He was born Warren William Krech on December 2, 1894 in Aitkin, Minnesota. He worked as Warren Krech for the first few years of his professional acting career, but dropped the Krech for billing under his more alliterative first two names early in 1924. Both of his paternal grandparents were German born and the surname had already cost Warren his first choices of military duty after enlisting for the Great War, so in a time still ripe with anti-German sentiment he surely thought a change might help his career as well. Also the press often misspelled the name Kreck, though that issue certainly wouldn’t improve as Warren William.
“Have we the right to add an ‘s’ to Warren William’s name?” producer Darryl F. Zanuck wrote to Warner Bros.’ executive R.J. Obringer in September 1931. “It is the consensus of opinion that Williams is far more desirable than William, in the New York office.” It only took a couple of days for Obringer to reply in the negative, noting Warren, “strongly objected to the addition of the ‘s,’ claiming the name William was a distinction in itself,” and that he was well recognized by it throughout the theatrical world.
The press, that was another story, as stories about Warren Williams were not uncommon throughout his career. Anybody researching Warren in the 21st Century would be wise to perform an alternative Williams search of the web as well.
Warren was the middle child and only son of Freeman E. Krech and his wife, the former Frances Potter. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Warren William Potter, a somewhat celebrated Civil War Colonel. Warren’s father Freeman was publisher and editor of The Aitkin Age, a then fledgling newspaper that he bought in 1885 a few years after settling in Aitkin from St. Paul, Minnesota. While Freeman had plans for his only son to follow him into the publishing business, Warren’s dreams were of a more mechanical bent with an idea towards eventually becoming an engineer of some type. That was at least until the Aitkin Opera House opened in 1903 and the acting bug began to bite. Warren didn’t begin classes at Aitkin High School until he was sixteen and didn’t graduate until he was twenty, in 1915. In between, a family vacation to New York City to visit Freeman’s high-powered brother, Alvin Krech of the Equitable Trust Company, introduced Warren to his first Broadway show, and further fueled his passion for the stage.
Warren returned to New York in the Fall of 1915 to begin study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which he graduated in March 1917 (Stangeland 29). The following month the United States declared war on Germany, and Warren immediately registered for service in the Great War. Warren got his feet wet on stage with a Brooklyn repertory company while awaiting word on his application to the Lafayette Air Squadron and then the Brooklyn Naval Base (Stangeland 32). Rejected on both counts, Warren soon headed back to Aitkin, where he was accepted into service by the U.S. Army. Basic training shifted him around the country, eventually settling Warren at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where he and others awaited the call overseas. By this time Warren’s older sister had moved to New York, so Warren had a friendly face to visit in his now familiar nearby Manhattan stomping grounds. Make that two, his sister had a friend.
Warren found himself a sweetheart before shipping out to France, and Helen Barbara Nelson turned out to be the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with. There was a bit of age difference that the Nelson woman kept under wraps, but certainly friends and family would have noticed by the time they married in 1923—Helen was seventeen years Warren’s senior! Helen’s date of birth was a moving target on various U.S. census rolls, one which Jenny of Cinema OCD and I puzzled over together in early 2010, before John Stangeland’s comprehensive biography appeared on the scene to clearly present Helen’s background in black and white. I recall it being Warren and Helen’s 1923 New York marriage certificate that finally cemented Helen’s identity, providing her full name along with the names of her parents. That information connected her to a family line in Minnesota, not far from where Warren was raised, and revealed her date of birth as 1877, despite her claiming to be ten years younger on that same marriage certificate! It also revealed that she had been previously married. The Krech family couldn’t have been thrilled when 28-year-old Warren married a 45-year-old widow. But the marriage worked.
