I’m proud to note this post was the 2010 Classic Movie Blog Association CiMBA winning post in the category “Best Classic Movie Discussion.”
John Stangeland is author of the forthcoming book Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-code Hollywood, to be published by McFarland and Company later this year.
John recently wrote a guest post for Warren-William.com, Remembering Is Hard, and at the same time consented to answer a series of questions about his book and our site’s subject, Warren William.
The first three questions come from the readers of Warren-William.com, while the final seven are from myself. Whether I asked the right questions or not John’s answers make one thing very clear—we need to get this book into our hands ASAP!
Enjoy the interview and thanks very much once more to John Stangeland.
This first question comes from Warren-William.com’s most active commenter, Jeffers:
Q: What did MGM think they wanted to do with Warren William, and why did they change their minds?
JS: Warren’s imperfect deal with MGM seems to have been a case of his wishful thinking more so than the studio changing their mind. It is doubtful that they thought of him as anything more than a "utility" player when the contract was signed. His immediate assignments to supporting roles in The Firefly and Arsene Lupin Returns (where he could have easily played the lead) indicate to me that they never intended to give him any kind of build up, but rather saw him as a character man / second lead. He was clearly blind-sided by this treatment, expecting better roles than he was getting at Warner’s towards the end. It was quickly apparent that he would not get those roles, and proceeded to leave MGM at the earliest possible opportunity.
This next one is from Tom Hodgins:
Q: I’ve always enjoyed Warren Williams’ pre-code performances (courtesy TCM) but know nothing about the man. Frequent co-star Joan Blondell’s “he was an old man even when he was a young man” comment, however, has always sounded sad to me, like he had an unlived life (aside from the considerable professional accomplishments). What is the basis of Blondell’s comment, and do you regard it as an accurate description of the man? Thanks for the opportunity to ask this question.
JS: There is no question that Warren William was the type of sober, self-controlled man that people could sometimes see as "old," but it was not an indication of a dour outlook on life. On the contrary – he was very even-tempered, but indulged in his passions with great glee. He got much of his reserved personal manner from his father and grandfather, real old-world types who followed the 19th Century model of social intercourse. Let’s also remember that by the time he came to Hollywood in 1931 he was already 37, an age then definitely considered to be "older." As to him having an unlived life, nothing could be further from the truth. Besides his service in the War where he spent time touring Paris and the French countryside, he traveled extensively in the American southwest, Mexico and often sailed both the blue Pacific and the cold Atlantic. I think he was a very satisfied man, aware of his great good fortune to have a loving wife, and a great career that allowed him to indulge his hobbies and interests as he saw fit.
And finally one more from Jeffers, which I was actually going to ask myself as well:
Q: What does he think of Bette Davis’s recollection that WW was always trying to get her into bed? Is that reportedly untypical behavior perhaps mere projection on her part? Or did her particular appeal “reach” him more irresistibly than that of other co-stars of his who, to me, would have been a lot harder to resist?
JS: The Bette Davis stories are quite problematic. First, there is no attribution to these stories in ANY Davis biography, nor any corroboration in any other book that I can find. Each bio repeats the same stories almost verbatim from her autobiography, occasionally adding facts that are impossible for even Davis herself to have known, again, without attribution. They are the ONLY stories that I encountered of such behavior, or even bad words said about Warren William. Most often he is mentioned as a quiet, professional man or barely mentioned at all – I believe that he sometimes blended into the woodwork, generally being disinterested in showy displays or actions. He was a man, however, and it is entirely possible that he had an interest in Davis that her legendary ego blew out of proportion in later years. I suppose we may never know the REAL truth of the matter.
And here come seven more questions from myself:
Q: What sort of relationship, if any, did Warren William have with his Uncle, the financier, Alvin W. Krech? The elder Krech came to New York earlier and was a patron of the arts but the few references I find linking the two seem to indicate Warren’s Uncle being disillusioned by either (or both) Warren’s desire to act and his marriage to Helen. Did either, or a combination of the two, directly lead to Warren W. Krech taking the stage name Warren William shortly after his 1923 marriage to Helen Barbara Nelson?
