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Warren William: Stalwart Leading Man of the Pre-Production Code Talkies

A portrait of William Warren, a star of the Talkies era
Paramount Pictures

Warren William, the stalwart leading man of pre-Production Code talkies who reached the apotheosis of his career paying Julius Caesar in Cecil B. De Mille's Cleopatra (1934), was born Warren William Krech on December 2, 1894 in Aitkin, Minnesota, the son of a newspaper publisher. Originally planning to become a journalist, the young Krech experienced a change of heart, and instead attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to become an actor. He served in the military in France during World War I, remaining in that country after the Armistice to tour with a theatrical company.

He made his Broadway debut as William Warren in the H.G. Wells play The Wonderful Visit in 1924. While appearing in 17 more plays on Broadway from 1924 to 1930, he also managed to appear in three silent pictures under his own name, Warren Krech. His only substantial role was in his first flicker, Fox's The Town That Forgot God (1922). In 1923, he played a credited bit part in support of Perils of Pauline star Pearl White in her last serial photoplay, Plunder (1923) but he had an uncredited in a bit part in the Roaring Twenties bootlegger movie, Twelve Miles Out (1927).

First-Rate Voice

Twelve Miles Out starred John Gilbert, one of the greatest male stars of the silent era. The advent of sound would wreck Gilbert's career but give a boost to the renamed Warren William, who had a first-rate speaking voice to go with his leading-man looks.

Williams' voice was rich, deep, and mellifluous, making him a natural for the talkies. Fittingly, in 1931, he was hired by Warner Bros., the studio that gave the world cinema sound. Projecting a patrician persona, Warren William initially thrived in the all-talking pictures.

He appeared in a lead role in his first talkie, Honor of the Family (1931), an adaptation Honoré de Balzac's novel Cousin Pons. Subsequently, he appeared as second leads and leads in support of the likes of Dolores Costello (Drew Barrymore's grandmother), H.B. Warner, Walter Huston, and Marian Marsh, before headlining The Mouthpiece (1932) as a district attorney who quits for the other side of the law, defending mobsters before a last reel conversion back to truth, justice, and the All-American Way.

It was his break-through role, followed up by a turn as a crooked campaign manager with more than just the affairs of state on his mind in The Dark Horse (1932). He then moved on to leading roles in A-list pictures, including the high-suds soap opera Three on a Match (1932), the classic musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Frank Capra's classic comedy Lady for a Day (1933), and the original Imitation of Life (1934) starring Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers.

Cinema Cad

Warren William was typecast as an amoral, aggressive rogue without a conscience, often playing unscrupulous lawyers, heartless businessmen, and just-plain cads. When a Warner's script called for a hard-hearted seducer with a calloused exterior masking an even-more-calloused soul, it was William who was cast in the part. His characters had little sense of decency, and even less self-doubt.

Always outwardly charming, his unsympathetic rogues wrecked many screen lives among Warners' ingénues. His outstanding performances in these roles include Skyscraper Souls (1932), The Match King (1932), and Employees' Entrance (1933). He also broadened his range to play the fraudulent clairvoyant in The Mind Reader (1933).

It was the Great Depression, and audiences were rooting against businessmen, who in real life preached Christian values, but who on-screen in the pre-Code days were portrayed as the predators that the out-of-work and anxiously employed knew them in their hearts to be. The antipathy of the movie mob also extended to the professional class, particularly lawyers, another type that William excelled at portraying.

Pre-Code Stardom

In late 1932, as William's popularity on the screen soared, Franklin D. Roosevelt swamped the hapless Herbert Hoover in an electoral landslide. During this, the apogee of William's career, he appeared opposite strong female stars, including Barbara Stanwyck, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak and Loretta Young.

Thomas Doherty, in his book Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), claims that the films made in Warren Williams' heyday exposed the fissures in society with all their "rougher edges and sharper points. What is concealed, subterranean and repressed in Hollywood under the Code leaps out exposed, on the surface, unbound in Hollywood before the Code." Williams' unsympathetic rogues were a hallmark of pre-Code cinema, his cunning and predatory amorality a leitmotif of a cinema responding to the despair engendered by an unprecedented economic calamity. From 1929 to 1933, industrial production was halved, disposable incomes declined by 28%, stock prices fell to one-tenth their pre-Crash height, and the numbers of the unemployed rose from 1.6 million to 12.8 million.

With his patrician looks and bearing, William was loaned out to Cecil B. DeMille to play the patrician's patrician, Julius Caesar, again opposite of Ms. Colbert in Cleopatra (1934), a typical prodigal DeMille production in which Henry Wilcoxon avenged his mentor's assassination by rousing the rabble. The mob sentiments of the cinema audience crested in 1933, and then retreated due to Roosevelt and his infusion of hope into the movie-going masses. Simultaneous with this upswing in national confidence, the new Production Code of 1934 ameliorated movie morals by imposing mechanisms to mulct malefactors.

William's star went into eclipse as his type no longer was needed for A-list heavies in New Deal Hollywood, which borrowed the motto of Roosevelt's election campaign (itself borrowed from a popular song of 1929) "Happy Days are Here Again." Although he had a last hurrah as the second Sam Spade (renamed Ted Shayne) in the Maltese Falcon remake Satan Met a Lady (1936) with Bette Davis, he eventually found himself in B-films.

The same year he played Caesar for Cecil B. De Mille opposite Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra, he made his inaugural and terminal appearance as William Powell's premier replacement in the role of Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case (1934), a character he would resurrect five years later in The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939). He was on his way to B-pictures.

Back to the B's

After making his first appearance as the cinema sleuth Vance, William returned to his roots as a court-room advocate, cast as the first Perry Mason in The Case of the Howling Dog (1934). After four films, he was replaced as Erle Stanley Gardner's A-#1 attorney in 1936 by former silent screen heart-throb Ricardo Cortez, the man who had first played Sam Spade, in the original Maltese Falcon (1931). Before leaving the studio, William appeared in one more picture under contract at Warners Bros., the A-list Stage Struck (1936); then the erstwhile Warners trouper trooped over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a few years, to work as a character actor.

Alas, another movie series beckoned and he appeared as Michael Lanyard's "The Lone Wolf," in nine movies made by Columbia from 1939 to 1943 beginning with The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939). Of the ten actors who appeared as "The Lone Wolf" in the 30 years the series ran, off and on, from 1919 until 1949, he made twice as many films as his nearest competitor (which included such top stars as Thomas Meighan and Melvyn Douglas). William continued to act in character parts calling for a patrician presence until his premature death in 1948.

Shy & Retiting

Personally, Warren William was a shy and retiring type. Speaking of him, five-time Warners co-star Joan Blondell said that William "was an old man even when he was a young man."

According to San Francisco critic Mick LaSalle's 2002 book Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002), William, who quite unlike his early Warner Bros.' stereotype as a heartless "love 'em and leave 'em"-style seducer, remained married to one woman throughout his adult life. He was an active inventor with multiple patents, designing one of the first recreational vehicles, reportedly so he could continue to sleep while being driven to the studio in the morning.

Warren William died in Hollywood on September 24, 1948, of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow for which there is still is no known cure. His characterizations from the height of his career remain unique, as few actors of star caliber aside from the father and son team of Kirk Douglas and Michael Douglas have ever strayed so far into such unsympathetic territory with their characterizations.

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