Warren William is The Match King. Hardie Albright is about as close as he has to a sidekick. Lili Damita is certainly his love interest, though then again so are Claire Dodd, Juliette Compton, and Glenda Farrell, though I guess those three are really more of a business with pleasure interest for him.
“The Match King,” released by First National Pictures at the very end of 1932 is a star vehicle for one of Warner Brother’s latest stars, having already established himself as the leading man of power on screen in the midst of the Great Depression in “The Mouthpiece,” “The Dark Horse,” and even on loan out to MGM for the classic “Skyscraper Souls,” each of which dates to previously that very same year. Warren William towers above everyone else in this part based on true life match magnate Ivar Kreuger.
After impressing relatives in Holmtide, Sweden with his fictitious success in America, they beg for him to come and save their little match company. But William’s Paul Kroll wants much more than a little Swedish match company. He tells his assistant, Erik (Albright), that he plans to sell matches all over the world. “And with them,” he says, “I’m going to buy the world.”
As familiar as pre-code fans are with Warren William’s portrayals of top executives with traits running from dedicated to criminal, we’ve also come to admire William the Wolf, and in “The Match King” he’s at his caddish best relying on a line of beautiful international socialites including Dodd and Compton to maneuver state secrets from nations in need of financing. Kroll charms these ladies with his full attention until he wrangles the necessary information from them and then he’s off in a flash offering money, and sometimes proposing a little blackmail, to governments in exchange for the rights to their national match concession.
If you think October 2009’s Turner Classic Movies spotlight on movies depicting Life in the Depression is timely, well inclusion of “The Match King” really hits the bulls-eye! For instance if you’d like to learn more about the true-life Match King BBC news published “Kreuger: The Original Bernard Madoff?” in March of ’09.
Kreuger’s Wikipedia page presents a fine biography, though the true story probably has more movie spoilers than even I provide here, so you may want to check out “The Match King” before reading! From what I can tell, the real Kreuger may have been even shadier than Warren William’s Paul Kroll, despite a little murder on Kroll’s part!
What I didn’t see in Kreuger’s biography were Paul Kroll’s more humble beginnings shown to us in “The Match King.” We open with Warren William in a white uniform sweeping up outside of the Chicago Cubs’ ballpark. He quickly establishes his oft-repeated catch phrase: “Never worry about anything until it happens. And I’ll take care of it then,” before scheming with his supervisor to create a roll of ghost employees whose salaries go straight into their own pockets. Kroll then plays upon the affections of his boss’s wife (Farrell) who happily hands their bank account to him under the pretense of running away to California together. As soon as Farrell’s Babe is out of sight, Kroll is in a cab and a few minutes from First Class passage to Sweden.
Paul Kroll’s business practices are some of the most despicable we’ve seen Warren William act out on screen. While his David Dwight of “Skyscraper Souls” and Kurt Anderson of “Employees’ Entrance” are business sharks who rule their enterprises with iron fist, “The Match King’s” Kroll is actually a criminal who’s knowingly drawn himself into a pyramid scheme of the grandest levels. He tells Erik he’ll always be in debt, but that “when I circle the world. When I own it all. I’ll only be in debt to myself.”
Privately, despite his use of women, Kroll is a more sympathetic character than Dwight or Anderson, who use women simply for pleasure. Paul Kroll actually falls in love! And in love he’s willing to step away from the business to chase actress Marta Molnar across Europe trying to win her. Lili Damita as Molnar, despite one very sexy bath scene, is extremely annoying in a part Hollywood Reporter claims was originally intended for Greta Garbo. But for a high powered man such as Kroll his emotions were likely more wrapped up in the chase than in Molnar herself as he’s easily enough corralled back into the office once Erik manages to track him down.
Kroll isn’t just crooked on paper either. What he has done to the inventor that his agent Nyborg discovers, a man who could potentially crush the entire match trade with his creation, as well as his actions against the counterfeiter Scarlatti, who delivers $50 million in forged Italian bonds, are far more chilling actions than we’re used to seeing even from the slimiest Warren William characters!
“The Match King” is one of an handful of pre-code era Warren William pictures that best defines the cult of William. It’s not to be missed.
An interesting coincidence is that just a few months prior to “The Match King’s” release movie fans were treated to a kindly Warren William in “Three on a Match.” In “The Match King” it’s William’s Kroll who comes up with the plan to sell more matches through propaganda. He hatches the story that it was bad luck to share a match in the trenches and starts a publicity campaign based around the idea that if three cigarettes are lit from the same match one of those three men wouldn’t make it back alive. The “Three on a Match” scare tactic was used by the real Kreuger and so “The Match King” naturally uses it as well, but how odd that Warren William’s previous starring vehicle would take it as its title and incorporate it into its story as well.