I’ve recently discovered the actor Warren William, whose movies from the early 30s remain fresh today. Although he is not well-known today, William was “King of the Pre-Code”, starring in 25 movies between 1931 and 1934, many with the sexual frankness and moral ambiguity that was to be erased by the Production Code. His leading ladies included the likes of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Loretta Young, Ann Dvorak and Claudette Colbert.
With his striking features (including a prominent and noble nose) and his deep and cultured voice, William was a natural for the newfangled talkies. William excelled in the Pre-Code movies because he could play deliciously shameless scoundrels who would use their wit and position to exploit every else, especially for sex, power and money. His characters are fun to watch because they take such delight in their own depravity. But in 1934, the new Production Code meant that movies could no longer allow his characters to have sex and otherwise behave badly and get away with it.
Turner Classic Movies often broadcasts the 1933 Employees Entrance. William plays a department store manager who is viciously ruthless with his competitors and suppliers. He abuses his own employees and is indifferent to the resultant suicide attempts. He uses his position to have sex with a young employee (Loretta Young), even after she marries someone else. And he keeps a floozy on the payroll to distract another executive (his putative supervisor) from meddling in the business. And for all 75 minutes of Employees Entrance, William’s joyously despicable character is richly enjoying himself. If you’re looking for the triumph of Good over Evil, this isn’t your movie.
One of my favorite movies is 1932’s hilarious political comedy The Dark Horse, in which William plays an equally ruthless and amoral campaign manager. He is such a scoundrel that he must first get sprung from jail to teach his dimwitted candidate to answer every question with “Yes…and, then again, no.” He describes his own candidate (the gleefully dim Guy Kibbee) thus: “He’s the dumbest human being I ever saw. Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”
Ever the sexually predatory cad on the screen, the real life William led a quiet life and was married to the same woman for twenty-five years until his death.
Here’s a taste of The Dark Horse.