All right, how perfect is Warren William as Kurt Anderson? I did my best to restrain myself in my more general look at Employees’ Entrance on Immortal Ephemera (which should probably be read first, especially if you’ve yet to see the movie), but I’m going to get a little more personal over here.
I originally picked up Employees’ Entrance on VHS (yes, it had a standard release) along with 2 or 3 other titles in what was called the Leonard Maltin Forbidden Hollywood Collection. Anderson of Employees’ Entrance made me a Warren William fan. To be sure his David Dwight of Skyscraper Souls had left me wanting more, so how lucky was I that Employees’ Entrance was the next tape in my stack? Assuming he actually did have a say in the titles chosen for the Forbidden Collection, Leonard Maltin did very right by us in selecting this tandem which remain my favorite of the Warren William canon as well as perennial top ten members of any pre-Code list that I compose.
I wrote at length about Dwight in Skyscraper Souls in a previous review, so I’ll leave him behind right after remarking that Dwight in MGM’s Skyscraper Souls is to Anderson in First National/Warner Brothers Employees’ Entrance the same way that in a more general, bigger way, MGM is to Warner’s.
What I mean by this is that Skyscraper Souls has more of the glitz associated with MGM, the Art Deco designs, the general sweep of the film which often brings mention of similarities with MGM’s big hit of the period, Grand Hotel. Employees’ Entrance on the other hand is set inside a department store yet is practically claustrophobic while at the same time gives us the Warner’s realism, mostly from its characterizations, and remains true their fast-paced ripped from the headlines style. The highlight of each film is Warren William’s character, or lack thereof, as well as the often twisted dialogue he delivers throughout each of these pre-Code gems. Warren William’s characters of Dwight and Anderson boil down to much of the same and so from here we’ll stick with Anderson.
Anderson is the man in charge of the day to day operations of the Franklin-Monroe department store. He blusters at those both above him and below him in the store’s hierarchy and will go to any lengths for the health of the store. He despises the bankers who hold a large financial interest in the company and he despises Franklin Monroe (Hale Hamilton) himself who’s more interested in his social duties than the store that bears his name. He is hard on the working class when they threaten the store, even through minor infractions, and he has absolutely only one use for women who he otherwise believes getting entangled with can only make for a poor businessman.
In response to Anderson some bow to his heavy handed requests, others grumble, one man is sparked to action with his target painted on Anderson and another man leaps to his death. The first two methods only draw more of Anderson’s ire, while the suicide draws not sympathy but disgust (“When a man outlives his usefulness he ought to jump out of a window!”). Action however is rewarded as Anderson is a man who respects progress.
After breaking the business of outside contractor Garfinkel (Frank Reicher) when he fails to deliver promised goods on time, Anderson recognizes the former independent businessman working on the floor of the Franklin-Monroe. Ruined and bitter Garfinkel tells him “It’s men like you who crush that succeed,” but rather than being insulted Anderson pulls out his checkbook and starts to scribble a $5,000 check for Garfinkel with intentions of buying a half interest in any business Garfinkel goes into. Rather than leaving his entry level spot at Franklin-Monroe, Garfinkel turns down Anderson’s attempt to stake him by tearing up the check and refusing help from the man who destroyed him. Anderson is still impressed and orders Garfinkel’s salary doubled. “You’ve got the right idea now,” he tells him.
But Anderson’s not just being ruthless to be mean, he has an overriding interest in the success of the Franklin-Monroe department store. For every leader comes the responsibility of managing those beneath him and this is Anderson’s true saving grace. He’s in charge of an army of well over 1,000 workers and refuses to lay any off despite annual sales dropping from $100 million to $45 million during the teeth of the Depression. Instead he cuts executives’ salaries 10%, including his own, for what we’re told is the third time. When one of the men objects Anderson fires back, “All right, try looking for another job then–you’re through!” Anderson feels anyone associated with the Franklin-Monroe should put the interests of the store as a whole ahead of themselves.
While he will rage against incompetence at lower levels Anderson doesn’t show them the door as quickly. He doesn’t fire his secretary, Miss Hall (Ruth Donnelly), when she crosses the company by spending her Franklin-Monroe wages on a dress purchased from their competitors (“Whose money? Who pays it to you?”). He’s short with her, he intends to make an example of her, he embarrasses her, but he doesn’t take her livelihood. Similarly when the store dick, Sweeney (Allen Jenkins), incorrectly accuses the wife of one of the town’s top editors (Marjorie Gateson) of shoplifting and costs the company a concert grand piano in exchange for her silence, the detective finds his pay docked, pretty much forever, but he’s not dismissed. I know, what a sweetheart, right?
