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:

THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS (1938) **

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

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“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The scenario of The First 100 Years is now largely outdated, but was reasonably unique in pre-war Hollywood.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.

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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.

Warren William Under the Stars, Part 2 The Mouthpiece

Here’s the 2nd in a series of 17 reviews covering the films in TCM’s August 30th “Summer Under the Stars” line up, featuring Warren William: 

THE MOUTHPIECE (1932) Dir: James Flood & Elliot Nugent

The story of The Mouthpiece is almost biblical in its simplicity: a man’s fall from grace followed by sacrificial redemption. While working as a prosecutor in the District Attorney’s office Vincent Day (Warren William) inadvertently sends an innocent boy to death in the electric chair. His conscience will not allow him to live with the guilt of this fatal mistake, and the result is a drunken odyssey among the lower depths ofNew York’s sleazy saloon culture. After he receives a few words of encouragement from his forward-thinking bartender (Guy Kibbee), Day swallows his shame and cynically reinvents himself as the immensely successful legal defender of the very reprobates and human filth he previously took off the streets. Soon he is so accustomed to the deep-water pressures of living with bottom-feeding parasites that he resolves to plumb even lower, brazenly attempting to seduce his underage stenographer Celia Faraday (Sydney Fox). When Celia’s humble decency compels the wayward attorney to bend his crooked line 180 degrees, he makes the fatal discovery that he has chosen a road from which there is no going back.

When it was released in the spring of 1932, The Mouthpiece scored an enormous box-office hit with depression era audiences, and made a bona fide star of Warner Brothers recently signed contract player Warren William. Only a year earlier William was toiling semi-successfully on theNew York stage and enduring continual comparisons to John Barrymore, leading his new employers to initially assign him to continental melodramas and high society roles. In short order, however, something new emerged, eventually coalescing in this, his sixth film with the studio. Here producers and scenario writers settled on the template for the dominant film persona of William’s early years: the amoral, conscienceless power broker who was forced by circumstances to adopt a remorseless personal dictum: “smash, or be smashed.” Along with the crackling urban energy of studio mates Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, William exemplified a new masculine construction then invading cinema. Unlike the conformist go-getters of the silent era, these men had no use for dead Victorian ideals; they would need more direct means to survive and thrive in the disintegrating social order of depression-eraAmerica.

It is no wonder that Warren William became so popular after the release of The Mouthpiece. As Vincent Day he swaggers along a character arc that takes him from paragon of virtue to conscienceless predator in one uneasy step. During the course of the film he delivers a spellbindingly theatrical jury summation (after tenderly remembering the victim, he turns to the accused and shouts: “Only her MURDERER remains!”), knocks out a hostile witness as he steps out of the court docket, gleefully tricks a bank president out of $10,000 and endures the debilitating shame of seeing himself through the eyes of the only decent person he knows. William even provides some amusing visual shorthand to denote Day’s position on the line between good and evil: his trademark pencil moustache doesn’t appear until the clean-shaven lawyer has completed his journey to the immoral underside of jurisprudence. It is the role of a lifetime for any actor – at least the kind of actor thatHollywood produced in the early sound era – and William wrestles maximum dramatic possibilities from every opportunity. The contemporary press was uniformly laudatory of the film, where the actor was variously dubbed “wonderfully engaging,” “magnificent,” “electric,” “forceful” and “extraordinarily entertaining.” This degenerate persona was so successful for Warren William that Warner Brothers immediately set it in stone: during the next four years he repeated it at their whim, and became Hollywood’s unquestioned king of the underhanded, the immoral and the downright nasty. 

