Jennifer Kellow Fiorini
Warren William - The Wolf in Wolf's Clothing
Updated: May 13, 2021
Often referred to as “the King of pre-Code” and “The Magnificent Scoundrel,” Warren William made 20 films between 1931 and the enforcement of the Production Code in July, 1934. Born in Minnesota on December 2, 1894, he became an actor after World War I instead of going into his family’s business. He was a leading man on Broadway by 1923 and signed to Warner Brothers in 1931.
The ultimate "bad" boss, William in Employee's Entrance, 1933. Image Pre-Code.com
Warren William quickly became known for playing amoral businessmen. With his sharp features, slicked back hair, and often sporting a villainous pencil-thin mustache, he was the ultimate crooked businessman, charlatan, and con man. In 1933 the New York Post wrote, “He was the master charlatan of the silver screen, an actor who brought villainy to high places without any noticeable diminution in his own popularity.” Playing such despicable characters while somehow remaining appealing to audiences is a lot harder than it sounds, especially with the kind of antics William’s characters got up to.
(Above) Warren William checks out his former secretary, now mistress, in Beauty and the Boss, 1932.
(Above) Openly ogling a young innocent in the film, Under 18, 1931.
William bosses Ruth Donnelly in Employee's Entrance, 1933.
Was Warren William an inspiration for the Tex Avery Wolf?
In Employee’s Entrance he plays ruthless businessman Kurt Anderson who gives a poor depression-era girl (Loretta Young) a job at his department store and a meal. Afterward, in a very uncomfortable scene, he makes it clear he expects something from Young's character in return. As a boss he is abusive to his underlings, fights fiercely for every dollar, and promotes toxic company culture. In one scene, after driving an employee to jump out a window, he remarks that all men should kill themselves when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Cast in very similar role for MGM’s Skyscraper Souls, when confronted by a competing group of businessmen about what they consider his unethical practices, William’s character says “If I double-crossed somebody else for you, I wouldn’t be a double crosser, I’d be a financial genius. It’s all in the point of view.”
Not so fast! Warren William makes it clear he expects payment from Loretta Young in a very uncomfortable scene from Employee's Entrance, 1933. Image pre-code.com
In an interview, William famously said, “I just play the roles no one else wants to play.” Roles like these gave audiences a peek into behind closed-door business dealings and explored America’s love-hate relationship with capitalism. William’s anti-heroes are appealing because he does what heroes do — overcomes obstacles and achieves his goals. He never apologizes for what he’s done to get ahead, even when it all falls down around him. We admire his character’s drive to do anything it takes to win in the business world while hating him when that same behavior bleeds into the character’s personal life. Often he believes his own lies – hoping he can make them true, and in a strange way, that makes him a kind of romantic.
William excelled at playing scoundrels who took pride in being scoundrels, and rarely attempted to disguise it. Audiences may have respected this odd brand of honesty, but it was the kind of honesty that terrified religious censors. Warren William, like Kay Francis, was a phenomenon that could have only happened in an era without censorship. The type of characters he specialized in were banned once the Production Code was fully enforced in July of 1934
Getting into trouble pre-Code style in The Mouthpiece, 1932.
In real life he was a quiet, retiring man who wasn’t interested in the Hollywood scene. Joan Blondell said of her frequent co-star, “He was an old man even when he was a young man.” Unlike most other stars, William pursued interests other than acting. He dabbled in inventing, creating an apartment on wheels — a kind of 1930’s Winnebago for showering and getting ready en route to the studio – giving him an extra hour’s sleep. He patented a device he called “a vacuum cleaner for lawns,” and a revolving doghouse.
Warren William works on an invention in his workshop 1937. Image WarrenWilliam.com
Bette Davis and Warren William in a publicity still for Satan Met A Lady, 1936.
William as Perry Mason, with Patricia Ellis in The Case of the Lucky Legs, 1935.
A few non-villain roles in the pre-Code era include the caring husband whose dissatisfied wife abandons him in Three on A Match, an abused husband in the bizarre comedy Smarty, and a great comic turn in The Gold Diggers of 1933. Later roles included an early version of The Maltese Falcon called Satan Met A Lady opposite Bette Davis; detective roles, like the Lone Wolf; and the first onscreen incarnation of Perry Mason.
Sadly, Warren William died in 1948 of multiple myeloma – he was only 53.
Author Mick LaSalle put it best when he said, “Warren William is one of the singular joys of the pre-Code era. For those who don’t know him, he’s a discovery waiting to be made. In Warren William all things bright and sleazy come together in a persona at once. To see one Warren William film is to want to see another, and to see two is to want to see them all. There has never been a film star like him.”
That expression! William in The Mouthpiece, 1932.
More on Warren William
Warren WIlliam The Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Book
Attaboy Clarence Podcast for Classic Cinema Lovers (Episodes that include Warren William)
Next Month - William Powell