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Book Points: January 2013

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Posted: Friday, March 8, 2013 5:02 pm

 Warren William (1894-1948) is an actor best known as the "King of Pre-Code" for his roles as conniving heels, but who, previously, has not been deemed worthy of a full-length biography. This, thankfully, has changed, with the release of Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood by John Strangeland (McFarland softcover, $45).

    Some facts, first: He was born Warren William Krech, in Aitkin, Minnesota, in a well-to-do family; he had a brother, who only lived four days, and two sisters, Pauline and Elizabeth. His early goal was to be a ship's captain or a marine engineer; he had a passion for building things, and would tinker with various inventions throughout his life.

    Once acting became his main interest, he performed in plays in high school. In 1915, he enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. After graduation, he appeared in plays with the Brooklyn Repertoire Company.

    Drafted in 1917, he joined the 136th Infantry Division and his acting career was put on hold until he was discharged in 1919. In 1918, he had met Helen Barbara Nelson, a friend of his sister, and seventeen years his senior. They would wed in 1923, and remained married until William's death.

    After the war, he picked up where he left off; he toured with the play I Love You, and when it ended months later, he found work with an Erie, Pennsylvania, stock company. William made his Broadway bow in Mrs. Jimmie Thompson (1920), and acted with the Theatre Guild in the short-lived John Hawthorne (1921).

    In New York, he made his film debut in 1922, billed as Warren Krech, in The Town That Forgot God. Fox offered him a film contract at this time, but he turned it down in favor of stage work. He returned to film the following year to appear in a serial called Plunder.

    The 1920s were a busy time for the young actor, as he appeared on Broadway in We Girls, Expressing Willie, Nocturne, The Blue Peter, Rosmersholm, Twelve Miles Out, Easter One Day More, Fanny, Paradise, Veils, The Golden Age, and Sign Of The Leopard, etc., toured with other productions, and signed a contract with the Schubert Organization.

    In 1924, on the advice of his sister, Pauline, he shortened his professional name to Warren William, and he also grew the mustache that would become his trademark. (He would appear with mustachio in all his later films, except Cleopatra and Dr. Monica.)

    In 1930-31 he appeared in the Broadway hit The Vinegar Tree. With this great success, Warner Bros. became aware of the dashing star who many thought resembled John Barrymore. He made his Warners debut in 1931, and at first the studio didn't know quite how to cast him. He had been a sophisticated, refined type on Broadway, but very soon William moved smoothly, and enthusiastically, into seamier territory, cornering the market on playing cads and amoral types with a deep voice oozing a sex appeal that sounded positively sinful.

    The pre-Code era was Warren William's heyday, as he seduced young innocents and cheated the suckers out of their cash; a magnificent bastard, he was seen to advantage in The Mouthpiece, Skyscraper Souls, Employees' Entrance, The Mind Reader, and Bedside, etc. One of his best roles during this early period was as Dave the Dude in Frank Capra's Lady For a Day. He also played Julius Caesar in Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra.

    The end of the pre-Code era in 1934 was a serious blow to William's career, as his predatory nature had to be toned down. Also not helping was his overall docile nature; never ambitious, he accepted whatever role Warners handed him, no matter how trivial, not realizing that this could harm his career. He came to be regarded as a solid anchor for strong actresses such as Kay Francis, Claudette Colbert, and Barbara Stanwyck.

    Notably, he was the first actor to portray Perry Mason, imbuing the part with some welcome humor, in four movies; he also played detective Philo Vance (twice) and Ted Shane, the latter a stand-in for Sam Spade in the second filming of The Maltese Falcon, 1936's Satan Met A Lady.

    Problems at Warners started when he wanted to be cast in the title role of Captain Blood (1935); they had announced him for it, but never seriously intended it for him. From then on, he became difficult, turning down parts, and haggling over money. It did him no good, and, soon, William found himself being cast more and more in B movies. He made his last movie for them in 1936.

    After this, he signed with Emanuel Cohen's Major Pictures, an Indie that distributed through Paramount. Many trace the real downfall of his career to his association with MGM, who put him under contract in 1937. Although his deal with the studio seemed like a good one, it ended up diminishing his star status, as they cast him in supporting parts. "I feel like the forgotten man of pictures," he remarked after breaking his deal with them.

    In late 1938 he was assigned to play ex-jewel thief Michael Lanyard, aka The Lone Wolf, in a series of B mysteries at Columbia; he would make a total of nine movies as the character from 1939 to 1943. While they were second features, they afforded him a good chance to show his stuff, and they remain entertaining B's. While starring at Columbia, he freelanced at the other studios, supporting parts in bigger movies, notably in Universal's The Wolf Man.

