Quite frankly I feel more qualified than anybody to review John Stangeland’s new Warren William biography. My site, Warren-William.com went online in December 2007 with the express purpose of sharing what I could about Warren William, the films he appeared in and the items featuring him which I collected. The reason I launched a separate site rather than simply tying in my Warren William findings into my previously existing classic movie website was because there was nothing online about the man. Just some spare mentions spread across the net. I wanted to pull it all together.
In my course of scouring the web for any and all Warren William information I could find, John Stangeland was a name I’d run into every so often, so I knew he was out there working towards a Warren William book. I wasn’t able to make contact with John back then, and so I wasn’t sure how far along he was or even if he had made enough progress to see his project through until the end. Well, that he did, proof is up above!
Earlier this year John contacted me to compliment me on Warren-William.com and let me know he’d just spent the past several years hopping from New York to Hollywood to Aitkin, MN in completing his biography of Warren William which he’d at that time recently submitted to McFarland for publication. From that first email I formed a friendship with a gentleman whom I knew would be a kindred spirit and turned out to be a helluva guy on top. We’ve swapped numerous emails throughout the past year in anticipation of the day which has finally come, the day the Magnificent Scoundrel himself stares back at me from a book cover, while I do my best to tell you what to expect inside.
Leading up to this day Warren-William.com has published a guest post by John Stangeland and an interview with John which was recently awarded the CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion by the Classic Movie Blog Association. John was kind enough to get me on McFarland’s list for an advance copy of Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood which arrived at my doorstep on Friday. While not quite one sitting I did take in the entire book by sun-up Saturday.
John Stangeland’s Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-code Hollywood connects every dot and breathes life into every obscure factoid that my own research had uncovered. Scoundrel is heavy on the biography, which for this Warren William researcher were the best parts. The book is 212 pages plus detailed Chapter Notes and Bibliography–those aren’t wide margins or large type, there’s a lot of bang for your buck in the word count, while photos are mixed throughout but never overwhelming Stangeland’s words.
Young Mr. Krech, later known to the public as Warren William, doesn’t even become a paid actor until page 48 in the chapter ‘Times Square Playboy.’ In those first 48 pages we’re treated to a background including a brief pre-Krech history of Aitkin, Minnesota, the hardscrabble life of Warren’s father, Freeman Krech, we meet Warren’s sisters, enroll in the American Academy of the Arts with him, enlist, and we meet the mysterious Helen Barbara Nelson, who has a secret that I’m very pleased to see John both uncovered and explained, though Helen’s own motivations behind said mystery remain unknown.
Above: Warren with his wife, the former Helen Barbara Nelson, in a 1937 photo.
Stangeland sketches out these early days so well that he has basically written the last word on them. I won’t go there anymore, there is nothing left to be added. I felt like I’d taken a trip to Aitkin and was left to grow up in Warren Krech’s shoes. The section is supplemented with rare family photos, my favorite coming on page 17 where young Warren stands on a fishing boat with three unidentified men looking more like I’d imagine Huck Finn than I’ve ever seen any real person look!
This biographical section is written with the skill of a historian in a conversational yet intelligent style that I wouldn’t go so far as to call academic, but would certainly deem serious biography. Here’s an example of Stangeland’s writing from Page 1, the Preface to his story, which not only serves as a great introduction to the Warren William legacy, but also gives a taste of the author’s style:
Warren William is currently in the process of having his career interpreted, narrowed and defined largely by those four years. He is being boxed and packaged as the quintessential mountebank and cad. Although that is his indisputable metier, the reality is that he was a well-schooled, versatile performer who tackled almost any genre with charm and elan. During his twenty years in Hollywood he breezed through comedies, prowled detective stories and rode through westerns with equal conviction to his iconic shysters and businessmen swine. And, contrary to his modern image as the alpha male without a conscience, he just as often appeared as the second lead in productions built around strong women.
We’ll leave off right there to throw a little extra focus on the last sentence of that selection. It’s very important to Stangeland’s presentation of the life of Warren William. His writing flows like this throughout, Stangeland is never lazy with his text and excels at breaking off into conversations about relevant history such as quick lessons on the life of Ivar Kreuger or a note about Thomas Armat. If anything he might toss off a few too many italicized French and Latin phrases which left me running to an online dictionary, but I’ll toss that up to my own linguistic deficiencies and not as any true flaw in the writing which more often than not carried me away.
Just as ably handled is the next section focusing on Warren William Krech’s earliest Broadway appearances beginning with Mrs. Jimmie Thompson in 1920, his two East Coast silent film appearances in The Town That Forgot God (1922) and the Pearl White’s final serial Plunder (1923), plus his courtship and eventual marriage to Helen. These years, post-war until marriage, may be some of the most fascinating years in the life of the man we know as Warren William, as he comes into his own in both his professional and private lives. Not coincidentally they are also some of the toughest years to dig up information about and Stangeland tells the story in a way that makes you feel you missed nothing. I can’t stress this enough–I’ve personally researched several of the areas covered throughout the book, I had a clear idea of what should be presented, and I walked away without any questions or at the very least satisfied that no living soul could provide anything more satisfactory.
