Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood
by John Stangeland
McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers
In the complete portrait of Warren William there is no legacy, only a career. What we are doing when we see him on screen is simply watching a man work. If he has a legacy at all, it is not in his craft, but in the incredible success he had in remaining true to himself. - John Stangeland
This book is for classic film enthusiasts who are not satisfied with just scratching the surface of old Hollywood but want to dig deep and discover the machinations through the stories of those figures, including Warren William, who really made early film what it was.
John Stangeland provides us with a thorough examination of the life and career of Warren William starting from his family settlement in Aitkin, Minnesota, following him to his theater days in New York, then his film days in Hollywood and finally to his death in 1948. Stangeland is comprehensive and thorough. He pored over many documents, letters and books and interviewed surviving family members to create what has become a suitable tribute to Warren William. This book was truly a labor of love.
Why should you care about Warren William? First of all he was an interesting man. He was a well-dressed, modest, talented and hard-working actor. William shined best when he was paired equally with an actress, enhances her performance with his own. He was classically trained and had a substantial theater career before he started in films. Besides his acting talents, he was an avid mariner, had a talent for inventing new devices, had a passion for raising and caring for wire-haired terriers and wasn't afraid of working hard and getting his hands dirty. Second, he's an example of how early Hollywood, especially Warner Bros. studios, was often times self-destructive. We saw WB's reluctance to let Humphrey Bogart shine in the 30s until Bogie fought back and got himself the role in High Sierra that would catapult him to stardom. Oftentimes, Hollywood needed opportunists, people like Errol Flynn and Bette Davis, to show them what they were missing. Talented, hard-working and responsible actors like Warren William were often overlooked because they were either easy to pigeon-hole into one category or were held back in such a way they couldn't showcase their true talents. Warren William's star never quite rose to the Hollywood heavens before it started to fall. His story is both happy and sad. He could have been a great star yet, as Stangeland has noted, William's first priority was to be true to himself and that kind of stardom might have come at a significant cost.
The book reads both like a thoroughly researched and well-organized biography and as a tribute. It follows in chronological order, starting with the first 100 years before Warren William's birth, through his childhood, school years, WWI, marriage, careers and death. I appreciate the structure and order of the book which made digesting all the information provided a lot easier than if it had jumped back and forth through time. Each performance, both theater and film, is given a thorough description followed by Stangeland's thoughts on the work as well as audience and critic reaction. This allows us to see how many ups and downs William's career really had. However, Stangeland is clearly a fan of Warren William and the book does have some bias. I think this helps the book more than hurts it. Stangeland's admiration for Warren William gives the book a personal tone that makes it a very enjoyable read. Instead of a dry, methodical recounting of Warren William's life, we get a story filled with interesting details that are loving pieced together to show a favorable portrait of the actor. Stangeland addresses some rumors including the persisting one that exists in various Bette Davis biographies of William hitting on Davis during the filming of The Dark Horse. Stangeland discounts the validity of this rumor and provides evidence that backs up his claims. He does this consistently with every rumor he encounters and debunks. Who knows, maybe William did hit on Bette Davis but for my part, I'm satisfied with Stangeland's conclusion and admire him for backing it up. However, at some points of the book I kept thinking that the author gave William too much benefit of the doubt. I would have done the same thing if I had written a biography of my favorite actor, Robert Mitchum. We always want to present our favorite people in the best light possible. The last few paragraphs of the book changed my mind completely on this point and I could see that Stangeland presented his hero as a flawed yet admirable man.
I want to thank John Stangeland for having his publisher send me a copy of this book for review. I'd also like to thank Cliff over at Warren-William.com for getting me interested in Warren William's work as well as recommending me to Stangeland. Please make sure you check out Cliff's review of the book.
Warren William Filmography from TCMDB