Everyone hereabouts should know about Warren William, the ’20s-’40s movie star from Aitkin. If you don’t, just ask about him at the Aitkin County Historical Society’s Depot Museum; they have lots of good material, which can also be seen yearly at their cabin at the County Fair.
Warren William was born Warren Krech in Aitkin in 1894. His father actually owned the Aitkin Age. He fought in World War I, married, and went to Broadway and then Hollywood. He starred in movies alongside Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert and others. He died in 1948. Now he’s known as the “King of Pre-Code,” meaning the height of his career was before the enforcement in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code, which restricted the content of films tremendously and one might say oppressively – it went so far as to say no crime could be shown as going unpunished and no clergyman could ever be the target of a joke. Many of William’s best roles being before this code, it fits that he often played immoral yet dashing scoundrels.
My family has sought out Warren William movies for a while now and I recently binged on his work available on Netflix DVD. Allow me to share some mini-reviews that I hope will encourage you to watch some of these yourself.
The movie with Warren William that is probably the most widely-watched nowadays would be The Wolfman starring Lon Chaney Jr. William got high billing even though his role is fairly minor, which goes to show his successful status. He plays Dr. Lloyd, who believes the eponymous antihero’s lycanthropy to be hysteria. Unlike many skeptical characters in horror movies, Dr. Lloyd is no arrogant scoffer but compassionate and concerned.
Lady for a Day is a comedy-drama about an old street peddler woman, “Apple Annie,” who faces the dilemma of a visit from her daughter, who was raised overseas and believes her mother to be a rich society matron. William plays Dan the Dude, a superstitious gangster who finds his better nature in helping Annie. What follows is both hilarious and touching.
Three on a Match is a drama about three girls who in school were popular, rebellious and studious respectively and reunite in adulthood. The popular one, played by Anne Dvorak, is, for some incomprehensible reason, dissatisfied with her life with a rich and caring husband played by Warren William. She leaves him for a young wastrel who gets them and her young son entangled with gangsters, including one played by Humphrey Bogart. This film is sophisticated and dark, with a compelling yet subtle performance indicating a character has become addicted to drugs, which the Code would not have allowed.
William plays Julius Caesar in Cleopatra, starring Claudette Colbert. The dialogue is rather wooden, but the costumes and sets are so spectacularly lavish it’s enthralling anyway. William has a commanding presence as the Roman emperor, though it’s a bit strange to see him without a mustache!
There are many more Warren William movies I have seen and want to see. I plan to discuss more of them here and hope you will join me in appreciation of Aitkin’s native-born movie star.