    In 1943, he returned briefly to the stage, appearing in There's Always Juliet. But, he was slowing down; he said he needed rest after so many years of making movies, but his inactivity was also due to some lingering health problems, and his wife’s own battle with cancer. William starred on a syndicated radio program called Strange Wills (1946), but he was tiring easily and was generally unable to work, and his doctors could not figure out the reason. Then, in December of '47, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the bone marrow. The 53-year-old William's health rapidly declined; his suffering came to an end nine months later when he died at his Hollywood home with his wife by his side. A few months later, his wife Helen died at the age of 71, of congestive heart failure.

     Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood relates all this (better) and, naturally, adds much more, filling in the blanks of William's previously “mysterious” personal life. So little is known of this very private man. It's funny, one of the only things I can recall reading of a personal nature about him was in a questionable “biography” about Bette Davis in the late '80s. This information has since been quoted elsewhere whenever anyone writes anything about Warren William. Here, Strangeland seriously questions the authenticity of the claims made about William—and it's about time. It didn't sound right to me when I initially read it; to me, it came across as a biographer assuming that William was just like his pre-Code wolves, and taking pleasure in painting that comfortably false picture of him. Our thanks to Strangeland for calling him out on it.

    The author is also very honest about William's stature in Hollywood. I've read enough books where the authors over praise their subjects, making them seem bigger than they were. Or else, the author talks of a conspiracy that robbed them of their rightful fame. Worse yet are those so-called historians ignore history altogether and are blind to their actors' lack of star quality. Strangeland knows exactly where William fit, what his troubles were, and how it affected the outcome of his career. He never overdoes it, but is very realistic about the progression and regression of Warren William's career.

    No excessive plot summation here, either—thank God. Both life and career are handled equally throughout; it's an even mix of story, opinion, and behind-the-scenes. While I didn't quite agree with the author's long deconstruction of Smarty (1934), I did respect his observations.

    The personal info here is the big reason to buy this. The author went to a lot of trouble to contact William's family and he has obtained some very rare personal data, as well some tremendously rare photos showing William as a child. In particular, his research work in William's hometown and about his stint in the Army is marvelous.

    I cannot recommend this volume too highly. Here it is January and we have one of the best of the year already. Strangeland is a good, thoughtful writer, with a keen understanding of what the reader wants to read. His research is impeccable, and he has done his subject proud. I especially loved reading Strangeland's description of William's screen persona, and he got off many good turns of phrases in the process. Why can't all biographies be like this?

    Mel Blanc: The Man Of A Thousand Voices by Ben Ohmart (BearManor Media softcover, $44) is the long-overdue biography of the Man of a Thousand Voices. Blanc (1908-89) is world-renowned and beloved for doing the voices of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Marvin the Martian, Pepé Le Pew, Speedy Gonzales, the Tasmanian Devil, and many other characters from the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons released by Warners. He also voiced Woody Woodpecker and The Flintstone's Barney Rubble, and was heard on many radio shows, notably Jack Benny's program, where he portrayed the long-suffering violin teacher and also the train station announcer whose famous cry was, "Train leaving on Track 5 for Anaheim, Azusa and Cuuuucamonga!,” among other great characters.

    This volume is a bit pricey, yes, but at more than 700 pages it is well worth it. Mel's work was extensive, and tackling such a career is a daunting prospect. I was impressed firstly with the way the author organized the whole thing. The book is broken up into sections, and this makes the hectic life and career of Mel Blanc easier to navigate. There's a lot here; Ohmart's biography is blended fluidly with Mel's son Noel's unpublished biography (set in bold type), and there's also a well-placed, painstaking discussion of his recorded work. This is all capped off by a thorough itemization of his film and cartoon credits, and a full discography.

    Ohmart's writing style is readable, as always. He has done a number of these biographies on voice actors—Paul Frees, Daws Butler, and Alan Reed, et al.—and he is a natural and knowledgeable author with a genuine love for what he is writing about. There's a casual style that he has that perfectly complements his subjects. Ohmart is also quite witty and his little puns here and there, or his play on words, are so unassuming that they work well at entertaining the readers and informing them. He has so much data that the first impulse would be to cram it all in, but none of it seems forced or excessive—a mark of a good writer and organizer.

    Walt Mitchell's discussion of each of Mel's records is superb, as well. He really knows his stuff and his own past interviews with Mel and his associates adds much. It's an enjoyable blending of background info, opinion, and a real affinity for Mel's talent, as well as an overall knowledge of recordings in general. I do think it was a mistake, however, to allow Mitchell to have his own “acknowledgments” at the end of this section, because he tends to be long-winded and repetitive. It's not something Mel's fans would be interested in reading in the middle of a biography. Place it in the beginning, I say.

