This is a guest post by John Stangeland is the author of the upcoming book Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood, to be published by McFarland and Company late in 2010.
He was a cad and a reprobate; a base scoundrel; a licentious, amoral profligate, and an oleaginous, depraved, impenitent swine. For three years Warren William swaggered across America’s cinema screens as the undisputed, unremitting, incontrovertible nadir of civilized human behavior: sociopathic, predatory, emotionless, uncaring, treacherous and evil. He was Ted Bundy without the serial killing.
Despite his pedigree as one of the singularly unique characters in the annals of Hollywood, Warren William has been nearly erased from film history. By the end of his career, and for decades after his death in 1948 he sat unnoticed behind other personalities that historians and the public perceived to be far more relevant. Erroneously deemed merely the Shadow behind the object or the Assistant to greatness, Warren William’s memory reposed, quiet and unconcerned, as the man had in life. It wasn’t until the greatest institution of nostalgia culture ever devised – Turner Classic Movies – began to reacquaint us with this Genius of Scurrility that his long-forgotten fame has gradually reemerged.
When Warner Brothers brought Warren William from the Broadway stage to world cinema in 1931, it was during a short-lived window in time when it was possible for screen characters to embody the basest qualities of modern man while still allowing them to be portrayed as sympathetic and even likable. Before the strict imposition of Hollywood’s long-standing Production Code excised iniquity from the movies in 1934, he was the preeminent example of the new depression-era male; a Social Darwinist to the core, hungry and angry, ready to take what was his and damn the rest. Meaner than James Cagney, randier than Clark Gable and wilier than William Powell, Warren William staked out his territory as the biggest bastard of them all, and became a supremely profane presence in darkened theaters across the nation.
The deliciously obscene Warren William persona that eventually ran roughshod over Hollywood morals during those years did not congeal immediately, and his fame, like many of those bound as indentured servants to the studio system, was almost an accident. As a stage star during the Golden Age of Broadway he most often played effete aristocrats and wealthy playboys, men who instilled confidence in nothing so much as their ability to pick up a check. Although by his own admission he could not carry a tune, he appeared in two musicals, and sang a song titled Express Yourself in his first big stage success. Twice he portrayed a man literally and physically emasculated by service in the World War. There was also a murderer who buried his mistress’s husband in a coal bin, a Viking warrior, a pickle salesman and, once – seriously – a Jewish Cowboy. When it came time to put him on screen – unsurprisingly – no one knew what to do with him. It wasn’t until nine months into his film career, when Edward G. Robinson and “every other Warner’s / First National star” passed on a quick programmer called The Mouthpiece early in 1932 that Warren William had a starring role, a major hit and the first genuinely nefarious rogue in his oeuvre. As Vincent Day, the lawyer of deformed ethics and predacious sexuality, Warren William made the nations critics (and more than a few of its women) sit up and take notice. He was an overnight sensation twelve years in the making.
As they did with the other stars on their lot, Warner Brothers insisted on him repeating the image that generated the biggest box office receipts for as long as the public would pay to see it. Thus, 1932 was a sustained, yearlong carnival of larceny for the studio and their new star. After The Mouthpiece, he was a magnificently immoral campaign manager to Guy Kibbee’s perverse gubernatorial candidate in The Dark Horse, and the corrupt, philandering owner of the phallic Dwight Tower in Skyscraper Souls at MGM. The Match King found him embezzling from, lying to, debasing, cheating, putting to ruin, falsely imprisoning and murdering anyone who came within arms reach of continental businessman Paul Kroll. Employees’ Entrance made him the deeply misogynistic head of a department store staffed with beautiful women upon whom he takes out his sexual frustrations. And in The Mind Reader (shot in December of ’32) he was Chandra the Great, bunco artiste par excellence, fleecing hayseeds, hicks, rubes, dopes, dolts and other assorted yokels throughout the great Midwest. That year Warren William was Bernie Madoff, Leona Helmsley, John Edward, Carl Rove, Ken Lay and Wal Mart rolled into one. It was twelve months that should be placed in the pantheon of great career years alongside Einstein’s accomplishments of 1905 or Babe Ruth’s amazing 1927 season – a cosmic alignment of magnificently sordid corruption and iniquity.
