a screenwriter, and developing the philosophical underpinnings that would inform her other writings. David Dwight is a social Darwinist through and through, and resides mere steps from the kind of Objectivist anti-hero that she created just a decade later. When Dwight ruins his business associates (and thousands of other small investors) in a stock swindle that allows him full control of his creation – his building – he might just as well be Howard Roark, railing against the “second-handers” who dilute the purity of a creator’s vision: “It wasn’t your friendship that pulled me through,” he insists. “It was my own guts! I had the courage and the vision and it’s MINE.” Compare this to Roark’s words in The Fountainhead:  “[The creative man] lives for his work. He needs no other men. His primary goal is within himself. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary.” Dwight may be ruthless, underhanded and conscienceless, but he has a code of conduct that audiences could understand and possibly forgive; what he does is in the service of creation, not profit. In the Depression it was the profiteers that the public hated, not those who were working to help us survive.


Skyscraper Souls will be broadcast on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES at 11:15 AM (EST), August 30th, 2012, as part of their Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.








Warren William Under the Stars, part 8: Three On a Match

Three on a Match will be broadcast on TCM, August 30th, 2012:


THREE ON A MATCH (1932) *** Dir: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, Warren William, Humphrey Bogart


If you intend to watch Three On a Match for another glimpse of the amoral, conscienceless, pre-Code Warren William, you can drop that particular thought right now. Although the film is an uncompromising look into a sordid world of sin and drugs, here Warren stands outside that particular milieu. In fact, he’s so earnest and straight in this picture that he should be wearing a neck scarf and a series of merit badges. It is only around him that salaciousness swirls, but what a wind it whips up.


The credits tell us that a trio of Warner Brother’s young contractees – Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak and Joan Blondell – headline Three On a Match, but it is truly director Mervyn LeRoy that is the star of this production. LeRoy’s unblinking camera lens tells the story of three young school friends, the intellectual Ruth (Davis), vivacious Vivian (Dvorak) and bad-girl Mary (Blondell), embarking on wildly different paths in life. Through a series of deftly handled montages, we see their development from youth to adulthood, where we find Mary in reform school, Ruth attending BusinessCollege, and Vivian married and bored – she’s reintroduced reading a cheap romance novel – to the wealthy lawyer Robert Kirkwood (Warren William). Of the three interconnected stories, LeRoy uses Vivian’s arc as the centerpiece, and his observation of the disintegration of her marriage is succinct and devastating. She is utterly uninterested in the life or her young son Junior and similarly uninterested in her husband; when we see a glimpse into their marital bed LeRoy shows us her deliberately unused scanty lingerie, and a woman who would rather feign sleep than have any type of intimate contact. Painfully aware of Vivian’s ennui, Robert is sympathetic and offers her time away with their son, hoping she will return rededicated to the marriage. It is a grave mistake. Vivian’s need for excitement draws her into a tawdry romance with a low-life gambler, and she instantly disappears with her son into a life of drinking, drugs and sex.


It is here that Mervyn LeRoy becomes something more than simply a storyteller. His uncompromising vision of the squalid world that Vivian inhabits exhibits an honesty that was uncommon even during the pre-Code era. After Robert has retrieved his son from the bankrupt life he was stolen into, we see Vivian degenerate into a deeply damaged drug addict, punishing herself as a failed wife, mother and woman. LeRoy elicits a chillingly dark performance from Ann Dvorak, culminating in a dramatic sequence of despair and redemption that – for dramatic reasons – I will not describe here. He also populates Vivian’s world with a series of character roles that reach deeper into reality than most studio productions: Edward Arnold as the gambling boss Ace (he’s introduced reflected in a magnifying mirror as he plucks his nose hairs), Allan Jenkins as a low-rent thug, and a genuinely menacing early performance by Humphrey Bogart in his first role as a gangster on film. The weakness of Three On a Match comes largely through the other girls stories. Bette Davis is entirely wasted as the colorless Ruth, and when Robert and Mary are thrust together through circumstances, we never quite buy their subsequent romance. Additionally, one resents the use of Warren William in such a boring, stand-up role; there were only so many months in the pre-Code carnival, and seeing them wasted in such a manner is like watching Babe Ruth run a gas station.


Contemporary critics were not kind to Three On a Match; more than one called it “distasteful,” which is an accurate enough description, but one that has no truck with modern audiences who have seen far worse in the supermarket checkout line. It is the honesty of the film – at least through LeRoy’s treatment of Vivian’s story – that demands our attention. Performing one small function of art, it reminds us that there are some things we want to look away from, but beg instead to be seen.


