Alas, sometimes even tough-minded Vitaphone demanded William get a 'conscience' and start doing the right thing, 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 was a few bullets from the guns of the people he double-crossed. As Handsome Harry once said, "the trouble with reformers is, they always try to rain on everyone else's business."
And anyway, at savvy WB, the average workaday joes and handsome college boy heroes were played by annoying little pishers like Louis Hayward (the schmuck babbling about Babs in the tiger blind in RED DUST), or Charles Farrell, Randolph Scott (as the virgin 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; Warren William develops eyes for her himself and who wouldn’t? Look at those legs! And anyway, she works for him and sexual harassment laws are still just a distant troubling tom-tom in 1933--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! 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.
1932 - ***Warner's made a star out of William via this snappy fictionalizing version of legendary mob defense lawyer Bill Fallon. And until some hick dame puts him noble he's pretty badass, starting off as a an assistant D.A. but quitting after sending an innocent mug to the chair, determined to make sure no more murder charges ever stick. We can see why it would shake him; it's a pretty harrowing moment, ably rendered by a mere dimming of the prison lights before the warden can even make it to the hallway after getting the call. These calls come through so often so when it's too late, it's quite a shock. So as in all these type films (William Powell played versions of Fallon for Warners, too, in Lawyer Man and For the Defense), William becomes a big shot gangland defense lawyer and drinks (Guy Kibbee is his patient local speak proprietor) and sleeps around with impunity (look fast for Paulette Godard) while gal Friday Aline McMahon adds adds notes of warm complexity: half detox nurse-half Leporello crossed with Joan from Mad Men, she's become so adept at Moneypenny-esque faux flirting that even she can't remember if there's any real desire underneath it, and tall enough and physical enough that she can believably help heave William onto his feet when he's dead drunk.
|Aline McMahon: What a gal|
THE SECRET BRIDE
1934 - **1/2
All procedural political machinations, a bit like Perry Mason wandering into The Glass Key but pretty good, with Warren William as an ambitious assistant D.A. secretly married to the daughter (Barbara Stanwyck) of a framed governor (Arthur Byron). If the public knew about the marriage, it would be conflict of interest! Nepotism! Whatever! It's vague, but the governor can be proved innocent only by exploding Warren William's career. But as long as he's innocent, you have nothing to worry about, maybe. William is on medium setting but that's still a high for anyone else. The cast includes the fey 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 there! 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 itself. Yet how can you go wrong with Stanwyck and William as secret lovers? 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. Instead he's preparing for life after the code via detective series work as Perry Mason, Philo Vance, or hey -whatever ya need. William Dieterle directed, so there's atmosphere even if Warners had worked the old 'D.A. or Defense Attorney who has to sacrifice his love in the name of freedom or freedom in the name of protecting a lady's honor, or to save the life of the loser boy she loves more than him' etc. a bit near to death.
SATAN MET A LADY
1936 - ***Before it gets bogged down in needless variations on The Maltese Falcon this is pretty fun, and even after. 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. 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.
The best ham-swap comes with the fey Joel Cairo, here a tall, game-for-what-for English gentlemen (played by Arthur Treacher), he brings his own quirky wit to the proceedings and the scene where William helps him ransack his own apartment looking for the 'horn,' c’est magnifique! It's like the Marx Brothers and John Huston had a baby. Williams must have been huffing laughing gas off camera and it's very psychedelic to see him so blithely unattached to his possessions and personal space-- whether breaking things, repairing them, or doting over Williams' little black book like it's a newborn litter of kittens, it's a scene that--in screwball pre-code hipness--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. The horn filled with jewels, and Alison Skipworth enjoying talking to a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk might seem like pointless alterations, but this movie's a nitrous oxide four-alarm fire.
Davis meanwhile smokes and wields a gun like a pro, at times annoyed Williams' not taking the gun she's jamming in his ribs more seriously. If you can recall the 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, my friend, that moment of justifiably condescending but good natured merry surrender, is how William plays the whole damn movie. And unless you're like Davis, trying to establish her duplicitousness, than Williams' fun is contagious. If you've seen Huston's remake a few dozen times (if not, you should) then the use of so much of the same dialogue under such bizarre, nearly Godardian tweakage, is startling. While the whole cast bounces merrily on his lap, William seems like he’s having such a good time he can barely remember his lines; is he huffing laughing gas between takes? Who cares though, since he's basically the same character as in the other versions of the story and we already know the 1941 version so much? They may just as well just read the book aloud and mix some drinks.
THREE ON A MATCH
1932 - ***1/2
Three girls meet while going 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: She 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. It should. 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.
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, seeing kids 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 the gangsters are worried about your kid, then your kid's got problems. It's shocking stuff, 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 saintly 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-night gangster poker game while his mom lies drunk and unconscious for weeks at a stretch, and 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.'