Warren’s outfit finally made it to France in 1918, just a month after he’d met Helen, but they arrived right in time for Armistice to be declared. Warren remained in Europe to join up with Madison Corey’s acting troupe, the Corey Singers, and toured France the following six months performing with Corey’s Singers in Under Cover. That experience paid off when Warren returned to the States and was offered a spot in the road company of I Love You, a recent show on Broadway. The offer was made based on the manager’s recollection of Warren’s work in France with the Corey Singers (Stangeland 46). Warren’s continued to accumulate experience. He joined the Erie Stock Company of Pennsylvania for some months before returning to New York, where his parents had now settled after his father had suffered a stroke and liquidated the newspaper business back in Aitkin.
“Another comedy role is amusingly acted by Warren W. Krech,” read the final few words of the New York Times’ review of Mrs. Jimmie Thompson, a three-act farce that played at the Princess Theater on Broadway from March through May 1920 (Woollcott 1920). It was Warren’s Broadway debut, the first of twenty-one shows he’d be a part of over the next eleven years. There were more misses than hits, but it was a period of slow ascent for Warren that also included his first two movie appearances, disaster epic The Town That Forgot God (1922) for Fox and Pearl White’s final serial, Plunder (1923), at Pathe. Both were filmed in New York. Following the two movies, Warren’s next Broadway appearance came in The Wonderful Visit, notable because he was originally announced for the cast as Warren Krech, but billed for the first time as Warren William by the time the show opened.
The Blue Peter in 1925 brought extraordinary praise from eminent Broadway critic Alexander Woollcott: “the central role is competently and interestingly played by Warren William, who was known as Warren Krech … Mr. Krech seems to have gone to Thibet and returned with a brand new name,” Woollcott wrote. Then, in a compliment that followed Warren for the rest of his life and beyond, Woollcott added, “He has a Barrymore accent in his speech and a Barrymore tone in his voice, and he looks the very image of the young John Drew …” (Woollcott 1925).
High praise, but it stuck and Warren’s Barrymoreness threatened to usurp his own identity. “I don’t want to be an imitation of anyone,” Warren told J.D. Spiro of Screen & Radio Weekly in 1937 while working on The Firefly as an MGM contract player. Spiro hearkened back to the Alexander Woollcott quote and even suggested that MGM had signed Warren to fill John Barrymore’s place on their roster. Barrymore had just worked for the company in support of Jeanette MacDonald in Maytime (1937). MacDonald’s next? The Firefly, featuring Warren William in a similar supporting role.
About a year after Woollcott first made the comparison, Warren appeared in Easter One Day More, a 1926 play also featuring Michael Strange in the cast. At the time Strange was married to John Barrymore. This wouldn’t be the last time Warren was cast opposite one of the Great Profile’s wives. In just his second film under contract to Warner Bros., Expensive Women in 1931, Warren made love on screen to Barrymore’s third wife, Dolores Costello.
Throughout the remainder of the 1920s, Warren kept busy on Broadway. Some of his more notable appearances included Twelve Miles Out, which ran for 188 performances in 1925-26; Fanny, starring Fanny Brice, later in 1926; Sign of the Leopard, also featuring his future Lone Wolf co-star Thurston Hall, in 1928-29; Rachel Crothers’ Let Us Be Gay, which ran for over 350 performances throughout 1929; Out of a Blue Sky in 1930, notable for being directed by Leslie Howard; and the hit that finally propelled him to Hollywood and back to the movies, The Vinegar Tree, with Mary Boland, which played 229 times during 1930-31.
Warren signed a contract with Warner Bros. dated March 6, 1931. He’d be paid $750 a week under the deal and Warner’s immediately turned a profit in loaning him to Belasco & Curran in New York to finish the Broadway run of The Vinegar Tree. Within days of signing his deal with Warner Bros.—and highly respected Warren biographer John Stangeland writes that it was the very same day—Warren’s father, Freeman Krech, died at his daughter’s home in Port Washington on Long Island. Between the success of The Vinegar Tree, the ink still being wet on his new movie contract, and the passing of his father, what an emotional time this must have been for Warren!
