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.









About magnificentscoundrel
John Stangeland is the biographer of 1930's film icon Warren William, a lazy business owner and a washed-up comic book artist. He's not bitter, though.

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