Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

A Day with Mr. Ruthless Capital Run Amok

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Two cheers to Turner Classic Movies for devoting their entire Thursday to the ineffable Warren William. For a brief period in the depths of the Great Depression, the so-called Heel of Heels was a genre onto himself. Working mainly for Warner Brothers, Williams played a succession of slick, overbearing scoundrels. He was an oilier, more self-possessed Gordon Gekko, with a cool to which bumpkin Donald Trump could only aspire possess — the suave, cynical personification of ruthless capital run amok. (Is it coincidence he’s counter-programmed against the climax of the Republican national convention?)

Last summer, New York’s Film Forum included a William sidebar in their semi-regular celebrations of Pre-Production Code Hollywood. Writing for the Village Voice, I penned a panegyric to this great secret star: “In 1932, America stared into the abyss and saw Warren William — Dracula, King Kong, and the Public Enemy in one tailored, brilliantined, wickedly self-amused package.” But, however popular in ’32 and ’33, the William character would be a casualty of the Production Code and or the New Deal; crisis averted, this seductive sleazebag was just another mustached profile with perfect diction.

Although TCM includes too many of William’s later vehicles, there’s a solid mid-morning double bill, starting at 9:45 AM: In “The Mouthpiece” and “Skyscraper Souls” (both 1932), William respectively plays a flamboyant shyster and a leering developer-cum-banker.  You can skip “Three on a Match” — in which although William is cast against type as the nice guy—and return for  “The Match King” (1932), WW as a rogue industrialist, and “The Mind Reader” (1933), WW rising from carnie con-man to society clairvoyant. The next four films have their qualities but William is not among them. Appropriately, his masterpiece “Employees Entrance” (1933) is saved until 11:15pm, saving the innocent from the spectacle of WW’s tyrannical department store manager debauching winsome shop girl Loretta Young.

TCM doesn’t fully represent William’s great period — no “Beauty and the Boss,” what happened to “The Dark Horse”? — but they do initiate the Williamfest at 6am Thursday with a movie that’s new to me, Robert Florey’s 1934 “Bedside”, starring WW as an expelled med student turned high-society quack. Leonard Maltin writes that it’s “not as enjoyable as other cynical Warner Bros. pre-Code movies because the subject matter is too serious to be treated in such a flip manner.” Sounds like vintage William! I plan to TiVo.

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