The reasons for admiring Anderson today, even if that admiration is as begrudging as intended, are all the more stark in early 1933 when Employees’ Entrance was originally released. We are right at the peak of the Great Depression at a time when the economy was in it’s greatest ruin. Production on Employees’ Entrance wrapped just before the November 8th election when it was already obvious that Americans were going to send President Hoover packing. Its January premier and general release in February 1933 also came at a time before Roosevelt’s March 4 inauguration. Can you imagine the uncertainty? I’d imagine unless you were of a cognizant age before the first of FDR’s four terms that you could not.
Yes, Employees’ Entrance is a very tiny slice of life to examine against the backdrop of history so intimidating as The Great Depression, but as we are examining that very movie in this article it would be ignorant not to acknowledge the Depression’s influence over it.
The U.S. unemployment rate hovered between 23.5-25% in 1932 into ’33 leaving Anderson’s threats of “Get out,” sounding all the more vile, yet at the same time his refusal to dismiss any lower level employees as part of a retrenchment effort would have been very admirable to period audiences. Ten thousand banks had failed between 1929-32 with a third banking panic just around the corner in March 1933. The bankers of Employees’ Entrance, who propped up Anderson when the Franklin-Monroe had soaring profits at the start of the film while turning on him towards the end in hopes of replacing him with someone who had a more conservative approach (not to mention a tamer tongue!), are the bad guys.
In Since Yesterday: The 1930’s in America, Frederick Lewis Allen writes of the general public’s perception of the wealthy that “it had always been ready to forgive all manner of deficiencies in the Henry Fords who actually produced the goods, whether or not they made millions in the process. But it was not disposed to sympathize unduly with people who failed to produce goods, no matter how heart-rending their explanations for their failure” (234).
Anderson tells the bankers directly that they “make him sick.” “You’re a banker, not a producer,” he says to Bradford, one of the men on the board who’s come to him with concerns just prior to threatening Anderson’s ouster. “All you have is dignity and today you can’t get one thin dime for it.” Anderson, who’s previously told Martin (Wallace Ford) of his poor Ohio roots still recognizes himself as working class and surely, despite his despotic methods, the public would respect him in that Henry Ford sort of way which Allen wrote of in the 1940’s.
Like Warren William’s successful turn on loan-out to MGM in the previous year’s Skyscraper Souls, Employees’ Entrance focuses on the work, workplace and behind closed doors dealings inside of a specific business, in this case a department store. In both movies William must struggle to conquer the economy and those pulling the purse strings above him. Also like Skyscraper Souls William isn’t given the task of being a one dimensional hero, he also serves as the opponent of young love, here Loretta Young and Wallace Ford, leaving us with a character who isn’t always easy to admire. We are meant like him for his drive, for his production, but all at once loathe him because the same traits that he uses to smash his way to the top push him too far over the line on a personal level.
Anderson has very clear ideas that men are for work and women for play. This leads to some awkward moments with his up and coming protege, Martin (Wallace Ford), whom Anderson tells, “This is no job for a married man.” Martin, very hesitantly, asks “Don’t you like women?” to which Anderson replies, “Sure I like them–in their place. But there’s no time for wives in this job. Love ’em and leave ’em. Get me?” For the first time Martin sees that Anderson might not be all he’s built him up to be in his mind. “Yes, I think I do,” he tells him.
Later Anderson dispenses more advice to Martin, firmly entrenched as Anderson’s right-hand man by this time: “Friends can’t help you. They’re too busy selling their own peanuts. And a wife makes a slave of you.” Martin asks him if he doesn’t have any friends. Anderson sizes him up and suggests, “You and I get along pretty well, don’t we?” Martin meekly replies, “Sure, Mr. Anderson,” to which Anderson quickly counters, “Call me Kurt,” cementing their relationship, at least in his mind.
He tells Martin he could have had around a hundred women and there was even one who he had loved when he was younger but he’d be damned if he was going to settle down with a wife and bring a kid into the type of poverty he had to break through. “I smashed my way through to where I am now. And I’ve got you for a son just the same. Get the idea?” Martin, looking terrified, tells him, “Yes. I get it,” to which I always mentally append “you crazy S.O.B.!”
So employer, friend and father figure are all aspects of how Anderson views his relationship towards his protege. They even have a boys will be boys moment together the morning after the Franklin Monroe ball when Martin pulls himself onto an elevator that Anderson is riding. The younger man is completely hung over from the night before. “I relaxed a little bit myself,” Anderson says of the down time at the party, which he used to bed Martin’s wife (to be fair, Anderson doesn’t realize Martin and Madeleine are married as of yet). “I hope you did as well as I did,” Anderson says. Martin, who’d had a blow out with Madeline and spent the night drinking with the boys is doing all he can just to stand up as Anderson snaps into authoritarian mode and tells him to clean himself up and get back on the job. “The party’s over.”
