One of the pleasures I get from writing about Hollywood as it was it is finding out more about some of the actors that don’t get mentioned yet give some startling performances. Warren William, most likely the personification of cad, scoundrel, swindler and non-repentant womanizer in Pre-code cinema, falls into that category. William was billed – even by his home studio of WARNER BROTHERS – as Williams because it was considered easier to remember; was often compared to John Barrymore in profile and diction. He steadfastly refused to change his name, and this was the hallmark of a man who was true to his ideas, even when they contributed to his downfall and subsequent obscurity in film history.
Warren William was born Warren William Krech in Aitkin, Minnesota to well to do German parents. He became interested in things as diverse as mechanics, nautical engineering, and the sea, which became a lifelong passion and source of relaxation. There was pressure to go into journalism from his family, however, he showed promise enough to pass an audition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1915. Next was a lucrative Broadway career as a leading man.William, or Warren Krech as he was known, spent time in the Army during WWI as a soldier and trainer. He never saw combat, but was transferred to embarkation bases in the UK and got to France just before the armistice was signed. He described seeing the effects of war in the shape of the wounded, the scarred, and the shell shocked.
William was an inveterate inventor of gadgets. A mobile kitchen/dinner facility, for example, long before trailers were invented. He bought an old truck chassis, and proceeded to build a long table and kitchen facilities on the chassis base so he could drive to any part of his vast ranch to serve a meal to hungry guests. William also built a telephone that would drop on a pole with a system of counter weights to the height of a vehicle entering his estate so the occupant could contact him for admittance. The gate would open by remote control power switch. While these and many other inventions seem quaint today, these were fabricated in the late thirties when much of technology was not available to people. It was the Depression, and people had concerns like work and feeding families on their minds. William was an intelligent man with impeccable manners and taste in dress from his privileged upbringing and opportunities yet he maintained a humanity and a warmth for all people. These factors were welcomed by Hollywood, as it was looking for actors with stage experience was the sound era dawned.
Warren William went to work for Warner Brothers studio in earnest in 1931 after a ‘false start’ in 1922 in which he appeared in a movie serial PLUNDER with the ‘serial queen’ at that time Pearl White, and a small role in THE TOWN THAT FORGOT GOD. The studio didn’t know what roles to use Warren William for as he dropped the name Krech by then so he returned briefly to Broadway.Warner Brothers then found out that they had a virtual goldmine when they cast William in what would become classics of Pre-code Hollywood. Among these first defining roles was ‘EXPENSIVE WOMEN (1931), UNDER EIGHTEEN (1931), which concerns a wealthy Broadway producer who (Williams) tries to take advantage of a poor young seamstress who needs money to help her sister divorce her worthless husband. The picture also contains the very suggestive line by William to Marian Marsh, “Why don’t you take your clothes off and stay a while?” Heady stuff for 1931 audiences.
This was followed by BEAUTY AND THE BOSS and the role of the corrupt, unscrupulous lawyer Vincent Day that launched him in THE MOUTHPIECE.
Vincent Day (Warren William) is a prosecutor who is on the fast track to success. When a man he zealously prosecuted all the way to the electric chair is found innocent, he becomes distressed and quits his job. At the suggestion of a friendly bartender, he decides to switch teams and become a defense attorney specializing in the representation of gangsters and other unsavory people. He will use any tactic to get his clients acquitted, up to and including drinking a slow-acting poison from a bottle of evidence to prove that the substance isn’t lethal. The jury acquits the man not knowing that immediately after, Day rushes into a Mob doctor’s office for a pre-arranged stomach pump. I will not reveal the end of the picture as you should view it yourself as it is fun to do and to get full impact.
I recently finished reading practically the only book bio on the actor titled, WARREN WILLIAM, THE MAGNIFICENT SCOUNDREL OF PRE-CODE HOLLYWOOD by John Stangeland. I had known about Warren William before and actively sought to views his films when they became available. I even asked for the book at Larry Edmunds Bookshop in Hollywood when I was there only to find that it had been sold out – it’s good to know there are people interested in this man. Stangeland writes with an easy flowing style on the subject that brings what facts there are together in a fascinating, sad testimony of a forgotten actor.
I disagreed with Strangeland when he said that there are”…no defining roles that the public can identify with in Warren William’s career,” which contributed to his obscurity today.THE MOUTH PIECE more that fulfilled the defining role criteria as it shows the actor as his deadly, conniving, near-evil character with the perfect diction and profile of a patrician senator. The picture also shows the depth of acting as Vincent Day realizes the terrible pain he has caused with his powers of persuasion and the rule of Law that he so eloquently argues to the jury. The depth and the twist in a person’s soul that can change someone when one of the pillars of a life, in this case the belief in the legal system, are shattered, leaving one without direction are well shown. The loss of faith and descent into become perhaps something worse then the people that were defended by the system that was once held high is there for everyone to see. If you have to pick one defining role for people to experience Warren William then I say it is this picture by far.
