Pre-Code Hollywood – roughly 1929-1934 – has become a popular subject in recent years. The movies made during these years, before meaningful enforcement of the Production Code, featured all manner of salacious material. You can buy collections of them on DVD and see what all the fuss was about. When we talk about them today, our discussion almost always moves directly to sex. Promiscuity, prostitution, adultery – these behaviors are pervasive. Ruth Chatterton in Female (1933) is the very prototype of the sexually aggressive professional woman, the likes of which we would not see in American film again for more than 40 years.
But sometimes, what makes Pre-Code movies interesting is not the sex, but the other adult attitudes that are so overtly on display. And that brings us to one of the most overlooked actors of the early talkie period, Warren William.
William appeared mostly in B pictures, and even the best of them were usually flawed in some manner. But he was almost always a marvel to behold. Though often thought of as a poor man’s William Powell (indeed, he briefly took over the Philo Vance detective franchise from Powell when Powell began his Thin Man series), William had the rare ability to play the worst of villains in such a compelling manner that you just couldn’t root against him. He was equally at home playing a lawyer or a thug. And though he is best remembered today as the screen’s first Perry Mason, or perhaps for his supporting role in George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), I think his greatest triumph was playing Kurt Anderson, the most ruthless of all ruthless businessmen in Roy Del Ruth’s underrated Employee’s Entrance (1933).
Here’s a Pre-Code movie that has the requisite sexual material. Anderson, the general manager of a large NY department store, seduces the young, jobless Madeline (a 20 year old Loretta Young) the night he meets her. He has another dalliance with her after she has secretly married his protégée, Martin (Wallace Ford). In a subplot, Anderson hires one of his store’s models, Polly, (Alice White) to keep a colleague otherwise occupied so that there will be no interference in the way Anderson runs things.
It’s how he runs things that makes the movie worth watching. Anderson fires long-time employees at the drop of a hat. He docks pay left and right. He runs one small tailor out of business when the man is late with a major order. He brings his loyal assistant to tears when he learns she purchased a dress from a competitor. He even grabs one of those little designer doggies that the fashionable ladies carry around and drops it into the garbage can. And he doesn’t just bully his underlings. He essentially tells the board of directors to go screw themselves and informs the president of the store that he is worthless. That is part of his charm.
The other key element is that he genuinely believes in what he is doing. In the middle of a depression, while the bankers are preaching retrenchment, he argues for expansion. He is motivated by greed, to be sure, but more importantly, by the craving for success. He stresses to his executives that if they do not work hard and generate innovative ideas, the store will close and thousands will be unemployed. He would rather cut salaries, his own included, than lay off hard workers.
Though the movie is structured around Anderson’s relationship with the young Martin and Madeline, his most memorable interaction is with Garfinkle (Frank Reicher), the tailor who he drives out of business. When he encounters Garfinkle later, now working in Anderson’s department store, the pissed-off tailor tells Anderson he has learned his lesson. He intends to work hard and one day get to the point where he can return the favor and drive Anderson out of business. Anderson immediately writes him a check for five thousand dollars and says he wants to invest it in Garfinkle’s business. Garfinkle tears up the check. That is the beauty of Employee’s Entrance. It makes no apologies for its extraordinary cold-bloodedness.
Of course, the films is not without problems. The conclusion of the romantic plot between Martin and Madeline is downright maudlin (it appears Del Ruth was well aware of this since it plays almost as an afterthought, with Anderson’s business-related plot line dominating the conclusion). The acting can be broad, which was not uncommon in 1933. Alice White’s baby-voiced vamp can come on a little thick, but she is so funny that it barely matters. When she tells her much older paramour “you need an organ for that” (she had just flirtatiously knocked an organ grinder’s hat off his head) it is one of the great throwaway Pre-Code lines. Even William can come on a little strong. But it’s impossible not to be mesmerized.
William would be very good in many similar roles throughout the 30s, and he would only have one disaster – William Dieterle’s Satan Met a Lady (1936), a dreadful version of The Maltese Falcon that even William and Bette Davis were helpless to save. But even if he had done nothing beyond Kurt Anderson, he would have a place in American film history. Forget Gordon Gekko. Kurt Anderson is much truer to the American dream.