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.

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THE TED BUNDY OF FRANKLIN MONROE

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.

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