After his first couple of films at Warner Bros., Warren played a character who displayed his first flashes pre-Code predatory tendencies in Under 18 (1931) with Marian Marsh. Still, his character is really a swell guy in this one, as he is in his other with Marsh, Beauty and the Boss (1932). Warren wasn’t actually the star of any of his first five films at Warner Bros., though he moved up the ladder from top supporting roles to leading man as the calendar progressed. He starred in his sixth film for Warner Bros., The Mouthpiece (1932), which in turn elevated him to star status. Warren’s character in The Mouthpiece, Vince Day, was a hero who combined the sexually predatory nature of Warren’s earlier characters opposite Marsh with the win-at-all-costs business practices that would be exploited in several of his following films, and which movie fans mired in the Great Depression would come to love. These traits created a unique screen star in William, though one whose reach was ultimately limited by outside forces.
After The Mouthpiece Warren was cast in a run of films that either featured him with a mischievous gleam in his eye towards the opposite sex, or combining sheer determination with an eroded set of scruples to do battle against the Great Depression. And sometimes both.
After The Dark Horse (1932) for the home studio, Warren was loaned to MGM where he starred in Skyscraper Souls (1932), a movie that further established the character template begun in The Mouthpiece. Warner Bros. saw what worked in continued to cast Warren as characters who were often morally bankrupt, yet somehow inspiring: The Match King (1932), Employees’ Entrance (1933), and The Mind Reader (1933) being the best of that bunch. The same type of character was spun for laughs in the non-musical portions of Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), one of Warren’s best remembered films but, because he’s not included in any of the spectacular Busby Berkeley musical numbers, not one that is truly remembered for his contribution.
Just as Warren could excel at playing cads, scoundrels, and hustlers, he was also capable of providing fine performances when cast as more stolid leading man, including loyal, straight-laced husbands, who provided ample opportunity for a good actress to all but make him disappear from the screen. An early example is Three on a Match (1932), now considered a pre-Code classic, but entirely because of Ann Dvorak’s shocking performance as Warren’s wanton wife. Warren is there, and he’s fine in his part, but unlike many of the other movies he starred in during this period, none of Three on a Match’s excitement is due to Warren’s presence.
Later examples of Warren’s somewhat invisible leading men come on loan to Paramount in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934) starring Claudette Colbert. Warren makes a grand Caesar, but the very nature of that part also means that he’s makes a grand—and early—exit, leaving Henry Wilcoxon’s Antony to take over the male leading role for the remainder of the movie. Another loan out, this time to Universal, found Warren and Colbert as a modern couple in John M. Stahl’s Imitation of Life. This time the film focuses on the relationship between Colbert and another woman, her African-American maid and business benefactor, played by Louise Beavers, and Warren is pushed to the background whenever race becomes the topic, as it often does. He winds up spending more time with Rochelle Hudson, who played Colbert’s daughter, than any of the other characters in the movie. These are three of Warren’s best remembered films, the latter two undisputed as classics yet, like Gold Diggers of 1933, they’re not celebrated because of Warren.
Of Warren’s more traditional classics released during this portion of his career, he fares best as Dave the Dude in Columbia’s adaptation of Damon Runyon’s Lady for a Day (1933), directed by Frank Capra. I’m in the minority with this opinion, but it’s not a favorite despite Warren’s being handed a very strong character, because Runyon’s unique dialogue never sounds quite right coming out of his mouth. Even so, most fans of this movie would readily admit that it entirely revolves around Warren’s 75-year-old co-star, May Robson as Apple Annie.
In October 1933 Warren was a part of front page news when he was one of fourteen actors who resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences because of dissatisfaction over the way film players were represented by AMPAS at the National Recovery Administration’s code hearings in Washington. Another twelve non-members joined those fourteen putting Warren among the original group forming the Screen Actors Guild.
While the NRA code hearings intended to regulate film actor’s salaries, it was another Code that caused Warren even more damage. Beginning in July 1934 Hollywood movies fell under the censorship of a fully enforced Production Code. While the Code had existed prior to this date, it was sparingly enforced because the studios did a decent job self-regulating their product to get it past various state censorship boards. Still, the newly enforced Code’s limitations on sex, morals, and violence meant an end to the types of characters Warren had excelled in playing since the time of The Mouthpiece.
