Warren William came off a lot better in Stage Struck than I had recalled, but that’s probably because the 1936 Warner musical includes what I still think has got to be William’s most embarrassing screen moment. That would be his being approached, harassed, and even assaulted by a pretty unfunny quartet of performers who played together for several years as The Yacht Club Boys. This 7-minute blitz is painful to watch and for the Warren William fan it is basically the final shovel of dirt atop of his once strong career at Warner Brothers.
In Frank S. Nugent’s September 28, 1936 review of Stage Struck in The New York Times he rips the movie, has kind words for The Yacht Club Boys, and doesn’t even type the name Warren William. That left me shaking my head. He did take time out to do two things I did agree with: praise Frank McHugh for being Frank McHugh and take a shot at Jeanne Madden, who felt like a poor imitation Ruby Keeler in Stage Struck.
William was in the process of escaping Warner Brothers during production on Stage Struck and by the time of it’s release had already completed production on the Mae West vehicle Go West Young Man (1936) for Emanuel Cohen’s Paramount off-shoot Major Pictures.
John Stangeland writes in his biography of William that he was “not featured nor touted in Stage Struck publicity once it hit theaters” (165). I don’t know if the Warner’s freeze was responsible for William’s omission in Nugent’s review, but he’s a pretty big part of Stage Struck to be completely overlooked like that.
If The Yacht Club Boys debacle could have been excised, Warren William actually gets to give one of his best non-mystery performances at Warner’s since his pre-Code glory days.
Warren William, as Harris, gets to lord over an office once more and make no mistake he’s a cutthroat businessman. At the same time Fred Harris is much more congenial than Kurt Anderson or David Dwight are at even their most charitable moments.
It takes 21 minutes into Stage Struck before we get to meet Fred Harris–heck, we’ve even seen The Yacht Club Boys by then!–when he bumps into dance director George Randall (Dick Powell) at a bar.
Producer Harris needs a director for his new show and is thrilled to learn Randall has recently become available. Harris is not as happy about Randall’s swearing off the business. But easing Randall along with his natural charm and a few too many boilermakers, Harris leaves with a signature on the contract.
A sober Randall busts into Harris’ office the next day demanding the contract be broken. Harris tells him the deal is binding and in his most friendly voice adds that “you try to break it and you’ll starve.”
Ruminating over those who’ve tried to get out of deals with him in the past, Harris remarks to his meek assistant, Oscar (Johnnie Arthur), “Remember what I did to Reginald Hempstead? Oscar, where is Reginald Hempstead now?”
Oscar replies, “I don’t know, sir.”
“That’s right, you don’t know. Nobody knows. Oblivion,” Harris gloats. Then to Randall he adds, “I’d hate to have to do that to you, boy”
Oscar, in a nervous whisper, to Randall: “I feel sorry for you.”
Then Harris introduces Randall to his star, the socialite Peggy Revere (Joan Blondell), famed for having gotten away with killing her husband. Revere’s obnoxious presence was responsible for Randall breaking his deal with his previous producer in the opening scene. Randall and Revere stare daggers at one another, leaving Harris to try and figure out how to keep the peace and get his show out of them.
Randall and Revere leave and only Oscar is left with Harris. “Randall’s the best dance director in the business. And Revere’s got the only bankroll I can snag,” Harris declares. He needs a plan.
“Sometimes the power of my own brain scares me,” Harris declares once an idea hits him.
Inspiration comes in the forced form of assistant Oscar’s last name: Freud. Harris decides to use psychology on Peggy, reasoning that if Revere’s love for her husband turned to a hate strong enough for her to kill him, then Harris will just work the angle in reverse and make her fall in love with the despised Randall.
A meeting with Peggy provides William with some of his best lines and reactions. He’s very up front with her about what he’s going to try to do and his Harris blurts out a bunch of psycho-babble that I imagine I’m no more qualified than Warren William to discuss the accuracy of.
The key comes down to her having to stop repressing her feelings and show Randall just how much she loves him. The grateful Revere gets it and tells Harris, “Thank you for helping me with my unconscious mind.”
After that the horror of the Yacht Club Boys unfolds. Given their longevity I’m sure people thought they were hilarious once, but it didn’t work for me. Approaching William’s Harris for a job one of them declares:
“We’re professional amateurs.” Another adds, “And all we get is the gong.”
Harris replies, “You’ve come to the wrong place. We don’t have any gong.”
The Yacht Club Boys tell him, “Well, you’re gong to get one.” Then laughter.
Thankfully much of what follows is shot so that we only see the back of the Fred Harris character’s head (I hope Warren didn’t have to endure all of that!). There are a few more embarrassing frames during The Yacht Club Boys performance, one of which I’ve done Warren William the discourtesy of posting just above.
By this point Warren’s Harris has had his best scenes, but unlike some of his other lesser roles from this period he doesn’t ever completely disappear from Stage Struck and still reels off a few good lines whenever we get to see him.
A favorite of mine comes after a meeting with lead actor Frost (Craig Reynolds). On the way out of Harris’ office Frost meets the young chorus girl that Randall’s shown an interest in, Ruth Williams (Jeanne Madden), and is eager to help her out for all the wrong reasons.
Frost tells Ruth he’ll have a word with Harris about her and get her into the show. He pops back into Harris’ office on his own with no plans of actually mentioning the girl but makes an excuse to Harris for his intrusion asking if he’s seen his gloves.
William as Harris channeling his best Kurt Anderson shoots back, “Gloves? You’re lucky to have shoes.” Frost departs to tell Ruth she’s all set.
Stage Struck is an oddball of a movie, a bit strange for a Busby Berkeley musical in that there really aren’t any of Berkeley’s typical stage numbers involved. I talk about the specifics of the movie and the other players in a more detailed post on Immortal Ephemera. As I open my article over there: Stage Struck is the Busby Berkeley musical that ends with a kiss, not a big stage number.
Forgiving the single scene, you know the one by now, Warren William is quite good here. More charming with certainly more to do than he had in his better known Warner’s musical appearance, Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).
- Nugent, Frank S. “Stage Struck.” The New York Times 28 September 1936. 14:5
- Stangeland, John. Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.