Three On a Match appears on Turner Classic Movies Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William, August 30th, at 1:00 PM (EST).


Warren William Under the Stars, Part 7: The Case of the Howling Dog

THE CASE OF THE HOWLING DOG (1934) *** Dir: Alan Crosland

Starring: Warren William, Mary Astor, Allen Jenkins, Helen Trenholme

Perry Mason’s first appearance on film was in 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog, starring Warren William.


Mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner once claimed that after he first saw Warren William on screen as his famous creation, the iconic lawyer / detective Perry Mason, he tailored the character in his highly successful novels to William’s image in the movies. If this story is more than just the invention of a studio publicity drudge, Gardner’s interest would primarily rest on the shoulders of Mason inaugural appearance on film, 1934’s The Case of the Howling Dog. Of the four films mounted with William as the clever attorney, it is in Howling Dog that he most closely resembles the Mason of Gardner’s early novels: sober, meticulous, professional, and willing to step just outside the law to protect his client.


When Warner Brothers decided to commit to Gardner’s hero in 1934, they lavished some money ($10,000-$25,000 per novel) and studio resources on the series. In addition to Warren William, fresh from his turn as gumshoe Philo Vance, they also assigned a streaking Bette Davis to the project. Having previously teamed Davis and William three times (including a publicity short for the General Electric Corporation), the duo seemed a natural, but Davis found the part beneath her, and the thankless role was instead visited on Mary Astor. Direction was assigned to Alan Crosland, the long time craftsman who had ushered in the sound era with The Jazz Singer (1927), and a solid cast of Warner’s contractees was assembled including Grant Mitchell, Allen Jenkins and Addison Richards.


The plot of any given Mason story is largely irrelevant; they are so formulaic that they have been compared to Japanese Noh drama in their rigid structure. In The Case of the Howling Dog there are three murders and some questions about the legality of a will; Mason’s client (Astor) is accused of the murders, and the full forces of his vast organization are brought to bear to acquit her. From there you might have an image of what to expect, but to its great credit, Howling Dog eschews many of the standard mystery / detective clichés so prevalent in cinema at the time. Director Crosland and writer Ben Markson created a slick, stylish hybrid of legal procedural, courtroom drama and whodunit that feels more realistic – if not more plausible – than most of its contemporary kind. Warren William, embarking here on a career transition – from pre-Code cad to detective / mystery character actor – has one of his best mainstream roles, and Crosland gets a restrained, thoughtful portrayal from him. In the succeeding films Mason will undergo character changes in order to mitigate the cut-and-paste plot elements – at various stages he is portrayed as a boozy opportunist, a devil-may-care bon-vivant and a finicky gourmand – but here the lawyer projects supreme capability and professionalism. From Philo Vance to Mason and through the Lone Wolf, this is a basic archetype that Warren will repeat with variations for the rest of his career.


For mystery lovers, The Case of the Howling Dog will be a welcome diversion: entertaining, direct and honest. Warren William fans may prefer his later incarnations as Mason, where comedy, romance and larceny often hold sway over story. Either way, it is a pleasure to watch him work.


The Case of the Howling Dog will be broadcast on TCM at 1:15 AM (EST) August 30th, 2012. (It will actually appear at the end of TCM’s August 30th programming day, the morning of August 31st)  

Warren William Under the Stars, Part 6: Bedside

Here’s the sixth in my series of reviews for TCM’s August 30th Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.  

BEDSIDE (1934) **1/2 Dir: Robert Florey

Starring: Warren William, Jean Muir, David Landau, Donald Meek

ImageBedside isn’t much more than a quick Warner Brothers programmer, but its utter outrageousness is ample reward for those who watch it. The kaleidoscope of sin it offers up is awe-inspiring in its baseness and incomprehensible in its effect: the main character, guilty of drug dealing, philandering, fraud and manslaughter still manages to elicit the final line of the film from his girlfriend, even after she’s nearly died because of his careless machinations: “Oh Bob, you’re marvelous!”   