Adeptly packed into a mere 84 minutes, The Mouthpiece is a wonder of economy, indelibly stamped with Warner Brother’s well-tooled assembly line pacing. The script needs only five minutes to take Vince Day from up-and-coming to down and out, and each character is smartly etched with a bare minimum of exposition. Day’s world-weary secretary Hickey (played by the magnificent Aline MacMahon) becomes a remarkably sympathetic and endearing character with just a handful of scenes, and a few lines are all that’s needed to add dimension to the single scene of a helpfulNew York City hack driver. It should be no surprise that a studio where workers were directed to recycle bent nails from old sets would turn out a movie with so little fat. Warner Brothers always did work close to the bone.

The Mouthpiece is part of Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William on August 30th, 2012. It airs at 9:45 AM EST.

Warren William Under the Stars, Part 1: Lady For a Day

Today’s post is the first in a series of reviews of the 17 films in TCM’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William, airing August 20th, 2012:

Warren William and May Robson in Lady For a Day (1933)

LADY FOR A DAY (1933) Director: Frank Capra / Screenplay: Robert Riskin

Once Upon a Time there is a superstitious Broadway Dude named Dave. The Dude is a man in the business of calculating probability and chance, who avails hisself of the services of a crooked-toothed old street peddler known to the gentry as Apple Annie. An apple bought from her, he believes, gives him a leg up on all the other local calculators; what with said apple he cannot lose in his chancin’. But herewith Annie gums up the works by findin’ herself in a predicament: after years of prevaricatin’ to her very own daughter about being a duchess, Annie is about to be exposed as the street-peddling, whiskey swilling, moth-eaten old battle-axe that she is. Said exposure will ruin the business of Dave the Dude; of this he has never been more sure than anything in his life. Therefore, Dave, with his colorful but not-so-bright cohorts of long association, set out to reinvent Miss Annie as – wait for it – Missus E. Worthington Manville; a proper lady of class and dignity. Herein humor ensues.

Lady For a Day, based on the 1929 short story Madame La Gimp by Damon Runyon, is one of the recently reclaimed treasures of early 1930’s Hollywood. Thought lost after the negative went missing in the 1950’s, it quietly re-emerged in the late 70’s as a secondary classic in Frank Capra’s filmography, and has since slowly gained in esteem among film fans. This was the director’s first major success in his career at Columbia Pictures, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including best screenplay, best actress, best director and best film of 1933. The following year Capra and company swept those same categories (plus the best actor award) for It Happened One Night, but in 1933 the Academy was not so kind; Lady For a Day was shut out by the Hollywood power base. In addition, Capra himself was publicly humiliated when he mistakenly answered the call for Frank Lloyd to pick up his best director statuette for Cavalcade. History has given Capra his revenge, however – Cavalcade has been forgotten as an old-fashioned relic, while Lady For a Day remains an entertaining confection for modern audiences.

As described above, the film is essentially a contemporary update of Pygmalion, transferred to New York, and substituting the wizened sot Apple Annie for the Cockney ragamuffin Eliza Doolittle. Runyon’s story, ably expanded by writer Robert Riskin, populates Lady For a Day with the fetchingly disparate characters he was known for: the swells, dames, dudes, gangsters and assorted hangers on of Depression-era Broadway. This meant a series of plum roles for the great character actors of the period: Nat Pendleton, Glenda Farrell, Guy Kibbee, Halliwell Hobbes, Walter Connolly, and especially the acerbic Ned Sparks as the contradictorily named “Happy” McGuire. Among this cast are nestled the mainsprings of the film, May Robson as Annie, and Warren William as Dave the Dude. Here, both actors are at the top of their form, with the 75 year old Robson giving a star making performance as the drunken street peddler, and William never better than as the gangster with a deeply buried heart of gold. On Broadway from 1919 to 1931, William lived and worked among the real-life characters – high and low – that made up Runyon’s milieu. He drew on his personal dictionary of the time to create a portrait of Dave the Dude that is both hilarious and remarkably human. And if you are a student of period haberdashery, there is no better place to ogle a smartly fitted vintage waistcoat orLondon drape suit than on the perfectly proportioned figure of the King of Pre-Code Hollywood.