During the Pre-Code land rush of 1933 and 1934 his popularity continued to rise, the high water mark being a fifteen-month stretch when he appeared in three films nominated for Best Picture honors. Shortly thereafter, Warner Brothers cavalier treatment of his career (all three Oscar nominees were made outside his home studio), the changing image of the screen actor, and his own sometimes-maddening professional apathy put Warren William on a long, looping spiral to public indifference. The vulgar Shangri-La of his early years retreated into the mists, replaced by a decade of shysters, thieves, gumshoes, cracksmen, and blatant, unsubtle blackguards. Unlike his Pre-Code villains, the bad guys he essayed in the post-code era (Wild Bill Hickock Rides, Arizona, Trail of the Vigilantes) are as subtle as an avalanche, but they are still enormously fun; Warren William could do more within one dimension than a team of quantum physicists. Following World War II he found himself sick and unable to work regularly. His last years were relegated to the dismal fringes of the industry, knocking off performances geometrically better than the productions they inhabited. He died, pleasantly, before he could reach the absolute bottom of the ladder, on a set with his old contract mate Lyle Talbot, taking direction from Ed Wood.
Sadly, given the nature of his licentious and sexually impudent pre-code persona, most of Warren William’s true starring roles could not be broadcast on television for many years after his death. For four decades, he was rarely seen on America’s TV screens, but for unmemorable character appearances in films like The Wolfman or Madame X. With no regular reminder to their collective memory, his films faded out of the minds of audiences that grew up with him, and he was never properly presented to succeeding generations. Unlike William Powell, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and his other contemporaries, there was nothing for the public to rediscover. We simply never saw him at all; a classic movie fan may have done just as well looking for Elmo Lincoln during those years.
I was one of those people who were still utterly unaware of Warren William’s career after nearly 30 years of watching and reading about movies, and Warner Brothers movies in particular. When a friend introduced me to him in 2004, I was taken aback; how could I have missed such an essential personality from my favorite studio, in my favorite era? It was like suddenly discovering that there had been movies made during the Renaissance, or that The Beatles had released another album between Sgt. Pepper’s and Magical Mystery Tour. There was no book, no in-depth article and no serious scholarship about his life or career available anywhere. Even the myriad histories of Warner Brothers, or essays on Pre-Code Hollywood barely mentioned him. Only Mick LaSalle’s outstanding volume Dangerous Men made effort to examine his extraordinary film persona, and still there was nothing of the man himself. What little I encountered during some tentative online sorties repeated the same series of interesting, but mostly erroneous facts: Warren William was a reporter before turning to acting (he never worked as a newspaperman); he fought in France during World War I (as a Sergeant in the Allied Expeditionary Forces, the actor saw no action overseas); an amateur inventor, he patented the first lawn vacuum machine (there is no such record in the US Patent Office). After two years service in the Great War, twelve years on New York stages and 17 years in Hollywood, his entire life had been fractured and reduced to a series of incongruous, rough-hewn factoids, each becoming smaller and less relevant as we moved further away from his influence on culture.
It took me three years to unearth the long buried details of Warren William’s life. The remnants were exhumed from decayed newsprint that had waited patiently for a hundred years to be questioned and consulted, unspooled in cramped and dingy screening rooms and cobbled together through conversations with the precious few left alive that knew him. I felt it a race against time that had almost run out. Only a little longer and there might have been nothing to retrieve.
Each generation, each era endures the gradual disintegration of the fame and notoriety of most of its celebrated citizens. Only a famous few can penetrate beyond their living celebrity to remind others of the reasons for their temporary renown. Warren William was one of those who was simply lost in line behind innumerable other noteworthy men and women. Many that outlasted him have subsequently also been scratched from our minds, casualties of our overburdened capacity to remember. How many immensely famous names of the past have been reduced to nothing? For each and every Shakespeare, or Beethoven, or Abraham Lincoln, there are hundreds – perhaps thousands – of equally famous contemporaries who did not succeed in remaining alive in the mind of history. It is only a matter of time before other names join Warren William in mainstream cultural obscurity. One day Bill Gates, Marilyn Monroe and Osama Bin Laden will be guaranteed to draw the same blank stare from the average person that Warren William now elicits; today will always retreat into yesterday, no matter how hard we might try to hold onto it.
If anything outside the living memory of those who witnessed it is to survive, it must be nurtured and passed along by devotees of subsequent ages. Without help, Warren William – and many other worthy men and women – will fade off again, perhaps never to return. It is up to us then, to protect the names, faces, events and ideas of our lives – and those that preceded us – before their legacy is lost forever. I cannot pretend that this is not difficult work; the mental energy required to save, catalogue, collate, access, retrieve and remember is hard. Forgetting is easy.
John Stangeland is the author of the upcoming book Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood, to be published by McFarland and Company late in 2010.
Essay © 2010, John Stangeland
PS from Cliff: Besides his kind contribution here, Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood author John Stangeland has consented to a text-based interview exclusively for Warren-William.com. I have plenty I want to ask him, believe you me, but I also wanted to open up the floor to you guys—I’ll take the first two or three Warren William related questions you have an pass them on to John with my own. I’m posting this June 8, figure deadline for questions next Wednesday, June 16, e-mail them along to me here.
Thanks all, and special thanks once again to John Stangeland, really appreciate it, John!