Warren William – The Wolf in Wolf’s Clothing

by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
PUBLICATION DATE: April 12, 2021

Often referred to as “the King of pre-Code” and “The Magnificent Scoundrel,” Warren William made 20 films between 1931 and the enforcement of the Production Code in July, 1934. Born in Minnesota on Dec. 2, 1894, he became an actor after World War I, instead of going into his family’s business. He was a leading man on Broadway by 1923 and signed to Warner Brothers in 1931.
Warren William quickly became known for playing amoral businessmen. With his sharp features, slicked back hair, and often sporting a villainous pencil-thin mustache, he was the ultimate crooked businessman, charlatan, and con man. In 1933 the New York Post wrote, “He was the master charlatan of the silver screen, an actor who brought villainy to high places without any noticeable diminution in his own popularity.” Playing such despicable characters while somehow remaining appealing to audiences is a lot harder than it sounds, especially with the kind of antics William’s characters got in to.
In “Employee’s Entrance” he plays ruthless businessman Kurt Anderson. He gives a poor depression-era girl (Loretta Young) a job at his department store and a meal. Afterward, in a very uncomfortable scene, he makes it clear he expects something in return. He is abusive to his underlings, fights fiercely for every dollar, and promotes toxic company culture. In one scene, after he drives an employee to jump out a window, he remarks that all men should kill themselves when they’ve outlived their usefulness. In a very similar role for MGM’s “Skyscraper Souls,” when confronted by a competing group of businessmen about what they consider his unethical practices, William’s character says “If I double-crossed somebody else for you, I wouldn’t be a double crosser, I’d be a financial genius. It’s all in the point of view.”
In an interview, Warren William said, “I just play the roles no one else wants to play.” Roles like these gave audiences a peek into behind closed-door business dealings and explored America’s love-hate relationship with capitalism. As for William’s anti-hero appeal, he does what heroes do — overcomes obstacles and achieves his goals. He never apologizes for what he’s done to get ahead, even when it all falls down around him. We admire his character’s drive while hating him when that same behavior bleeds into the character’s personal life. He believes his own lies – hoping he can make them true, and in a strange way, that makes him a kind of romantic.
Although he played bad guys, perhaps audiences respected his honesty, but it was the kind of honesty that terrified religious censors. Warren William, like Kay Francis, was a phenomenon that could have only happened in an era without censorship. The type of characters he specialized in were banned once the Production Code was fully enforced.
In real life he was a quiet, retiring man who wasn’t interested in the Hollywood scene. Joan Blondell said of her frequent co-star, “He was an old man even when he was a young man.” Unlike most other stars, William pursued interests other than acting. He dabbled in inventing, creating an apartment on wheels — a kind of 1930’s Winnebago for showering and getting ready in route to the studio – giving him an extra hour’s sleep. He patented a device he called “a vacuum cleaner for lawns,” and a revolving doghouse.
A few non-villain roles in the pre-Code era included the caring husband whose dissatisfied wife abandons him in “Three on A Match,” an abused husband in the bizarre comedy “Smarty,” and a great comic turn in the “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Later roles included an early version of “The Maltese Falcon” called “Satan Met A Lady” opposite Bette Davis; detective roles like the Lone Wolf; and the first onscreen incarnation of Perry Mason.
Sadly, Warren William died in 1948 of multiple myeloma — he was only 53.
Author Mick LaSalle put it best when he said, “Warren William is one of the singular joys of the pre-Code era. For those who don’t know him, he’s a discovery waiting to be made. In Warren William all things bright and sleazy come together in a persona at once. To see one Warren William film is to want to see another, and to see two is to want to see them all. There has never been a film star like him.”

For more Reel Cinema articles, resources, and photos, check out the Reel Cin blog at jenfior.com/blog-1

Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.

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