Lady For a Day works best by observing the friction between cynicism and optimism, a theme that Capra returned to again and again during his career. Being indebted to Runyon’s source material, the contrast is played here mostly for laughs, luxuriating in the grudging transformation of jaded gamblers, cops, politicians and hobos to the cause of familial love. The light tone makes the film one of the director’s most enjoyable, unconcerned with the social comment of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and without the exhausting pace of Arsenic and Old Lace. Like many of Capra’s best works, Lady For a Day is a fable of the modern world seen through his eyes; one wherein reprobates make good, the fallen regain faded dignity, and cynics eventually conclude that maybe some causes are worth fighting for after all.

Lady For a Day will be broadcast at 8:00 PM (EST) on August 30th, 2012, as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.

Warren William Under the Stars, August 30th, 2012!

Okay all you William fans, you lovers of indecency, you seekers of cads and disdainers of fads: Turner Classic Movies has announced our favorite scoundrel, Warren William, as the August 30th Star of the Day during their Summer Under the Stars festival. I’m posting three lists here: one, the TCM schedule. Two, the prioritized list of classic Warren William for the pre-Code fan. Then, the list of simply the best movies regardless of Warren’s contribution. So – here it is:
 
 TCM, August 30, 2012 – 24 hours of Warren William!•6:00 a.m. Bedside (1934)
•7:15 a.m. The First Hundred Years (1938)
•8:30 a.m. Wives Under Suspicion (1938)
•9:45 a.m. The Mouthpiece (1932)
•11:15 a.m. Skyscraper Souls (1932)
•1:00 p.m. Three On a Match (1932)
•2:15 p.m. The Match King (1932)
•3:45 p.m. The Mind Reader (1933)
•5:00 p.m. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
•6:45 p.m. Times Square Playboy (1936)
•8:00 p.m. Lady For a Day (1933)
•9:45 p.m. Cleopatra (1934)
•11:45 p.m. Employees Entrance (1933)
•1:15 a.m. The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
•2:45 a.m. Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939)
•4:00 a.m. Arsene Lupin Returns (1938)

 
If you love Pre-Code Warren William, but only have limited time, this is my recommendation of what to watch, in order of his most iconic performances.:
 
11:45PM Employees Entrance (1933) (The must-see WW pre-Code) 
9:45AM The Mouthpiece (1931) (Never fails to please any modern audience)
2:15PM Match King (1932)
3:45PM The Mind Reader (1933) (He’s just deliciously cheap in this picture)
11:15AM Skyscraper Souls (1932) (Great, but a lot of time spent with non-Warren William sub-plots!)
6:00AM Bedside (1934) (sLEAZy!)
8:00PM Lady For a Day (1933) (Less pre-codeish and more Capra, but highly entertaining.)
1:15AM The Case of the Howling Dog (1934)
1:00PM Three On a Match (1932) (Great stuff, but Warren is completely wasted as the put-upon husband.)
2:45AM Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939)
4:00AM Arsene Lupin Returns (1938)
5:00PM Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) (Wonderful, although Warren doesn’t appear until halfway into the movie!)
8:30AM Wives Under Suspicion (1938)
6:45PM Times Square Playboy (1936) (Labored comedy, chiefly interesting for Warren’s rapport with old pal Gene Lockhart.)
9:45PM Cleopatra (1934) (Damn – he dies after the second reel!)
7:15AM The First Hundred Years (1938)LIST #3 – Pound for Pound best movies to watch regardless of Warren’s performance or length of appearance:

WARREN WILLIAM ON TCM

I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the impromptu email campaign we undertook in June, but Turner Classic Movies is hosting a Warren William Birthday celebration on December 2nd, 2011! There will be six (count ’em, 6!) Warren William classics starting at 10:30 am (CST) with the rarely seen Expensive Women from 1931. Check the TCM schedule WWONDEC2 for deatils and movies. And watch over the next few days for capsule reviews of each picture in the series!