Warren William (Warren Krech, 1894-1948) is one of my favorite straight (i.e. non-comedian) screen actors of all time. The son of a small-town Minnesota newspaperman William attended New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts and served in World War One before embarking on a Broadway career that lasted through the 1920s (he appeared in 21 plays).
It was in Hollywood during the early 1930s that William made his mark, almost always cast as rich, unprincipled lawyers, lecherous bosses and businessmen, honey-tongued, sleazy con artists, and the like. With his ruler straight profile, pencil-thin mustache, and actorly diction, I’m almost always tempted to think of him as “the Poor Man’s John Barrymore“, until I remember that late, gone-to-seed John Barrymore WAS the The Poor Man’s Barrymore…so Warren William is actually “The Poor Man’s Gone-to-Seed John Barrymore.” This is remarkable because Barrymore was a good dozen years older than William…but William always seemed a decade or two older than he actually was. Though no doubt good-looking (and undoubtedly more so in his youth), he looked like he had done a lot of hard living, with those big sacks under his eyes that make him always seem like he is laboring with a hangover. When I watch his films I always pity the young girls who had to do love scenes with him, for I imagine him smelling like some nauseating combination of whiskey, tobacco, cologne and hair oil. And anyway, while we’re name checking Barrymores, William’s talent was more like Lionel’s than John’s. He was no genius, he was just a very careful, practiced craftsman, the very summit of artificiality. I adore his performances…so late in pop history for such 19th century techniques to be holding sway. This is a man who rolls his Rs when playing a Manhattan District Attorney. This, where I come from, is to die for. A man like Warren William is worth 10,000 mush-mouthed modern movie cretins and I’d shout it from the highest mountaintop.
Some of my favorite performances of his are in the films The Mouthpiece (1932), Three on a Match (1932), The Match King (1932), Employees Entrance (1933), The Mind Reader (1933), and Gold Diggers of 1933, probably his best known performance today. He was the screen’s original Perry Mason in four movies, and played reformer crook-detective the Lone Wolf in eight films. And many more classics than we have mentioned here, although he was at his purest essence in those early pre-code movies. Warren William died of cancer at the age of 53.