This strangely mismatched tangle of plot elements features Warren William as Bob Brown, a low-rent X-ray technician whose medical knowledge begins and ends at the deep appreciation of attractive female body parts. The office nurse Caroline (Jean Muir) is hopelessly and futilely in love with Brown, enough so to loan him the tuition to continue the medical schooling he dropped out of once before. Of course Brown promptly loses her money in a poker game on the train out of town, then proceeds to chisel his way through a series of registered nurses along the eastern seaboard. (When one suggests that he get his diploma by doing some night work, he replies “I do plenty of night work, baby!”) Eventually down and out, Brown returns to Caroline with a fake medical degree purchased from a skeevy morphine addict (David Landau), and begins practicing medicine – literally. His office mate, Dr. Wiley (Donald Meek) does the heavy lifting in the office – well, the only lifting, really – while Brown promotes the practice with cheap ballyhoo based on a group of highly “successful” fake surgeries. It isn’t long before one of these ersatz surgeries goes horribly wrong, resulting in the death of a famous opera star. When Brown’s morphine-addled benefactor returns to squeeze him out of more dope, Caroline gradually begins to understand his pathetic schemes. From there Brown nearly loses his grip on reality and the film takes a brief detour into Universal horror territory when the opera star is brought back to life by Dr. Wiley’s no-earthly-reason-to-exist heart revivification machine. (Seriously.) 

When it was released in 1934 – just six months before the pre-Code era was put to rest by the over-officious Joseph Breen – Bedside was reduced to cinders by critics. Variety put this flame to the fire: “the story is beyond saving, nor is it worth salvage…no picture is better than its plot, and this scenario is hopeless,” and the New York Times offered “its deviations from formula are too wild-eyed to be classed as dramatic virtue.” Looking back, one cannot fault the harshness of the period critics, but in our joyous rediscovery of pre-Code cinema we are not bound by the mores of that moment. Bedside may be hastily constructed; it may have one of the most disagreeable character leads in pre-Code cinema, and you might find the whole thing a sordid, disreputable mess, but there is no denying the splendid insanity of its peculiar brand of sleaze. It is a glimpse into the magnetic lure of a train wreck, or perhaps today’s reality TV. And it is a testament to Warren William that for all his faults, including the near death of Caroline, Bob Brown maintains an utterly incomprehensible kernel of audience sympathy – even though we know he’ll probably high-tail it out of town as soon as the heat dies down; there are always more yokels to be clipped.

Bedside will be broadcast on TCM’s August 30th tribute to Warren William, at 6:00 AM (EST)

Warren William Under the Stars, Part 5: The First 100 Years

Here is the 5th of 16 reviews covering TCM’s August 30th Warren William marathon:


Starring: Robert Montgomery, Virginia Bruce, Warren William, Binnie Barnes


“Nobody has ever discovered a way of yawning politely. If somebody had we would certainly infringe his copyright today on behalf of ‘The First 100 Years’…”


This was Bosley Crowther’s gentle critique upon the 1938 release of this dignified little MGM comedy starring Robert Montgomery, Virginia Bruce and Warren William. Fortunately, nothing much has changed in 75 years; there is still no copyright on yawning politely, so have no fear – you’ll be able to watch The First 100 Years without the possibility of legal complications.

The scenario of The First 100 Years is now largely outdated, but was reasonably unique in pre-war Hollywood. David Conway (Robert Montgomery) is an unemployed shipbuilder whose wife Lynn (Virginia Bruce) is keeping the marriage solvent with her salary as a successful theatrical agent in New York. When Montgomery secures a prestigious job with a Massachusetts shipyard, he immediately expects his wife to dump her career aspirations and become the dutiful housewife of the American Dream, model 1938. Miss Bruce objects to such hopelessly old-fashioned ideas, and refuses to give up her life and career. The couple separate and soon decide to divorce, leading to the meager complications of what slim plot there is: Montgomery and Bruce become targets of opportunistic suitors, Lynn’s boss Harry Borden (Warren William) uses some underhanded efforts to keep her at the firm, and there suddenly appears a kindly old uncle (Harry Davenport) to sagely nudge those crazy kids toward reconciliation. At this point there’s nothing left but for the Deus Ex Machina to appear, and arbitrary it is: Lynn is pregnant. Instantly, the social order is righted: Lynn gives up her job and is put happily back in her place. In the battle between career and children, women of 1938 have no chance; those babies might just as well be brandishing firearms.

