Cleansing the Doors of Cinematic Perception, for a better worse

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Warren William, Titan o' Vitaphone: THE MOUTHPIECE, SATAN MET A LADY, SECRET BRIDE, THREE ON A MATCH,


Fridays this month on TCM are devoted to pre-code Hollywood and, honey, pre-code Hollywood is devoted to its lord most high, its Capitalist King Tut, its Maestro of Satanic bravado and merry carnivore sparkle, Warren William. Until the dawn of TCM and pre-code festivals (like the one that regularly comes to Film Forum here in NYC), Warren William was all but forgotten except as a B-mystery star from Perry Masons and the Lone Wolf films, a kind of hybrid Basil Rathbone-Errol Flynn. Now maybe we feel why, for Depression era audiences, he was such a charming, sinister figure he stole their love for the young moral 'hero' (along with said hero's money) clean away. The juvenile maybe got the girl in the end, but she was pious naive reformer, so who cared? Despite his amok capitalist characters being so emblematic of what tanked the stock market in the first place, William was the great antihero for a nation sick to death of treacly Americana and bootstraps idealism. Steal big and ascend to power -that was his credo, and it was the only one in America that still worked.

He ascended the throne in 1932, the height of American Depression free-fall, part of a global economic death spiral in which there seemed no hope for pulling back up except via the methods of the same crazy capitalists (or crazier) who'd brought the markets so low. Audiences knew William didn't give a shit about their small fry suffering, but he didn't waste time scamming them either; instead he scammed the fat cats who had scammed the small fry in the first place. He robbed from the guys who robbed the poor and may not have given it back but at least he used the money as collateral for bigger loans to get his phallic building higher, higher, and that meant more jobs. Gray-haired, squinty, corrupt old board members vainly harrumphed while William aimed his cigar / wolfish nose-chin combination down at them like a revolver and cleaned their pockets. And if he stole the juvenile hero's girlfriend on his way up, so much the better.

By then we hated the juvenile hero anyway, the types who turned down offers of easy dishonest money because they still believed in the American dream of little guys making good honest wages. They should have been boiling fat cats in oil or dragging them to the guillotine but instead kept dutifully working themselves to death in service of the giant black could Dust Bowl Moloch to afford barely enough company store credits to keep a young wife in hairpins. No wonder she left for Williams' champagne and opium penthouse. You had to be soft in the head--like Joan Crawford or Loretta Young--to think the homespun decent folks Americana small town ideal wasn't a bogus con enforced by the fat cats' sour matron moralist wives in some weird venomous outpouring of stifled sexuality. Guillotine the rich, or work yourself bravely to death like that poor trusting horse in Animal Farm --at MGM there was never a doubt which option their films advocated. You can smell the glue there even now. But at Warner Brothers? hors de leurs têtes!

Alas, sometimes even tough-minded Vitaphone demanded William get a 'conscience' by the end and start doing the right thing after being reformed by some high-handed secretary's refusal to put out, but aside from a glimmer in his eye as he dutifully shed a tear in the name of good common decency, all he ended up with for his trouble was a gut full of self-loathing and a few bullets from the guns of the people he double-crossed. As Handsome Harry once said, "the trouble with people who reform is they always want to rain on everybody else's parade, too."


And anyway, the average workaday joes and handsome college boy heroes these girls ended up with after poor William took a dive were played by annoying little pishers like Gene Raymond (the schmuck in RED DUST), Charles Farrell, Randolph Scott (as the Puritan geologist in HOT SATURDAY), or Norman Foster in SKYSCRAPER SOULS (1933), who relentlessly paws and stalks Maureen O’Sullivan, just because he happens to be her age and social class. The swine! Warren William develops eyes for her himself and who wouldn’t? Look at those legs (above)! And anyway, she works for him and sexual harassment laws are still just a distant troubling tom-tom in 1933. Meanwhile Foster is so full of himself and his presumptive ladykiller charm he literally makes it impossible for her to do her job. I had a guy like that haunting my assistant one time, and I kicked him out of the building and convinced her to file a restraining order! It's a boss's job to make sure his female employees aren't harassed at the workplace, which is why he sometimes needs to protect them, personally... even if takes all night.

THE MOUTHPIECE
1932 - ***1/2

Warren William rules in this fictionalization of the career of legendary mob defense lawyer Bill Fallon. And until some hick virgin puts him noble he's pretty badass. Granted, he starts off as an 'clean' assistant D.A. but, after sending an innocent man to the chair, he joins the other team, defending the guilty in a belated attempt to right his wrong. As in all these type films (William Powell played versions of Fallon for Warners, too, in Lawyer Man and For the Defense), he becomes a big shot gangland defense lawyer and drinks heroically (Guy Kibbee 'tends the 'speak') and sleeps around with impunity (look fast for Paulette Godard as a party girl) while his gal Friday Aline McMahon adds notes of warm complexity as his half-secretary/half-detox nurse / half Leporello crossed with Joan from Mad Men. She's become so adept at her Moneypenny-esque repartee with William that even she can't remember if there's any real desire underneath it, and McMahon's tall enough, and physical enough, that she can believably heave him onto his feet when he's dead drunk.