Warren had previously taken up a role intended for William Powell when he starred in The Dark Horse back in 1932. He’d do so again in The Dragon Murder Case (1934), Warren’s first movie made under Code enforcement, when he played S.S. Van Dine’s detective Philo Vance. Warren played Vance again later in his career, in The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939), but he was far more successful cast in his next film, The Case of the Howling Dog (1934), when Warren became the first actor ever to portray Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason. Warren played the part in the first four Perry Mason movies, which represented four out of Gardner’s first five Mason novels to that time. The Code had smoothed the sharpest edges of Warren’s characters, but parts like Perry Mason and films like non-mystery Don’t Bet on Blondes (1935) find the actor enlivening his portrayals with a cutting sense of humor and unrestrained performances that give the overall sense that he is having a lot fun at work.
Less fun when the camera wasn’t rolling though. Warren seems to have gotten a bee in his bonnet over reports such as this:
“Exciting sea stories, embodying the histories of Morgan the Pirate, the Lafittes, Capt. Kidd have been announced. ‘Captain Blood,’ by Rafael Sabatini, will be played by Warren William. George Brent and Ricardo Cortez are to play Jean and Pierre Lafitte” (Sexless)
Okay, I can’t picture it either. But to add Warren’s perspective to this scenario, the actor who was eventually cast in the plum role of Captain Blood had previously played a small part in one of Warren’s Perry Mason titles, The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), before moving on to a slightly more expanded supporting part in Don’t Bet on Blondes, which, uh, starred Warren William. Captain Blood made Errol Flynn a star, but it was Flynn’s energetic performance and overwhelming charisma in the part that enabled that to happen. As ridiculous as it is to imagine Warren William as Captain Blood, he did provide his own energetic and charismatic swashbuckling performance a few years later as D’Artagnan in James Whale’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) for United Artists.
Warren’s resentment over this casting tease comes out in a letter he wrote to Warner Bros. dated January 8, 1935. He has a legitimate gripe over a pair of advertisements for Living on Velvet (1935) that failed to provide his contractually guaranteed billing, so he threatens legal action while getting Captain Blood off his chest:
“I consider that irreparable damage has been done to my standing in the motion picture industry by this type of advertising and by your reassigning other pictures that have heretofore been publicly announced as vehicles intended for me. I make particular reference to Rafael Sabatini’s ‘CAPTAIN BLOOD’.”
Warner Bros. responded with an apology and a few months later picked up the option on Warren’s contract providing him a $500 raise to $2,750 per week. What they didn’t give him were any parts that even got within a whiff of the status of Captain Blood. A little over a year later, Warren’s agent, Mike Levee wrote Jack Warner requesting Warren be let out of his contract before his next option was picked up.
“You had in WARREN WILLIAM a personality who could very easily have been as popular as Bill Powell is today,” Levee wrote, “but, for the last two years, the type of stuff Warren has been requested to do is really short of disastrous, insofar as his future career is concerned.”
Warren was due for a raise to $3,250, so Warner Bros. consented. Warren was allowed to escape his contract—by buying it out for $10,000 (Stangeland 164).
He moved next to Emanuel Cohen Productions, a production company that had splintered from Paramount but still released their films through the major. Warren made three films for Cohen, most notably Go West Young Man (1936), which paired him with Mae West: what a shame this one couldn’t have happened a few years earlier, prior to Production Code enforcement! Midnight Madonna (1937) is out of circulation, but the gem of this trio is the underappreciated Outcast (1937) starring Warren with Karen Morley and Lewis Stone.
Following these three films, Warren finally seemed to finally hit the jackpot when he was signed to star at MGM. The company had done wonders for other actors who had hit a rut, men like Spencer Tracy, who jumped over from Fox, and Warren’s own predecessor from Warner Bros., William Powell, so with a little luck perhaps the same could happen for Warren. No such luck.
