The 'Walter Pidgeon' & Warren William' Collections

by Michael Barrett

23 March 2011

The Woman from Monte Carlo (1931) 

Signature Collection: Warren William

Signature Collection: Warren William gathers three films of this almost-forgotten ‘30s leading man who was imported to Hollywood from Broadway for the talkies. He often played detectives, including Perry Mason, Philo Vance, and the Lone Wolf. Had he been working for MGM instead of Warner Brothers, he could easily have made the two Pidgeon movies reviewed above. He starred in early Bette Davis vehicles as well as the classic women’s films Imitation of Life and Madame X. He also made the remarkable Skyscraper Souls, which is better than anything on this DVD set but isn’t available yet.

The title Times Square Playboy (1936) doesn’t have much to do with anything except to summarize William’s persona in many films. There was something dashing about him, although he was already older, a roué with a touch of grey. He could be elegant but as someone who had pulled himself up with street smarts. Here he’s upstaged by a pair of reliable character actors, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart. They’re the parents of June Lockhart—if you’re saying “Who?” you’ll just have to look it up.

cover art

Signature Collection: Warren William

Director: William C. McGann/Robert Florey/Michael Curtiz
Cast: Warren William, Lil Dagover, Walter Huston

US DVD: 18 Jan 2011

This may be the closest Gene ever got to a starring role. He dominates the screen and makes everything happen as a hick from the sticks who’s William’s best man at the upcoming wedding, and the whole thing takes place in 24 hours of misunderstandings. The moral is that everyone can be pigheaded and prejudiced, both the “Main Street mind” of Lockhart (a reference to Sinclair Lewis’ novel) and the “Wall Street mind” of the city slickers whom he stupidly insults. From a play by George M. Cohan, it’s all snappy talk, and the Lockharts are much more interesting than anyone else. For good reason, they convince as a couple who’ve been stuck with each other for years.

Don’t Bet on Blondes (1935) casts William as a successful bookie who goes straight and starts selling wacky insurance policies in emulation of Lloyd’s of London. When a typically rotund, julep-sipping Kentucky colonel (Guy Kibbee) takes out a policy to insure his famous actress-daughter won’t get married for three years while he finishes his book proving that the South didn’t lose the Civil War, everyone in the audience and even in the theatre across the street must know exactly what’s going to happen by the end of the movie. By the way, the daughter isn’t even blonde, so this title makes no particular sense either.

Once again, what we have is a fast Warner Brothers programmer full of snappy, slangy lingo, always hep to speech patterns of different classes. As played by a host of supporting characters such as William Gargan and Hobart Cavanaugh (and who plays the heroine’s five-minute fiancé but young Errol Flynn), we have a pleasantly empty, very professional diversion directed by Robert Florey, a B director of some reputation who later moved successfully into TV.

Times Square Playboy

Times Square Playboy

The third film in the set is the earliest, The Woman from Monte Carlo (1931). In The Great Movie Stars, David Shipman calls it “the first Hollywood vehicle for Lil Dagover (only it was a hearse and she returned to Germany)”. She’s fine in the manner of the day, striking plucked-eyebrow poses and delivering her lines clearly and naturally enough, although she often lapses into German because her character’s from Vienna.

There’s not much she can do with this role of a French Navy captain’s compromised wife in an absurd situation where she’s stuck on board a torpedoed ship in possession of evidence that will clear her husband’s name while ruining her marriage at the start of the Great War. It’s based on a melodramatic French play about honor and such. The ending, which is technically unhappy without being tragic, is the kind of thing more common in pre-Code films than later, when things would probably have been patched up better.

There’s nothing wrong with the production values on this early talkie. Ernest Haller’s camera glides among the passages and stairwells of the ship (sets designed by Anton Grot, who specialized in the big and ominous). Master director Michael Curtiz is already playing with his beloved shadow effects in an early scene where the scoundrel casts his shadow against a bulkhead to announce his sinister presence. Films of this date didn’t have background music and we don’t miss it. The ending has a very interesting, spinning optical effect for Dagover’s psychology and the transition to the last scene.

William has a supporting role. The show belongs to Dagover and Walter Huston, one of those actors who seemingly never gave a performance that wasn’t totally there. He’s a stern but likeable captain who doesn’t have time to express his feelings for his wife but expresses them anyway, and he’s never less than believable in a story that’s never quite believable. When he discusses the fact that he’s just over twice his wife’s age, this perhaps unwittingly echoes the circumstances of Dagover’s own early marriage to an established actor 25 years older, so she may have had no trouble identifying with her character.

Don't Bet on Blondes

Don’t Bet on Blondes

Dagover was a major star and an interesting actress. Most of her career was in Germany, including classic silents like The Cabinet of Caligari, several Fritz Lang films, and the wonderful Hungarian Rhapsody. The same year as her single Hollywood film, she made a classic German musical, The Congress Dances. She stayed in the German industry during Hitler and outlasted it, appearing in postwar films into the ‘70s.

As Dagover’s only Hollywood film, who knows whether it would have attracted enough attention among connosseurs of classics, even with Huston and director Curtiz? As part of a set with two other films starring William, it seems that much more worth a look. At least that’s what Warner Archives hopes, and it’s a good idea even though William made better films. Perhaps it should have been called “The Warren William Trivial Trio”, but that hasn’t quite got the same ring.

Signature Collection: Warren William


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