Above: Katherine Alexander and Warren William of Step-Daughters of War, pictured in the November 1930 issue of Theatre Magazine.
Following we get a chapter packed with Warren William’s work on Broadway and tracking his rise to fame which is deftly compiled from the available sources and weaves in accounts of Warren’s offstage life as it unfolds. While this period of William’s life may be much more heavily documented than the earlier phases, the nature of the work (the stage as opposed to the screen) leaves us at this point in history with only the written word to rely upon. Magnificent Scoundrel ties all available sources together in a way that leaves the reader feeling as though they’ve made it through every intermission. Really wonderful work.
Then we reach what we remember Warren William for–the films.
The best coverage of Warren William’s film career comes exactly on those films that I had hoped and those illuminated in the title: the pre-codes.
Stangeland says of William’s Vincent Day in The Mouthpiece:
Here … is a man of deformed principles; a man who knows the right thing and chooses to do the wrong thing, in a sense punishing himself for the mistake of caring (99).
Of his Hal Blake in The Dark Horse:
He is snappy, funny, wry and energetic, and he cements his uncanny ability to make even the basest liar and cheat likeable (103).
Of the finale of Skyscraper Souls:
… still has the power to shock modern audiences. It is so deliciously cynical that even the acrid taste of an arbitrary and pyretic happy ending is scarcely enough to erase invigorating enjoyment of the sinfully rich meal just consumed (107).
Of his Paul Kroll in The Match King:
He begins as a seedy, insignificant little man, not much more than a cheap hustler, and plays it with a subtle body language that testifies to the tawdriness of his character. By the time he’s become “The Match King,” all vestiges of the petty, paochial crook are gone, replaced by a self-assured, Continental businessman (112).
And I could go on. All of the great ones are covered in this section, those mentioned plus Employees’ Entrance, The Mind Reader, Lady for a Day, and one I believe I actually like a bit more than John, Bedside. It’s appropriately this section that handles the actual content of the films better than any other.
Also gaining Stangeland’s especial interest are those films falling into the group mentioned earlier, which find William “as the second lead in productions built around strong women.” Stangeland proposes this as an overlapping element of Warren William’s life, onscreen and off, as he was raised by and around strong women and married a strong woman. In the case of his film career these roles make up some of Warren William’s most important appearances: Lady for a Day, where the focus was on May Robson, and Cleopatra and Imitation of Life, both of which were Claudette Colbert vehicles. The success of these films notwithstanding and the prestige which they paint over his career, both then and now, in the end these hits on loan-out led to him being bamboozled by his home studio, Warner Brothers, into some career damaging roles, most notably his two appearances in support of Kay Francis in Dr. Monica and Living on Velvet, where he plays a distant second fiddle to Miss Francis and even George Brent in the latter.
Above: Warren William and Claudette Colbert on the set of Cleopatra
One film which gains prominent mention in Magnificent Scoundrel is the terrible Smarty. Smarty is the clunker which not only plays worse today because of the spousal abuse–Warren William smacks Joan Blondell, then later so does Edward Everett Horton–but might well be Warren William’s worst film even if you took all of that out of it! (Though I give honor of worst Warren William film to 1940’s Trail of the Vigilantes.) I do confess giggling when Stangeland referred to Blondell’s character as a “shrewish harridan,” but I didn’t quite feel it was as damaging to the William screen persona as John did. Rather than an attempt on William’s manhood, I just thought it was a bad flick. Still, I can understand that whatever the reason or reaction, Smarty was bad for Warren William’s career, while I don’t think Warner’s used the film to castrate William’s persona, I certainly agree that they used it to help push him out their door.
A blockbuster of a surprise which I’d had a hint about was the rumors of Warren William securing the part of Captain Blood and more importantly the fall-out from his not getting the role. Warner Brothers had a much more obstinate William to deal with after this blow, one who the indignities of films such as Smarty, Times Square Playboy and Satan Met a Lady, led to William and his agent buying out of their contract a year early just to escape any further torture. What had never really occurred to me and what Stangeland fleshed out was that the later indignities of his roles while under contract at MGM may have been a far worse fate than remaining under contract with Warner’s would have brought him. Hopes of A-list stardom were gone, plus his paycheck had shrunk at the most prestigious studio. A life and career colored by a vast amount of good fortune and lucky breaks took a bad roll of the dice here and while the real Warren William seems to have had a happy enough existence going forward, from this point of his life it feels like all he gets are bad breaks.
A final word on Captain Blood from a personal perspective. I love the film Captain Blood and obviously I’m quite a fan of Warren William. I can never picture the two together though. I think far from launching William to A-list superstardom what would have more likely occurred is that Captain Blood would be a largely forgotten picture. I know that’s a damning thought heaped onto my favorite actor, but I can’t picture him as action hero any more than say Brian Aherne. In other words I think Captain Blood would be as well remembered as Captain Fury, a good actioner but remembered only by hardcore classic film fans. Not an all-time classic like the Errol Flynn picture.