As for Anderson’s relationship with Loretta Young’s Madeleine it consists entirely of two separate one-night stands, one before Madeleine had even met Martin, a night which secured her employment at the Franklin-Monroe, and the other after she was married, the night of the party. In the case of the latter entanglement Anderson managed to get her drunk enough to pass out before slinking into the room he’d assigned her to in the middle of the night and clearly having his way with her. At least Dwight made a pretense of courting Maureen O’Sullivan in Skyscraper Souls! Anderson was just out for a good time at any cost.
The second time was too much for Madeleine. She confronts Anderson in his office the next morning and tells him that she feels “like someone you pick up on the street.” She needs to know why he chose her. “Because you’re an attractive woman,” he practically purrs at her before snapping back into his professional persona to add that she also has an exemplary sales record. Madeleine lets drop that Martin is her husband, which surprises and angers Anderson. She begs him not to tell Martin that she let the cat out of the bag and Anderson, practically through gritted teeth, says “I’ll take care of it.”
Oh, does he take care of it. He sets Martin up at the intercom in the adjoining office and calls Madeleine back in, coaxing her admission of their two nights together during the conversation. Anderson tells Madeleine “You women think an affair with you is the most important thing in the world, don’t you?” Then for Martin’s benefit he adds, “A man’s work and his success is.” Finally he tells Madeleine, “You women make me sick.”
Martin is broken afterward with complete knowledge of his wife’s involvement with Anderson. As the situation pushes itself too far Anderson realizes that he can neither pay off Madeleine to leave Martin nor can he force Martin to choose his work over marriage. He drops his chase of both of them at a time when he’d probably pushed too hard to recover either anyway. Anderson seems to understand at the time of Martin’s final confrontation with him, leaving me with a sense that he finally recalled that love he had sacrificed so many years ago back in Ohio. An entirely different life he had sacrificed in order to make something of himself, a point on which he’s very proud.
Despite his experiences and success, Anderson was at heart most confused character of Employees’ Entrance, a man who did not understand how to value his personal life on par with his professional life. This was Anderson the villain who stands between the happiness of innocent Martin and Madeline. Only by recalling the small sliver of his past he’d opened up to Martin about can we even attempt to understand his viewpoint and actions on a personal level. However the hero who stands up to the bankers and commands his department store like a good general is the larger, more important aspect of the character, the one who steadies his troops in the Depression, a war on commerce.
I’ve tried to discuss Anderson and Employees’ Entrance both here and on Immortal Ephemera without spoiling too many specifics but by painting a picture of the Franklin-Monroe workplace, the times, and most of all Anderson. I posted the more standard review of Employees’ Entrance on Immortal Ephemera because I wanted to do my part in generating general interest in it by those who haven’t seen it. I also wanted to talk about it here so I could gush a little and because, somehow, it had escaped specific coverage on this site up until now (ludicrous!).
Anyway, it’s the one that started me out as a Warren William fan, the one I’d measure all other William performances against. In one sense it’s a shame because as much as I love many of Warren William’s other starring vehicles, none of them has measured up to Employees’ Entrance by my taste. On the other hand I can still remember watching this and Skyscraper Souls on back to back nights and wondering just who the hell this guy was (Initial reaction after Googling Warren William: What! He was in The Wolf Man! No way!).
I find Kurt Anderson to be the best example of pre-Code Warren William. He’s neither over-the-top (Paul Kroll in The Match King) and neither is the movie as a whole (Bedside, The Mind Reader). Like many of William’s best characters he’s a high-ranking businessman with no one to thank for his success but himself. He keeps his nose to the grindstone while having no use and zero tolerance of those who don’t.
He delivers his dialogue with more authority than anyone on film at this time, he’s William Powell with an edge, Cagney without the physicality, he’s a leader who whether right or wrong always presents his case as right and then sticks by it no matter the cost. He’s got a little more edge here than he does as David Dwight (Skyscraper Souls), but I find Anderson more memorable than Dwight because of that edge. William’s earlier breakout role, Vince Day of The Mouthpiece, comes closest to Anderson in all manners of style and personality, and perhaps if I’d been around in the early 30’s to see that one first it would be the Warren William movie I felt he could never beat. Coming from a far later time with Employees’ Entrance my personal gateway to more Warren William though nothing else can touch it.