Warren William Under the Stars, part 11: The Match King
August 28, 2012 Leave a comment
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
“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.