Aline McMahon: What a gal 
Anyway, they're a great team, and all is well, with a few defense strategies so outlandish they must have been based on real life cases (William here drinks poison to destroy the prosecutor's case, in other versions he throws a vial supposedly full of nitro), but then it all goes to hell when a hick typist in the pool turns down his wolfish advances because she's lousy with the type of small town "integrity" Sydney Falco and J.J. Hunsecker would later sneer at. But, hey, this was 1931, there were only a few years left to even talk about other options, soon that sentimental sunshine malarkey would be so pervasive it would take another world war to shucker out into the freedom of the shadows.

Sidney Fox is the c/hick who sways him, William Janney the naive chump she's sweet on, who (of course) winds up implicated in a crime orchestrated by one of Williams' shifty clients. You can guess the rest. It's all worth it for a giddy stretch in the beginning where William rockets through his day, pausing to lift a $10,000 fee out of an embezzler's stash before returning what's left to the employer on the condition he doesn't press charges. For this one crazy stretch, The Mouthpiece is a masterwork.  It's the role that made William a star. It will make you a fan.

 THE SECRET BRIDE
1934 - **1/2

All procedural political machinations, this post-code potboiler plays a bit like Perry Mason wandered into The Glass Key. William plays an ambitious assistant D.A. secretly married to the daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of a framed governor (Arthur Byron). If the public knew about their marriage, it would be conflict of interest! Nepotism! Whatever! It's a little vague, your honor, but the governor can be proved innocent only by compromising William's coming promotion to 'full' DA.

But hey, as long as he's innocent, you have nothing to worry about, maybe.

William is on medium setting here, but that's still a high for anyone else. The cast includes: the always fey and Capote-esque Grant Mitchell; the ever-dubiously allied Douglas Dumbrille; Glenda Farrell as the woman blamed for a murder that Barbara Stanwyck saw happen but can't reveal why she happened to be in Williams' apartment to see it. Courtroom will be cleared while the jury reaches a verdict! The verdict is that this is reasonably engaging thriller that adds up to little beyond its own dated contrivance. How can you go wrong with Stanwyck and William as secret lovers, even if they're not playing to the fullest of their madness? William fans who are wondering if this being made in 1934 means William is defanged, rest easy: he's not, he just doesn't need to bite anyone, so is in semi-asleep mode. William Dieterle directed, so there's atmosphere even if Warners had by then worked the old 'D.A. or Defense Attorney who has to sacrifice his career to protect his lover's honor' horse all the way through the glue factory and back again. (Callback!)

SATAN MET A LADY
1936 - ***

Before it gets bogged down in needless variations on its The Maltese Falcon source text, it's great fun. Muddled and nonsensical as it may be, fans of the Huston version may savor this as I do, like a jazz riff on the same tune. Effie (Marie Wilson) known here as 'Miss Murgatroyd' below left, is an adorable little ditzy Red Riding Hood who has great chemistry with the big bad wolf Warren William - she's as tall, standing, as he is, seated, which I'm sure made it twice as easy for him to work his charm. And the way she rolls with his wolfish come-ons makes them a perfect pair. She all but grabs onto his fur and rides him to grandma's house.

Made in 1936 (after the code, but Mister, ya coulda fooled me) it co-stars a very young Bette Davis in the Mary Astor role--she's much less coy in this version, and much less bemused by William than most, and instead of the usual blithe flirting they share a conniving sense they're both too used to snowing members of the opposite sex to snow each other, but they just keep trying, like the salesmen in Glengary Glen Ross selling to each other in infinitum. Alison Skipworth is the gender-switch version of the conniving Gutman. I couldn’t find billing for the unsightly Tweedle Dum type who keeps repeating “I told you once, Mister…” as her neurotic gunsel son. He’s no Elisha Cook Jr. Then again, who is? William's Spade (here called Shayne) does a variation on the crippled newsie scene (pulling the raincoat back over Cook's shoulders and grabbing his twin .45s) and plays it out with a beanie he steals off Kenneth's head with a wolfish grin not unlike Lonesome Rhodes chasing a secretary around the Vita-Chex pitch meeting in A Face in the Crowd. 

The best substitution comes with Arthur Treacher as the fey Joel Cairo. A tall, game-for-what-for posh bounder, he brings his own quirky wit to the proceedings and the scene where William helps him ransack his own apartment looking for the 'horn' has a great comedic flow--like Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers in the first three seasons of MASH. Were they huffing laughing gas off camera? It's almost like William has met his match in William-ness, and they feed off each other's energy like long lost brothers. Whether helping Treacher casually break things, repair them, or William's glee at finding on a thought-lost little black book under a chair, their scene could be the drunken grandfather of Altman's The Long Goodbye. Rather than a long stretch of time in Spade's apartment waiting for a package, the big climax meets Captain Jacobi's boat down at the rainy docks for a good old-fashioned shoot-out. Which let's face it is pretty cool, considering Huston's film only talks about a whole mess of events we see being played out here.