Typical of the downside of the MGM gloss, The First 100 Years is too mannered for its own good: there are no seams or frayed edges, just a smooth, dull line to follow to the inevitable neatly-tied bow. In spite of the modern premise, the film finds humor primarily in the idea that Bruce is wrong in her desires for self-empowerment, as when she is ordered to (gasp!) pay court ordered alimony, and Montgomery spitefully opts to accept it. Here, the audience is expected to be amused when she is upbraided by the judge, and take some satisfaction in her role-reversing humiliation. The best screwball comedies of the period work with women who are portrayed as equal, and often superior to the men with whom they spar. Here, neither is worthy of the other: they’re both inconsequential and downright dull. Director Richard Thorpe does yeoman’s work in staging dialogue sequences (including one where Bruce carries on a conversation with an off-screen Montgomery as he exits camera left and re-enters camera right), but he’s severely undermined by a script heavily laden with arbitrary contrivances, as well as romantic leads that do not gel. It is left largely to Warren William and Binnie Barnes (as Montgomery’s post break-up vamp, Claudia Westin) to provide some spark, and their limited scenes shine as among the best in the film.

The First 100 Years toys with the idea of something special for 1938 – that women are of equal value to men in a marriage – then proceeds to undermine that very notion by playing an unassailable trump card that will bring the woman back to her “senses:” children. Nestled amidst Hollywood’s golden age of strong women (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyk, et al) it delivered nothing to be excited about in content or execution. And in 2012 it is merely an odd curio, indeed.

© John Stangeland 2012

The First 100 Years will be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, August 30th at 7:45 AM (EST) as part of the Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.

Warren William Under the Stars, Part 4: Times Square Playboy

Here is the latest of our reviews of the 16 Warren William films appearing on TCM, August 30th, 2012: 

TIMES SQUARE PLAYBOY (1936)  Dir: William McGann

Farce is a bitch. To get near it is hazardous. Even talented performers can be dragged under by its dangerous tidal pull. Warner Brothers’ 1936 comedy Times Square Playboy is a case in point: no one in the cast quite drowns, but a few do flounder badly and the rest simply wind up all wet.

Based on the play The Home Towners by Broadway legend George M. Cohan, Times Square Playboy concerns the not-so-carefully manufactured troubles visited upon Vic Arnold (Warren William) when his friend P.H. (“Pig Head”) Bancroft (Gene Lockhart) arrives in New York from the rube town of Big Bend to be best man at Vic’s wedding. Through a series of uninteresting and entirely contrived misunderstandings, the now-wealthy bon vivant Arnold has his engagement scuttled by Pig Head’s hayseed foolishness. The details are unimportant – you might be able to conceive a series of similarly flimsy plot elements before I could type them – and they serve merely to prop up an vigorous assault of broad comedy that was old fashioned when Mr. Cohan wrote the thing in 1926.

However – there are a series of small things to enjoy about this, Warner Brothers second of three screen iterations of the play (it was filmed under its original title in 1928 and again as Ladies Must Live in 1940). Chief among them is the easy rapport between Warren William and his off-screen friend Gene Lockhart. The two had known each other since 1924, when Lockhart directed Warren in his maiden voyage under the newly adopted stage name Warren William. Their warmth and affection communicates sincerely through the screen, making the relationship honest even if the drama between them isn’t. There are also amusing performances from Kathleen Lockhart (Gene’s real life spouse), and serial tough-guy Barton MacLane baring his rarely-seen comic side as Vic’s valet / physical trainer Casey. The rest of it is semi-amusing commotion, but something you’ll likely forget by the time you’ve had a meal, gone to work or taken out the garbage.  

Ultimately, Times Square Playboy desperately lacks the sturdy leadership needed when attempting farce. Director William McGann is the cinematic equivalent of a small town traffic cop, letting scenes meekly pass in front of the camera without any flourish or thought. It is a textbook example of the occasional pitfalls of assembly line studio production; with limited time and a weak supervisor at the helm, what we get is mere product designed to fill a schedule. With dozens of other productions being prepared in front and behind it, Warner Brothers could allow something like Times Square Playboy to be less than perfect. In fact, anything more would get in the way of the assembly line. It’s just a shame that such talented performers were too often caught up in it.  

Times Square Playboy will air at 6:45 PM (EST), August 30th, as part of the Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.

Warren William Under the Stars, Part 3

EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933) Dir: Roy Del Ruth

Finally, the third entry in my Warren William Under the Stars review series, featuring his pre-Code classic, Employees’ Entrance! It will run on August 30th at 11:45 EST as part of the day-long Warren William celebration on Turner Classic Movies.



