Warren William Collection (Warner Archive) Review
Our grand schemer Warren William, friend to all who love pre-Code cinema, has finally gotten an inkling of recognition. It comes from the Warner Archive in a three-disc, DVD-R set containing a trio of rarities. Still nothing on William's best work like but hardly limited to The Match King, Employees' Entrance and Skyscraper Souls, all controlled by Warner Bros. (fingers crossed for pressed discs), but we can now all enjoy the actor in The Woman from Monte Carlo, Don't Bet on Blondes, and Times Square Playboy.
A real discovery, Don't Bet on Blondes, proves to be a flat-out joy. It's just under an hour in running time and was released after the enforcement of the Production Code, but fear not. The film sparkles in that great screwball fashion that only '30s Hollywood comedies can. William is Odds Owen, bookmaker of Broadway. He has a skilled team of men helping him rake in the dough by taking in most any bet, assuming it's favorable to the house. A minor hiccup leads Odds into realizing that he could trade in the racket for an ostensibly legitimate operation in insurance, with almost identical levels of risk and return. His model is Lloyd's of London, and nothing is too strange to consider. Clients taken on include a champion husband caller, a little man worried about having twins, and a touched Kentucky Colonel who wants to prevent his daughter from marrying.
Col. Youngblood (played by Guy Kibbee) could, I believe, be called a Civil War denier. He's convinced that the South actually won, that Sherman was retreating, and that some victories by the North may not have actually taken place. He's preparing a book to blow the cover off the official story but needs his well-paid daughter to stay single so that she can keep funneling him money. A quasi-legit businessman with a vendetta against Odds gets involved, intending to marry the girl (Claire Dodd) himself and claim a double victory in the process. There's also Errol Flynn making an appearance pre-stardom as another potential suitor. What's unexpected (though not to the viewer) is the reaction Odds has upon meeting Youngblood's daughter, and he soon becomes a threat to his own $50,000 interest in the situation.
The film is directed by Robert Florey, who later made the must-see horror classic The Beast with Five Fingers. It features a neat shot early on where Odds and his right hand man Numbers (William Gargan) are shown listening to a horse race on the radio as the announcer is superimposed into the top left corner and the race itself appears at the bottom right of the frame. Visually, that's the apex, but there is a lot of quick humor and absurdity at play here. Also, Dodd is an actress I like quite a bit and someone who rarely gets any mention. She was clearly photogenic so perhaps her lack of notoriety comes from the types of roles she was given. She's rather good in Footlight Parade as the gold digging, good for nothing secretary. Dodd is much sweeter in this picture. As for the man of the hour, William shows that he doesn't need to be dastardly to exude charisma. His character is refreshingly likable here, and the actor remains a delight to watch.
Less successful is the rather one-note Times Square Playboy, based on a play by George M. Cohan. Directing reins are given to William C. McGann. The film has William play a wealthy man in his forties who has finally decided to settle down and marry. The bride-to-be is a nightclub singer (June Travis) whose brother (Dick Purcell) is her fiance's star employee. Things go awry when William's oldest friend (Gene Lockhart) travels with his wife from small town America to the big city. Lockhart is supposed to serve as best man at the wedding but his suspicions about the motives of William's future in-laws paints a dark cloud over the whole thing. Then when he's content, the family he's now offended is not and so on until the happy ending.
Again, William is effective in a familiar role, and the whole cast does a nice job with what they have, but the material isn't quite grade A caliber. Lockhart's behavior is difficult to comprehend and almost everyone else's subsequent motivations ring false. Settling down and approaching with calmness seems unheard of to these characters. If that's the point, revolving around distrust of outsiders, then it's not just stale but also poorly made. A more forceful actress than June Travis might allow for some forgiveness. Additional laughs would also go a long way in establishing good will. As it is, William nails his smiling emptiness of wealth routine and Barton MacLane has a scene-stealing supporting part as his trainer/butler. Otherwise, expectations should be kept decidedly modest.
The Woman from Monte Carlo is interesting for a few reasons, none of which involve Warren William. Chronologically, it's first among these pictures but since it features William only in a supporting part I've saved it for last to discuss. The above the title star is Lil Dagover, a German actress who barely even gave Hollywood a try. This is a unique foray outside Europe, and in English, for Dagover, probably best known for having the female lead in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang's Destiny. Here she plays the neglected wife of a French commandant (Walter Huston) in 1912. He's commissioned on a ship as France is on the brink of war. Unable to see Dagover in person at times, Huston has taken to sending messages via William. Whispers as to Dagover's faithfulness seem to have spread amongst the men, with one in particular (John Wray) determined to cause trouble after she spurns his advances. The plot takes a sharp turn later in the film when an approaching ship fires on Huston's vessel, resulting in his court-martial.
Despite mention being made in the movie that Dagover is supposedly quite younger than husband Huston - at one point she makes light at being not even half his age - the actress was actually just three years older than her co-star. Her performance is a tad awkward, and partially in German, but Dagover nonetheless had a clear stage presence that makes the film at least a curiosity. Direction by Michael Curtiz, who at points the camera right into a porthole, cleverly elevates the film a touch also. William, for his part, has little to do or add. Indeed, the attention this set of films gives the actor is appreciated but it's ultimately a disservice. Those unfamiliar with Warren William, or classic film fans who've only heard about him without seeing his work, might exit these pictures without the least bit of understanding as to why he was so noteworthy. The converted might feel a pang of disappointment. Don't be too disheartened, though, as the truly signature films William made seem closer to release on something like DVD than ever before.
Note, too, that the Warner Archive has quietly been kind to William elsewhere in its releases. He pops up as one of the leads in Frank Borzage's excellent romance Living on Velvet, with Ginger Rogers on his hands in Upperworld, in the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle The Secret Bride, alongside Joan Blondell in the borderline offensive spousal abuse comedy Smarty, also directed by Florey, and with Marian Marsh in a couple of more typical and oily characterizations in Under Eighteen and Beauty and the Boss.
This Warner Archive set of three burned DVD-Rs is contained in a standard size keepcase. Each disc is single-layered and contains a progressive transfer.
These are technically unrestored and unremastered transfers of minor films from the 1930s so in some ways you cross your fingers and hope for the best upon inserting the disc. Good news, then, as Don't Bet on Blondes and Times Square Playboy really only have some stubborn speckles of damage, the latter more so. Detail and sharpness are fairly consistent throughout and not bad at all. The Woman from Monte Carlo fares worst, plagued by some vertical scratches running the length of the frame and several reel change markers. Most obvious is that it looks a good bit softer than the other two, also with more grain and scratches. Still, these are generally okay and easy to accept transfer-wise, with the understanding that they look more natural than scrubbed and polished. The short running times help avoid any digital shortcomings. All films are 1.33:1.
English mono audio varies a little from picture to picture. Don't Bet on Blondes, which is the clear winner in all categories, has some small crackle that can be heard on occasion. A more frequent hiss is present in Times Square Playboy's audio. The Woman from Monte Carlo, the oldest of the bunch, might have a more modest recording method but it isn't plagued by pops or the like. Dialogue in all three is not that difficult to make out, and emits at a consistently reasonable volume. As is policy for the Warner Archive, there are no subtitles and, really, that never becomes any less ridiculous.
Two of the titles have trailers attached as nominal extra features. Don't Bet on Blondes has a suitably goofy trailer (2:28) while Times Square Playboy's preview (2:22) emphasizes the George M. Cohan factor.