Davis meanwhile smokes and wields a piece like a pro, she's even annoyed by Williams' not taking the gun she's jamming in his ribs more seriously. If you can recall the Huston version moment where, after giving Cairo back his gun upon receipt of the two hundred dollars, Cairo turns it on him and says "Clasp your hands behind your head, Mr. Spade..." and he just smiles and laughs, saying "Go ahead! I won't stop ya..." that's how William plays the whole damn movie. And unless you're like Davis, a serious actress, trying to establish her character's duplicitousness before the short running time elapses, than Williams' fun is contagious. If you've seen Huston's remake a few dozen times (if not, better start!) then the use of so much of the same dialogue under such bizarre, nearly Godardian tweakage is startling. While the whole cast (Davis aside) seems to bounce merrily on his lap, William has such a good time he can barely remember his lines. Who cares though? He may just as well just read the book aloud and mix some more drinks. I'd watch it.

THREE ON A MATCH
1932 - ***1/2


Three girls meet while at a Brooklyn public school (allowing for plenty of ethnic stereotyping - oy vey) and stay friends even after going separate ways up and down the New York City economic ladder (pre-code Warners loved showing their adult subjects as children first --God knows why, and maybe social workers). Joan Blondell winds up in a reform school; Bette Davis learns to type and settles into a nice cog-in-the-machine-shape for the duration; Ann Dvorak marries the rich guy (Warren William) and becomes a nymphomaniac alcoholic who feels strangled by the touch of any man dumb enough to treat her with respect. They end up running into each other and sharing the ominous match on a post-lunch round of cigarettes. Dvorak has Williams' kid, then goes running amok with smooth-talking idiot Lyle Talbot, who gets them both in deep with some low-down mobsters (Bogart, Allen Jenkins, Ed Arnold) who figure they can collect big by holding the kid for ransom. With the 24/7 carrying on (and only cocktail peanuts for meals), the poor kid becomes a seriously neglected urchin, all while William looks desperately for the boy, finally procuring the help of the now reformed Blondell and Davis, who by then has nearly typed herself sexless. She must have really loved being relegated to glorified extra. But hey, she gets to be the kid's nanny when all's said and done, if that helps any. If it helps, in 1933 she could still hold her own in a bathing suit. Better get it on record, darling. In a few decades you'll be back on that beach in a very different seaside ensemble, toting a malnourished Joan Crawford instead of a finally-fed Dickie Moore.


What a double bill this would have made with the same year's MATCH KING, wherein we learn the shady truth behind the "three on a match" superstition. Here they take it seriously and if its "vignettes through the ages" narrative style is clunky, the pre-code luridness and game cast makes up for it: Blondell is her usual reliable self, good-natured and morally flexible, inherently decent without being a drag about it; Dvorak's big tragic spiral out of control is awesome, believably self-centered and trapped in a terrible addictive cycle where the only time she's in a caring loving mood is when she's too high to get out of bed, leaving her kid Dickie Moore suffering from neglect to the point even Bogart's slimy gangster is concerned (he makes a wry cocaine nose gesture to indicate what Dvorak's doing in the other room). If even your child's kidnappers are more concerned about your kid than you are, that's shocking stuff, pre-code to the nines, second only to the deprivation / starvation of the kids in Night Nurse, the kind of thing we just wouldn't see after the code, and it's those post-code kids that gave kids a bad name in the movies since we all know kids aren't saints, they're complex little heathens! Dickie Moore can be unbearably cutesy pie in the wrong hands, but throw him into the next room during an all-week all-night gangster poker game while his mom lies drunk and unconscious for days at a stretch, now he's legitimately heartbreaking. FINALLY!

William meanwhile is just the sugar daddy here-- a noncomedic variation on his role in Gold Diggers (he wound up with Joan there, too) as the sensible Daddy Warbucks for the gang. That's the way it was in these punchy mellers from the WB though; the whole thing rips past your stunned eyes so fast you can barely light your twentieth cigarette before it's all over but the scraping off the sidewalk. 'hiccup.'

2 comments:

  1. Really enjoyed this and almost felt like I was reading it back in the '30s! Love that you loved SATAN MET A LADY and especially enjoyed your line about if felling "like the Marx Brothers and John Huston had a baby."

    Did a ton of research on Fallon recently, and have come to believe he wasn't actually the one to drink the poison or toss the nitro - suspecting this is the invention of one of the writers, possibly Charles Furthmann, who wrote the story for FOR THE DEFENSE (where the nitro is used) and had a law background.

    One correction, re THE MOUTHPIECE, William Janney plays Fox's boyfriend; John Wray is the embezzler who Warren makes ten grand on before tossing him out of his office without a dime.

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  2. Thanks Cliff! Good to hear from a fellow dweller at the Huston-Marx crossroad. I made the correction. Keep up the research!

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