Employees’ Entrance (1933) is a kind of Grand Guignol of pre-Code Hollywood. Within its boundaries are adultery, seduction, blackmail, attempted murder, public humiliation, sexual harassment, personal ruin, two suicides and an olla podrida of innumerable lesser moral transgressions. With Warren William headlining as Kurt Anderson, the tyrannical manager of a massive big city department store, sin and mayhem have rarely been more fun.

Within the confines of the Franklin Monroe store, Kurt Anderson is the iron-fisted ruler of the lives of his staff. Any mistake, transgression, or obstruction is punished by humiliation or dismissal.  But even while he is misogynistic, hateful, callous and desperately angry, he is also the immensely protective patriarch of his business family – the men and women who are working to survive in America’s rapidly decaying urban landscape. In order to save their precariously balanced jobs, Anderson reasons, he must harden his staff to the standard human impulses of sympathy or softness; any drift towards weakness allows the possibility of ruin for the store, and the livelihood of those under his charge. He is, therefore, the world’s worst boss – and the world’s best. He will defend his workers against anyone except themselves – even the store’s owners, a group of calcified, old-money fossils whom he regards as so much Victorian-era refuse.

The film follows Anderson as he tries to head off the board of directors efforts to raise profits by eliminating hundreds of staff jobs. Needing a group of voting shares to prevent his ouster and save his employees’ livelihoods, Anderson teams up with Denton Ross (Albert Gran), one of the few executives who understands his position. When Ross indicates his sympathetic allegiance, Anderson’s disdain for his boss is still unrestrained: “Beginning to like me, eh? I hate you for that.” Anderson also attacks the store’s backers, verbalizing what millions of average American workers longed to say: “You bankers make me sick,” he barks at them. “You don’t know how to run your own business and you want to tell everyone else how to run theirs. You couldn’t go out and earn a nickel!” Here, we learn a fact that keeps our sympathy with Anderson in spite of his cavalier manner; in the battle between management and labor Kurt Anderson is squarely with the working man.

While these high level machinations are in motion, Anderson indulges his favorite pastime: sexual harassment. He uses his position to seduce a prospective employee named Madeline (Loretta Young), and is furious when he later discovers that she’s secretly married his right hand man, Martin (Wallace Ford). In an effort to break up the union, he once again takes advantage of a drunken Madeline, then proceeds to announce the transgression to Martin. The outcome of Anderson’s pique is an attempted suicide, some office gunplay and the loss of his protégé. It all turns out all right, however; at the eleventh hour Anderson’s proxy votes arrive, saving his job, his store and his sanity, and allowing him to continue his immoral ways as brazenly as ever. There’s no point it punishing Kurt Anderson; it would be like trying to control a lightning storm. You can’t hurt a force of nature.   

In this era there was no one better to play Anderson’s kind of cold-hearted, tough-as-nails commandant than Warren William – he was already becoming the screen’s nastiest character actor through appearances in films like Skyscraper Souls and The Mouthpiece (both 1932). It was no accident that he excelled as the heartless, slave driving Anderson; during World War I William was a Master Sergeant in the AEF – the hardest, least compromising job in the American military. “Nothing could have fitted me for this part as well as Army life,” he said when Employees’ Entrance was finished.  “No one has to be meaner or tougher to accomplish things than a top sergeant, unless it’s a mule skinner – I felt right at home in the picture.”

Director Roy Del Ruth packs Employees’ Entrance scant 75 minutes with enough humor and invention for two movies, moving at a typically brisk Warner Brothers pace and building the two parallel stories to a satisfyingly dramatic – and unrepentant – conclusion. The usual Warner Brothers stock company (Ruth Donnelly, Allan Jenkins, Hale Hamilton) work well around William and Wallace Ford, but it is Alice White who steals the show as Anderson’s most meaningful meaningless liaison, Polly Dale. Polly is a hard-boiled Betty Boop, with a sense of decency that is wedged solidly in her overstuffed billfold, but still accessible under the right circumstances. She’s willing to chisel, but only to the point where it starts to hurt her self-image. She and Anderson are a match made in – well – not heaven.

Above everything else, it is the frank observation of sex and sin that makes Employees’ Entrance so memorable; Warren William is at his licentious best, the innuendo is playfully vulgar, and no one pays for any of their immoral transgressions.  It is one of the great joys of pre-Code cinema; raw, energetic and riotously honest.