On the other hand, a film I think would have helped William’s legacy, one which Stangeland mentions he was at least under consideration for, is the classic musical 42nd Street. It’s a film that every time I’ve seen it I’ve thought how perfect William would have been in Warner Baxter’s role. The Oscar winning Baxter is no lightweight himself, he’s very similar to Warren William in having had time erode his rightful fame, however I find the part of the producer Julian Marsh, perfectly suited to Warren William’s talents. A shame it didn’t happen.
While all of Warren William’s films are covered in Magnificent Scoundrel, some more than others, this is not to say the book is filled with plotlines and film excerpts. Stangeland handles his task as a biographer and includes just a paragraph of two when the films are of less importance to his narrative, up to a page or two at most when discussing the contents of the more important films. More importantly he relays the story of Warren William’s life and times around his work. We’re blessed with a trove of information from the Warner Brothers archives which does have the unfortunate weight of leaving non-Warner’s work feeling a little light–not just here, but in several modern biographies–but at the same time there’s the advantage of really bringing the Warner’s years to life. That said, Stangeland provides excellent coverage of William’s three-picture deal with Emmanuel Cohen’s Paramount break-away Major Pictures and his films with MGM following that. Coverage of the Lone Wolf is a little light, but honestly it would have likely gotten a bit repetitive.
Above: Bette Davis and Warren William in Satan Met a Lady, a film so maligned that I feel it’s grown into an underrated comedy
The details of the early end to Warren William’s life and the heartbreaking death of his wife, Helen, just a few months later are told with enough medical detail for this layman. Also included is an excellent chapter about Warren William’s tinkering and inventing, one of the more fascinating personality quirks in the life of this quiet star. Getting as close to this subject as I have the past few years though these final chapters actually left me a bit depressed. Like I mentioned earlier, the breaks just stopped coming William’s way.
One area I was anticipating and felt a little slighted by was the note by the publisher placing importance on answering the question of why some stars are remembered and others forgotten. The question is answered, and it’s answered quite clearly. Specific to Warren William’s case it’s actually answered throughout, but in the more general manner that the publisher’s note had led me to exist it is only directly addressed in the final chapter which totals just two pages.
Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood is one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time. It takes an obscure subject, made all the more obscure over the passage of time, and brings him fully to life. As the person who has probably researched Warren William as much as anybody save John Stangeland, let me say this: Warren William was not a man others talked about. He is glossed over in just about every survey of classic Hollywood except for Mick LaSalle’s Dangerous Men. He is never mentioned by others stars in biographies or even autobiographies, or if he is, it’s typically just a throw-away mention. There were only a handful of newspaper articles focusing on him back in the early 30’s, and an even smaller handful ever since. When I first launched this website it was for a very simple reason–there was no information about him anywhere online. His IMDb page and that’s about it.
Warren William was dead and nobody seemed to care since 1948*. John Stangeland cares and it shows. Reading the book one can sense what he put into it. I’ve gathered all of my Warren William info from the comfort of my desk chair; John followed the leads and fanned the sparks of life into this tremendous work. He’s seen every Warren William film that I’ve seen, plus I believe one or two more that I’ve been unable to uncover. Unlike so many biographies that spit back details of a film from the AFI catalog, or heaven forbid and IMDb review, you can tell that John has watched each and every one.
I trace Warren William’s rediscovery like so: Leonard Maltin’s face graced a series of pre-code videos released in the 1990’s under the banner of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection. Besides Three on a Match both Skyscraper Souls and Employees’ Entrance were included in the set. After Maltin credit goes to the aforementioned Mick LaSalle, for his coverage of William in Dangerous Men. I’d like to next place emphasis on TCM, but frankly, Warren William is underrepresented on the channel, so I can’t do that. Magnificent Scoundrel places John Stangeland firmly third in the timeline. Perhaps TCM can pick up where he left off and allow us the opportunity to see the films Stangeland so eloquently discusses in Scoundrel.
I own a stack of about 700-800 pages of Warren William research I’d uncovered–I can throw it out. John Stangeland took that same stack, put it in order, made all the necessary stops and took practically any question I may have had left answered and discovered why it was so. I’ve read biographies by lesser writers about stars with whom I am no where nearly familiar as I am with Warren William and the errors have jumped out at me. I undertook reading Magnificent Scoundrel with a pretty deep outline and rather than sitting and shaking my head I found myself exclaiming A-ha! over and over again.
Above: Western Warren – As Jefferson Carteret in 1940’s Arizona.
Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood by John Stangeland, 224 pages. Published by McFarland in November 2010. The book is available on Amazon.com through this link, which yes, is an affiliate link. I appreciate your using it, but I mostly appreciate your buying the book and remembering to come back here for more Warren William!