Why we remember

There’s an important story behind how I came to discover Warren William, and the book about him that is the result of that discovery.

I grew up watching movies. During the late 1960’s and most of the 70’s, I sat in front of my TV in Chicago, drinking in the films of generations before me. Humphrey Bogart, Erroll Flynn, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were nightly companions through rain soaked city streets, among the criminal underworld, and across the bounding main. As a teenager I knew the names and faces of hundreds of actors and actresses, famous and obscure, long dead or retired: James Gleason, Guy Kibbee, Glenda Farrell, Ruth Donnelly and so many others.

Warren William in Cleopatra

So, imagine my surprise in 2004, when a similarly movie-obsessed friend handed me a video tape and instructed me to watch the three films recorded on it.

Enter Warren William.

In a single sitting I saw Employees’ Entrance, Skyscraper Souls and The Mouthpiece. I was stunned, enthralled, and chagrined. After 35 years of watcing classic Hollywood movies, I had never seen Warren William before. How could I have possibly missed this essential rogue of early sound cinema? 

My friend and I became apostles spreading the Gospel of Warren William. We watched for him on Turner Classic Movies, scoured the internet for information and shamelessly touted him to anyone who would listen. And gradually I began to get the idea that we could write a book about this Genius of Scurrility. But my friend – a published writer of some considerable skill – was in many ways an arbitrary, capricious man. Without offering a solid reason, he refused to have anything to do with it. So, I resolved to write it on my own.

Shortly after I began my research in earnest, my friend wound up – sadly, through the same stubborn intransigence that kept him from committing to the project – in a diabetic coma and near death. When he woke up after two days, his short term memory was shot. He remembered long ago events with crystal clarity – including old movies and Warren William – but he couldn’t retain any fact that was more recent than six months ago. For a year he waked and slept in this fog, asking me again and again who the President was, had Michael Jackson really died, and what had happened in the baseball game we’d just watched. The one and only “new” piece of information he did not forget was my book about Warren William. Almost every time I saw him – two or three times a week – he would surprise me by asking “How’s the book going?”

He was thrilled when I got a publishing contract, and often asked to read chapters as I finished them. In a nursing home there isn’t much to do besides watch Jerry Springer and wait for the next opportunity to be hauled out of your bed into the dining room alongside similarly damaged people. Fortunately his memory allowed him to forget the awful food he was given, the cries of the other patients, and his own grave medical condition. But it also meant that no matter how often I gave him pages from the manuscript, he couldn’t read them – once I left the room and they were set aside, he immediately forgot that they were even there. In some ways he was the precise opposite of our modern, celebrity obsessed culture – truly and deeply steeped in the old, but utterly oblivious to the capricious whims of today’s celebrity.

In December of 2009 he was gone. Warren William’s memory is his memory, passed on through me to anybody else who cares to remember. My opportunity to indulge in something I love would not have happened if not for that simple continuity of thought. A service was performed, and one I’m grateful for. So, if you love something – industrial design, Scott Joplin, medieval history, or simple family lore – pass it on. Otherwise the past will remain that – only the past.

The famous, circa 1924; Warren William and company in "Expressing Willie."