    The credit list must be seen to be believed, it's a marvel of research, and here Ohmart was aided by Keith Scott, a top authority on animation.

    Photos throughout are excellent, and many are rare candid shots.

    Here is one instance, at least, where saying this is the ultimate biography is a reality and no idle boast.

    I am not a particular fan of the series, but I know quite a few people who adore the '80s show Beauty and the Beast. Above & Below: The Unofficial 25th Anniversary "Beauty And The Beast" Companion by Edward Gross (BearManor Media softcover, $19.95) is a dream guide for fans of the 1987-90 live-action television series created by Ron Koslow. It starred Linda Hamilton as assistant district attorney Catherine Chandler who is saved and nursed back to health by Vincent (Ron Perlman), a "beast" who dwells beneath the streets of Manhattan. The series followed their unraveling romantic relationship and the adventures they shared as their two very different worlds collided.

    Surprisingly, at least to me, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes intrigue, as the author recounts the many creative struggles with the network and even star Hamilton over the direction of the storyline.

    Notice that the title says this is an “unofficial” companion. No authorized take could surpass the scope Gross has given his volume. The amount of interviews alone is staggering, and what he got out of the cast and crew is simply amazing. This is an extremely honest and fascinating account. It even drew me in, someone never interested in the series.

    Rarely have I seen a more exhaustive history of a TV series. The author gives us loads history, bickering back and forth, and extensive interviews, while also taking up each episode one-by-one in detail. All this in less than 200 pages—he packs a lot into his narrative, believe me. Very interesting, dishy, one-of-a-kind stuff, and for everyone who loves this show, it's gold.

    The Writings Of Paul Frees by Paul Frees (BearManor Media softcover, $19.95) is pretty weak stuff. This volume includes a full-length screenplay (The Demon from Dimension X!), TV treatments and songs written for Spike Jones, and boasts "never before published rarities." Well, sorry, there was a very good reason it was never published.

    Paul Frees was immensely talented, one of the best voice men out there, and not a bad actor—check him out in Suddenly with Frank Sinatra. But, as a writer—Frees was one of the best voice men. In particular, the screenplay, The Demon from Dimension X!, is ripe with cliché and so mundane. I kept thinking, “Where have I read this before?” The answer is: Every single science-fiction film since the '50s—yes, Frees used little bits of 'em all. There's nothing new here. Frees isn't a bad writer, really, he's just not original.

    Your best bet would be to buy Welcome, Foolish Mortals ... The Life And Voices of Paul Frees by Ben Ohmart to revel in Frees' colorful life and amazing body of work as an actor and voice artist.

    Restore Point: Scripts For Radio And Film by Damien Broderick ($19.95) is more original. Prize-winning Australian writer Damien Broderick gives us three solid science-fiction stories here: “The Truth Machine,” “Transmitters,” and “Besterman.” I am going to be honest with you here, though: The stories  just were not my cup of tea. This is for genre fans, naturally, and, if you're game, give this a try.

    Out in Softcover: American Frontiersmen on Film and Television: Boone, Crockett, Bowie, Houston, Bridger and Carson by Ed Andreychuk (McFarland, $35.00) is a detailed look at the movies and television series dealing with the historical figures Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Sam Houston, Jim Bridger, and Kit Carson. I like the way the author compares the real and reel facts, and gives us new ways of looking at the movies and the interpretations of the frontiersmen discussed—good job.

    Out in Softcover: Slasher Films: An International Filmography, 1960 through 2001 by Kent Byron Armstrong (McFarland, $45) is pretty comprehensive as an A to Z guide—if you are into this genre. Over 250 slasher films are discussed, often in ghastly detail. Classics and not-so-classics are dissected, so to speak: Alice, Sweet Alice, American Psycho, The Burning, Cherry Falls, Curtains, Deep Red, Frenzy, Hide and Go Shriek, Maniac, Prom Night, Scream, Sleepaway Camp, Slumber Party Massacre, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, etc.

    Don't go looking for in-depth commentary or behind-the-scenes stories—it's not here; with so many movies to cover, this is impossible. True, there is a bit more plot synopses than I would like, but if you are a fan of these movies this is a handy reference, nothing more. The cheaper price for this softcover should make this more attractive to buyers.

    I do prefer this over John Kenneth Muir's more exhaustive separate volumes of each decade. I dislike Muir's writing style and commentary in general; it runs too long, and in my opinion, his love of his own opinions keeps him from understanding the needs of the reader.

And, remember, tell them you read about it in Classic Images!