I’ve been writing an eight-part series of articles about the so-called Hollywood ‘Pre-Code Era,’ with this article concluding that series. This was a time period in which there was officially a production code which governed the content of films, but this code was routinely ignored–especially during the early 1930s.

The King of the Pre-Code sleaze-bags, Warren William.

by Martin Hafer

Believe it or not, the heading of my article is not meant derogatorily!  During the early 1930s, Warren William was in a class by himself playing sleazy, conniving and unlikable guys on film.  And he was so good doing it that his films have stood the test of time and are great fun today. Sadly, most people have no idea who he is and once the new, tougher Production Code was enforced, beginning in mid-1934, Williams’ draw as a box office baddie waned considerably.  Although still often playing sophisticated and clever guys, his performances in films like The Wolf Man and his Lone Wolf series were quite different.  They were smooth but lacked the roguish charm of his earlier Pre-Code films.

While there are many of these early William films that I love and strongly recommend, I’m mentioning three specifically because they are probably the most famous and best representations of his work.  And, fortunately, here in the States, all three are shown periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

Employees’ Entrance – Grade: A

If you’re looking for a subtle film about the corporate world, then this is not the film for you! Instead, Warren William plays an over-the-top caricature of a businessman that is highly reminiscent of Satan–and as a result is highly reminiscent of some of Williams’ other films, Skyscraper Souls and The Match King.  He propositions his employees, works them to death and has about as much in the way of business ethics as Attila the Hun!  Despite this all being a bit silly and hard to believe, in an odd way, the film is still very entertaining and is sleazy fun–so much fun that they featured this film at the recent Turner Classic Movies festival. I especially liked how again and again, the writers chose not to take the subtle path but chose to make the story a trashy yet entertaining soap opera. For example, when William forces yet another employee off the job after years of service, and then jumps to his death from the 9th floor, Williams’ character seems rather unaffected by this. Later, when he gets into an argument with a floozy in his employ, she tosses her Pomeranian at him–at which point he stares at it and then tosses the poor pooch into the trash can! With such silly scenes abound, it’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t take things too seriously. Williams’ characters are so awful, you’ll no doubt laugh at most of his hysterics.

By the way, after seeing this film for a second time, I thought I noticed some gay subtext from Williams’ character and would love to know what you think about this. He did everything he could to separate his #2 man at the department-store from his wife, because he wanted him all to himself! Considering this is a Pre-Code film, I seriously think they intended that many in the audience would pick up on this undercurrent.

Skyscraper Souls– Grade: A-

This movie is akin to combining a soap opera like the TV show Hotel, and blending it with the 1930s film The Match King. This is because throughout this modern skyscraper, many stories involve infidelity and financial ruin. And, of all the tales, the most pervasive and impressive is the character Warren William plays–a guy who has the leveraged of his empire and stands on the verge of great success or bankruptcy–much like William’s true-life character from The Match King. The story also has a decent amount of sleaze compared to later films, since it was made in the early days of the Hay Office that controlled violence and morals in film. In the early days, they weren’t as strict and studios didn’t take them all that seriously–this is very evident in this film, as it pulls very few punches in telling this entertaining tale.  Sex, debauchery and a delicious performance by William. This film’s got ’em all.

The Match King– Grade: A-

The Match King contains quite probably the best performance you’ll see by Warren William, as he really did a great job acting and conveying the character. And since he’s no longer a household name, it’s not surprising that this film is very much unknown.

The story is based on a real individual named Ivar Kreuger, who tried to corner the world market on matches by being about the most unscrupulous and power-hungry man of his day (which is pretty much what you see in the other films mentioned above). The film concerns the many ways he shows that, deep down, he has no soul and there is no sin beyond his reach if it gains him more money and power.

William is exceptional in the role and the film is fascinating from start to finish. Considering the film is about matches, it must have taken considerable writing, acting and directing talents to produce such a captivating movie.  And, like the other films, you won’t be sorry you saw it.

I hope you like my suggestions, and, as always, I’d love to hear from you.