“I bought my way out of my Warner’s contract because playing the parts they gave me I found myself going down, down, down in public estimation like a bucket in a well,” he told J.D. Spiro in 1937 during a break from The Firefly. Of his supporting status in that film, Warren said, “I don’t care about the starring. I’ll be satisfied if they just give me one or two really good parts a year in first class productions.” Besides The Firefly he appeared in three additional films under contract to MGM, Madame X (1937) supporting Gladys George; Arsene Lupin Returns (1938), the best of the bunch for Warren; and the forgettable The First Hundred Years (1938). That was enough to prove to Warren that the grass wasn’t always greener and led to his freelancing at the expiration of his MGM deal.
Opportunity soon arose at Columbia, where he signed on for two films per year starring in the Lone Wolf mystery series. Warren played the part nine times through 1943 embodying it with many of the same qualities he had previously brought to his Perry Mason at Warner Bros. In between Lone Wolf outings with cast regulars such as Eric Blore, Thurston Hall, and Fred Kelsey, Warren appeared in several other films, some of his best including Arizona (1940), Wild Geese Calling (1941), and Wild Bill Hickok Rides (1942). He also squeezed in one small supporting role in what turned out to be a Universal horror classic, The Wolf Man (1941). He’s very likely the cast member you remember least, basically blending into the scenery as Dr. Lloyd. The Lone Wolf series seemed to run its course when the more traditional mystery tales disappeared with the times in favor of plots featuring war espionage, but that was all right because Warren was ready for a rest. He wasn’t feeling well.
Warren’s biographer John Stangeland does a strong job in charting the actor’s sinking health, beginning with a mention of “minor but chronic physical symptoms that included fatigue and lower back pain” in early 1944 (195). Warren’s health continued to worsen over the following years, and the rumors kept the major film studios from showing any interest in him. Warren’s next couple of films were low budget Poverty Row affairs, but despite the nickel-and-dime atmosphere you have to give him credit for selecting work with strong pedigree. Edgar G. Ulmer’s Strange Illusion (1945) for PRC was a modern reworking of Hamlet, featuring Warren in his most vile role since his days of pre-Code infamy, while Alfred Zeisler’s Fear (1946) at Monogram was a liberal adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Each are worth seeking out as long as you temper expectations.
Later in 1946 Warren tried his hand at a new medium and was very effective playing probate lawyer John Francis O’Connell on the Strange Wills radio program. Warren followed this with his final film role, a supporting part in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), a screen adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s classic novel Bel Ami. Another radio series attempt later in 1947, United States Postal Inspector, showed potential, but didn’t make it past a single audition recording. That may have been for the best, as Warren likely wouldn’t have been able to work much longer anyway. Biographer Stangeland notes that Warren’s health continued to erode throughout the year and despite a host of nagging symptoms doctors remained unable to diagnose his specific malady.
He was further weakened when Virus X swept through Los Angeles that year and infected him. Finally, near the end of the year Warren’s doctor was able to make a clear diagnosis, but the news was not good. Warren was affected with multiple myeloma, the cancer that would take his life on September 24, 1948 at age 53. Warren was cremated and his ashes spread in Manhasset Bay on the North Shore of Long Island near Port Washington. His wife Helen had survived him, but she had been diagnosed with breast cancer before it was clear what Warren’s illness was. She died just before the new year, December 31, 1948 at age 71.
Warren’s legacy suffered the next several decades because the wrong films were being remembered. His classics were titles like Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, The Wolf Man, even Madame X. Great movies, but not movies that were great because of Warren William (though I’d argue otherwise of Cleopatra).
Thankfully, the bulk of his best work came under his original contract at Warner Bros., and those movies began being seen again after Ted Turner purchased MGM’s film library in 1986. Those assets began appearing on TBS and TNT in the late 1980s and eventually TCM, Turner Classic Movies, after its launch in 1994. Three on a Match, Employees’ Entrance, and Skyscraper Souls received VHS home video releases as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood Collection” later in the ‘90s. My copies all had Leonard Maltin’s face promoting them on the video covers, and so I always associate Maltin with introducing me to some of my favorites. In 2002 Mick LaSalle’s Dangerous Men, the companion volume to his earlier volume celebrating pre-Code era women, Complicated Women, was published and included a chapter titled “Warren William and the Money Changers.” In 2005 Warren was subject of a small article by Guy Maddin in Film Comment and a more expanded feature by Ken Weiss in Classic Images magazine.