William did go onto to do roles of this type with variations in what are now acknowledged as Pre code classics like EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE (1932), in which his character who runs a department store will do anything to drive to success including bedding the staff, one of whom was played by Loretta Young. THREE ON A MATCH (1932), with Humphrey Bogart and Ann Dvorak graphically showed for then the ravages of drug addiction and the party life upon a family. THE MATCH KING (1932), in which Warren William’s character rules the business world to heights of being able to loan money to bankrupt countries on an empire built on selling matches. The story was based on true life Swedish entrepreneur and swindler Ivar Kreugar who controlled two thirds of worldwide match production between two World Wars. He is said to have been involved in Ponzi schemes long before people like Bernie Madoff, etc. were born. Kreugar committed suicide in Paris in 1932. SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1932) depicts the life of people of the Seacoast National Bank Building – Warren’s character David Dwight womanizes and swindles his way to control.
THE MIND READER (1932) with Warren as Chandra the Magnificent who tells fortunes and uses other schemes to make money.Warren William went on to do many pictures including the first films as Perry Mason, and The Lone Wolf series as expert thief in ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS (1938). William was cast as Julius Caesar to Claudette Colbert’s CLEOPATRA in 1934; directed with great flourish, budget and costumes or lack of depending on how you look at it, by Cecil B. De Mille.
This was an actor with good looks, brilliant diction, commanding stage manner, an impeccable dress so strong that he supplied his own suits, ties and shoes. He had an inquiring mind that invented things like a portable trailer dressing room before they were invented so he could get an extra one hour sleep, be driven to the studio by a driver while he prepared himself in the trailer for his day’s shooting while on the way. William would deliver himself onto the set, no matter where it was, ready for work. Why is this person forgotten by a good number of people in Hollywood? Even in his home town of Aitkin, Minnesota – a stop-over to Judy Garland on her way to her home town.
I believe that Warren William was a victim of studio neglect and the star system. He was accused in various sources of not advocating for himself for better roles, money, and scripts as some of the others such as James Cagney, Bette Davis, Paul Muni, and Joan Crawford did. William did not seem to take an interest in his career and this seemed to vex his wife. He would spend little time with the Hollywood parties, preferring the company of his ranch and his work shop where he could build things. Joan Blondell said that, “Warren William was old before he really was old.” This attitude could have come from his privileged up-bringing while he did work and was charitable to friends, causes, animals, etc. he didn’t have that drive within himself that a fear of poverty can bring. The studios knew they could shuffle him from starring roles to supporting roles, sometimes with great success as in LADY FOR A DAY, without having him complain. He was paid very well and was comfortable enough to indulge his sailing and inventing during the Depression. I had no idea that he had a bit role as a medical doctor on the moors in the 1941 Universal classic THE WOLF MAN with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Claude Rains.
I don’t entirely agree that he didn’t advocate for himself, as he did demand that his contract be renegotiated after Warner Brothers took him out of the running for the role of Peter Blood in CAPTAIN BLOOD. They broke Warren as it was a chance to combine his love of the sea and play something different for the public in an historical context. Warner Brothers instead went with an unknown actor called Errol Flynn and, as they say, the rest is history.Warren William was also one of the original 14 actors that became involved in the formation of what became the Screen Actors Guild so he was keenly aware of the rights of the performer.
Today Warren William is not known to many which is a shame. His huge film, radio and stage performances have disappeared as he is lumped in with the likes of Lyle Talbot and others who had the looks but were missing something that would make them a star. Warren was also thought to have played too many roles subservient to women in pictures which made him not respected in the audience’s eyes. Pre-code Hollywood films have not been available for years and many still are not. They were not part of the original packages sold to television stations when the studios discovered the great use for their back archives. Pre-code films of that time are available now more as a curiosities in box sets. Many have been lost due to neglect and simple destruction by studios who were afraid of controversy as in the case of Joan Blondell’s CONVENTION CITY (1933).
Warren’s fate of not being better known today is more akin to Mary Pickford who simply controlled all her films when she retired refusing to have them played in revival houses, released to television or now even put to BluRay. This practice is a double edged sword: while you have control of your material, you have an entire generation of the public that have never seen your work. Pickford should be as known worldwide as Charlie Chaplin.
Warren William passed away in 1948 from many health problems as studios would not take a chance on him for fear of his not being able to complete the project. Bone cancer from his work with the pesticide DDT in his gardens, sawdust and other farm chemicals not known to be harmful from his work shop claimed him with his wife at his bedside. The scene is his last picture THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BELLE AMI (1947) sums up his career ending as he puts on a wry smile while looking at a raconteur character that he played so well years before and backs away into the background fog. Find him if you can.