JS: According to my information, Warren did NOT change his name for anything other than professional reasons. Alvin Krech was an amazingly successful businessman who helped look after his 21 year old nephew when the boy moved to New York City (before Warren’s parents came east), and was a strong secondary male influence in his life. It is my belief that Warren’s character in Gold Diggers of 1933 was at least partly based on his Uncle’s sober personality. There are some other interesting connections between Alvin and his nephew that provide illuminating stories in the book. As to his interest in acting, Warren’s father and mother endorsed the idea and paid for his schooling, so I doubt that Alvin’s feelings (whatever they were) would have been of much consequence.
Q: Was it his success in The Vinegar Tree, the passing of his father, or again, both, which led to Warren William leaving the New York Stage for Hollywood?
JS: Neither had any direct influence on his signing with Warners. Warren had been trying to break into pictures for many years, and it was entirely coincidence that the test he took at that time finally led to a contract. The story of that period is very poignant, and provides strong insight into the family dynamic.
Q: From what I’ve seen from the Warner Brothers Archives relating to Warren William it appeared he could be a thorn in the side of the studio but that most of their discrepancies were settled amicably. Even his suspension appears to have been a situation more negotiated than an actual punishment served. What in your mind was the lead factor in the quality of William’s projects spiraling downward from the heights they reached during the Pre-Code era? Was it due to the shift on material, behavior related (ie: punishment) or some other factor?
JS: His decline at Warner Brothers is quite curious, and covered extensively in the book. I believe that there were a number of factors that contributed to his decline, not the least of which was his own professional apathy. Whatever troubles he had with Warner Brothers (and there were a few) came about after a long run of mistreatment that should have been addressed far earlier. Also, the simple fact is that by 1936 the image of the screen actor was changing to something entirely different than what Warren William projected. Warner Brothers must have felt far more secure with the future of Cagney, Flynn, Robinson and others than they did with him.
Q: By all period accounts Warren William mostly kept to himself and out of the Hollywood social circle except for the occasional party. Was he close to any other actors or actresses away from the studio?
JS: The person that he seems to have been closest to was Gene Lockhart, the great character actor of films like The Sea Wolf (and who Warren co-starred with in Times Square Playboy). They met on Broadway and stayed friends until Warren’s death. Gene’s daughter June (of Lost in Space fame) remembered him as "a very tall, very kind man" who often came to their house to play billiards and cards with her father. Among his other famous friends were Leslie Howard, Anna Mae Wong, Alan Dinehart and Charles Laughton.
Q: Are there any Harry Cohn stories from his time at Columbia?
JS: Oh, I wish there were. The Columbia records are tough to access, sadly. There is one amusing story concerning director Andre De Toth’s work on Counter Espionage, but I’ll leave that one to the book…
Q: There appears to be a definite literary bent to the last few films Warren William chose to appear in: Strange Illusion and it’s Hamlet similarities, Fear being a more or less direct retelling of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Bel Ami based on Maupassant; was this by design and is it an indication of the type of projects Warren William would have continued to choose had he lived longer? (Did he have any pending screen projects?)
JS: I suppose that the literary pedigree of those final films must have appealed to Warren, but it was not really an active choice on his part. At the time those projects were all he had offered to him. In the mid-to-late 40’s there were a few possibilities to return to the stage that did not happen, plus the radio drama US Postal Inspector that never got past the pilot (presumably because of his illness). There was also a starring role in a big budget film that was scuttled by a first-time producer’s ineptitude, but those final years were not really productive for him. Again, more about why in the book.
Q: Your previous essay for Warren-William.com, Remembering Is Hard, really showed us why you undertook this project and what you thought of William’s career. After spending so much time in William’s world what are your final thoughts on him as a person? Did you like him?
JS: After all this time, I feel very close to Warren William. The more I learned about him, the more I liked him, and that helped spur the project along. He was apparently a very sincere, humble, decent person who truly never let Hollywood go to his head. In this age of entitlement, ego and self-absorption, I find his lack of star temperament very endearing. With everything I’ve seen and heard, I have the feeling that I would have found him a good and loyal friend, intelligent and interesting – just a simple Minnesota boy with a very public career.
Thanks very much, John! Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-code Hollywood can be pre-ordered right now on Amazon.com, and if you read this far, you know you’re going to buy it …