I hesitate to place myself on this exalted timeline, but this site arrived online at the end of 2007, hoping to fill an Internet void that has been filled bit by bit over the past several years. Back when the site launched there wasn’t much to be discovered about Warren beyond his Wikipedia page and profiles at the IMDb and TCM.com. In late 2010 John Stangeland provided the crowning achievement of Warren’s renaissance with McFarland and Company’s publication of his fantastic biography, Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood.
Still, to be a Warren William fan in 2010 meant that you had to work at it. You had to perform deep web searches to find the right books, though Stangeland’s biography certainly helped put Warren front and center in that regard. I also suspect the success of Stangeland’s biography was largely responsible for TCM giving Warren his most mainstream moment to date, when they featured him as one of their 31 different stars selected to represent the network’s 2012 Summer Under the Stars programming. This meant 24 entire hours of nothing but Warren William movies. If you put the channel on that day, Warren was there.
Today, Warren William has recovered his formerly forgotten status and most classic movie fans know exactly who he was and what he was good at. Some still remember him primarily for the classics, the bigger movies that he didn’t always play a big part in. Others think of him as one of the best of the movie detectives, the man who played Philo Vance, Perry Mason, the Lone Wolf, and even a version of Sam Spade in Satan Met a Lady (1936). I look upon him fondly for his movie mysteries and believe they add up to a talent worth remembering even if he had done no other screen work. However, count me among those who prize Warren for the work he did during his peak years in Hollywood. Those pre-Code leading men of questionable morals but unwavering drive. A type all his own, the character who reaches for the stars and won’t be stopped by outside forces like any Great Depression. The slipperiest hero that Hollywood ever produced.
This long overdue post was written for the 2015 pre-Code Blogathon being hosted by Danny of Pre-Code.com and Karen of Satin & Shadows. Be sure to check other entries for many excellent pre-Code movie reviews and biographical pieces, such as this one, focusing on stars who made their names during the wild times of 1930-34.
Believe it or not, I began researching this piece in 2009, but have allowed many of the resources I discovered then to stew over the past five or six years. Luckily, I saved them all. I’ve attributed some above when appropriate and included some additional, more general, pieces below for the sake of completion. I’ve also linked to my own past reviews and articles, which each provide sources of additional information. In the case of John Stangeland’s biography, it was essential in filling in several items about Warren’s youth and health, and I’ve cited pages above when I relied solely on his research.
- “Academy Quit by Actors.” Los Angeles Times 3 Oct 1933: A1.
- “Film Actors Quit Academy Over Code.” New York Times 3 Oct 1933.
- “‘Sexless Cinemas’ Will Be Film Slogan For Next Year.” Charleston Gazette 24 June 1934: 26.
- Spiro, J.D. “Following Barrymore.” Screen & Radio Weekly, 1937, 12.
- Stangeland, John. Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.
- “William May Become Heir to Barrymore.” Los Angeles Times 3 Jan 1932; B13.
- Woollcott, Alexander. “E. Temple Thurston’s New Play. The Sun 25 Mar 1925: 18.
- Woollcott, Alexander. “New Farce Is Amusing.” New York Times 30 Mar 1920: 9
Also, the following articles obtained from the Warner Bros. Archives in 2009:
- Krech, Warren William. Letter to Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., January 8, 1935.
- Levee, M.C. Letter to Mr. J.L. Warner, April 24, 1936.
- Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. Agreement with Warren W. Krech, professionally known as Warren William. March 6, 1931.
- Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. Letter to Warren William, January 11, 1935.
- Zanuck, Darryl. Memo to R.J. Obringer, September 8, 1931