“I Didn’t Know You With All Your Clothes On”: The Best of Pre-Code Warren William
Warren William is so entrenched with the pre-Code period in my mind that it’s not surprising to learn that, aside from two appearances credited as Warren Krech in 1922 and 1923, he soared to stardom during the era—in 1931, to be exact.
The lax morality flaunted by studios throughout this time suited William well. Dapper and debonair on the outside, he easily—and frequently—tapped into a naughty sense of mischief that bubbled just below the surface. At the same time, pre-Code William habitually assumed an unaffected, albeit rigid sense of authority that bolstered his facade of bravado. Whatever the part, William could play it light and casual, cold and fearsome, or any range from coquettish to repugnant.
That said, below are some of his most damning quotes from six pre-Code pictures, accompanied by a little ethical scale, just for fun.
Employee’s Entrance (1933)
Kurt: “With your looks you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job.”
Madeleine (Loretta Young): “Thank you, but I’d rather be employed for my brain.”
Sexual harassment: ✓✓
In Employee’s Entrance, William plays the type of predatory boss whose reputation would topple over like a ton of bricks today. But during the 1930s, harassment of this level was widespread, tolerated, and even worse, basically accepted in the workplace. Regardless, William’s audacity and the casualness of his delivery stuns and lands with particular resonance today.
Employee’s Entrance ruling:
The Match King (1932)
Paul: “Never worry about anything ’til it happens. Then I’ll take care of it.”
This rather off-the-cuff, self-assured attitude is boilerplate William. And as occasionally occurs in pre-Codes, The Match King, based upon the career of a scheming businessman named Ivar Kreuger, meanders into some bleak territory. This is especially true regarding William’s eponymous Match King, who manipulates those around him to acquire a match empire and cultivate it under false pretenses. Of course, after his dubious practices catch up to him and he gets his heart broken, William’s Paul spirals and self-destructs in a particularly striking fashion. I don’t believe the line quoted above qualifies as prime pre-Code real estate in the broad sense, but I think it encapsulates the essence of the type of smug, brash persona William captured rather well.
The Match King ruling:
Warren William close to conceited in The Match King.
Under Eighteen (1931)
Raymond to Margie (Marian Marsh): “Well, why not take off your clothes and stay a while?”
A+ on the title and casting, Warner Brothers. I say casting, because the film’s star, Marian Marsh, was most likely also under the age of 18 during filming. In the movie, Marsh plays a young seamstress who yearns for something more from life while working to support her family. When she catches the eye of wealthy Raymond (William, naturally), she places her fiancé on the back burner as she contemplates trading love for money to help her sister out of a disastrous marriage. William is in the quintessential pre-Code form here—suave, bold, and frisky—but in the case of this particular line, it’s really the age factor, both onscreen and off, that tips it over the edge into a disconcerting territory.
Under Eighteen ruling:
Warren William is closer to creepy than flirty in Under Eighteen.
Beauty and the Boss (1932)
Baron Josef: “Go to the cashier’s office. Tell him to give you six months salary. And leave your telephone number with Ludwig. I’ll call you when I’m in a proper –or, rather, an improper mood.”
Ollie (Mary Doran): “You’re a darling. I’m so happy!”
There are so many issues with those two quotes that I don’t even know where to begin. Turning the tables, Beauty and the Boss finds William actively attempting to shun his female employees’ charms—at least in the office. (He’s totally cool mixing his professional and personal lives, just not during working hours.) Not only that, but William constantly admonishes these ladies’ looks and clothes as being way too seductive and distracting for him and the rest of the male species. Ugh. Of course, in an effort to dodge temptation, he endeavors to find the plainest Jane he can to be his secretary, but wouldn’t you know, she challenges his expectations and he falls for her! There’s no way around the fact that Beauty and the Boss is maddeningly demeaning, sexist, and unnervingly relevant, but I will admit that it’s just a tad amusing watching William struggle to quell his impulses and keep the ladies at bay during office hours.
Beauty and the Boss ruling:
William’s near shameful performance in Beauty and the Boss.
Skyscraper Souls (1932)
Dave: “They laughed at me when I said I wanted a hundred-story building. They said it wouldn’t hold together. But I had the courage and the vision and it’s mine and I own it! It goes halfway to hell and right up to heaven and it’s beautiful!”
Ruthless is a term I also associate with pre-Code William, a characteristic he perfected as a dominating entrepreneur obsessed with possessing a 100-story office building in Skyscraper Souls. William bulldozes his way to the top with his merciless, insatiable quest for money and power, but by the time he gets there, the cracks start to expose and there’s nowhere to go but down. Rapid, astonishing rises and equally swift, devastating falls were all too familiar in pre-Code dramas set in the business world, but of course, Williams’ coldblooded characterization adds an extra degenerate kick to the proceedings.
Skyscraper Souls ruling:
Tony: “Aren’t you afraid that I’ll start kicking you around, with my reputation?”
Bonnie (Joan Wheeler): “Well, I wish you’d start something.”
Tony: “Well, don’t embarrass me. I’ll get around to—something.”
And perhaps the worst line ever:
Vicki (Joan Blondell): “If he really loved me, he’d have hit me long ago.”
I researched Smarty‘s Production Code Administration (PCA) file before seeing the movie, and boy, what an introduction that was. Censor edits citing episodes of spousal abuse, blatantly insinuated and actual, peppered page after page, but that wasn’t the half of it: the flippant manner in which these incidents were executed (on paper, mind you) left me stunned and sickened, even for the 1930s. Dare I admit the picture’s lighter ambiance served to tone down these occurrences… but still. (In a way, that makes it even worse.) I guess once you get over, or at least cautiously accept the occasional offhand cruelty and sexism, you can be thankful for our society’s advancement when it comes to a theme like this; undoubtedly, it would be rare to see abuse bandied about so flippantly in a film today.
As exhibited above, William’s pre-Code rascals run the gamut. I mean, this list starts with sexual harassment and ends with spousal abuse, for goodness sake. Regardless of the intonation his roles called for, the actor certainly committed, and for that, I bestow this final rating for pre-Code Warren William:
Altogether, Warren William delivered on the pre-Code creep scale.
–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub
Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.