Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Interview with John Stangeland, Warren William biographer

I had the pleasure of interviewing John Stangeland, author of the book Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood (read my review of the book here). Apart from being a Warren William expert, an excellent writer and a swell guy all around, Stangeland is also a freelance comic book artist for Marvel, DC, Comico, Malibu and Now Comics. He owns a comic book store called Atlas Comics in Norridge, Illinois.

Please make sure you check out Stangeland's guest post on Cliff's website as well as Cliff's interview of Stangeland.

Stangeland is also on Twitter (@magnificentcad) and writes a blog called: Magnificentscoundrel's Blog: Celebrating Warren William, Hollywood's Genius of Scurility.


How did you first develop an interest in Warren William?

I've been watching classic Hollywood movies since I was a young kid in the early 70's, but it wasn't until 2004 that I encountered the essential Warren William. That summer, a friend gave me a tape of Skyscraper Souls, The Mouthpiece and Employees' Entrance, and I was both completely baffled and utterly fascinated. I couldn't believe I wasn't aware of him, especially since I was such a long time Warner Brothers fan. I subsequently realized that I had seen him multiple times before - in Imitation of Life and The Wolfman, among other pictures - but that those performances never made any kind of impression on me. His starring roles were clearly of a different stripe: forceful and charged with energy - unlike, for example Madame X, where he drifts in and out without much to do. I was hooked from that very day. From there, my curiousity got the better of me. With no solid information out there about him, I began some modest detective work and little by little I got hooked by the process.

Why did you decide to write this book? 

Besides my general interest, there were a few personal reasons for undertaking this project. First, the more I learned about Warren William the more I liked him, and the more I found him to share some similar characteristics with me. That made it very easy to devote my energy to uncovering his story. Also, my interest in history is very strong, and Warren's story - being famous and then forgotten - was extremely intriguing. I think the past is immensely important and not enough people pay attention to it, so the opportunity to document someone for modern audiences to rediscover was uppermost in my mind. Finally, it was my greatest opportunity to avoid beginning a creative project and not finishing it, something I've done a number of times. The energy, the interest and the desire were all there and stayed strong throughout, not the least because I respected and liked Warren William so much.  

What do you hope readers of your book will get out of the experience?

First, I hope they'll have a reasonably complete picture of Warren's life and the times in which he worked. More importantly, I hope readers take to heart the idea of sharing what they love with others around them. Anything someone hasn't read or seen before is new to them, and if anything - new or old - speaks to you, it should be passed on to those who can husband it for subsequent generations. That continuity is something like immortality. 

How long did it take you to write it and how much research did you do?

If I had been aware of how long this would all take I might have thought better of it right at the beginning! I did some online snooping for a number of months before I took my first research trip out to the West Coast in the summer of 2006. I really consider that the start of the actual process of writing the book. During the course of the next three years I went to Los Angeles twice more, and also traveled to New York, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Minnesota to dredge up leads. A lot of people helped along the way: archivists, historians, librarians, and of course Warren's surviving family members, who were nothing but gracious and generous with their time, memories and artifacts. In the end, I believe that there was about three solid years of research, and perhaps eighteen months of writing and pulling it together. Most of this was done in my spare time - nights and weekends - stretching the whole process to just over three and a half years from serious start to finished manuscript. 

Did you visit Aitkin, Minnesota, Warren William's home town, during your research?

I did indeed. It's about seven hours from where I live in Chicago, and I took a weekend trip there in 2008. The people couldn't have been nicer; I had a local writer (and resident Warren William fan) to show me around, and I was able to peruse the archives of the Aitkin Independent Age newspaper, which Warren's father owned. I even received a tour of the house young Warren William grew up in (built the summer he was five years old), which was a genuine treat. In addition to the opportunity to pick up facts that I couldn't find anywhere else, it was very helpful to get a sense of the place. Aitkin hasn't changed much in the intervening years, still being a small, close knit community. Seeing where Warren grew and played was indispensible for flavor and color. 

What was the most frustrating part of doing your research? Most joyful?

There was surprizingly little frustration in the research. A lot of things seemed to come together in pieces that fit very well with what I already knew. The joy of this project was most certainly encountering the extremely generous and good hearted people who helped me along the way. My Aitkin contact, Connie Pettersen, went above and beyond. Archivists at Warner Brothers, the Shubert organization, the American Academy and many other places were simply marvelous. The moment that I found Warren's neices (with the help of the lovely Valerie Yaroz at SAG) was very satisfying. Both Barbara and Patricia are particularly sweet, and meeting them was probably the high point of the process - they really love their famous uncle. 

Is there anything about Warren William you wanted to find out about but couldn't?

I really wish I had been able to discover more about Warren's health troubles during his final years. I did piece together a solid framework of the story, but I wanted to have access to more details. Unfortunately, those records are either long gone, or simply lost to the ages. Oh, and I'd certainly like to know more about Bette Davis' accusation of Warren's wolfish behavior towards her. It seems utterly out of place, but as a historian and researcher I can't dismiss it or confirm it without some further information.

Is there anything about Warren William that surprised you?

The fact that he and his wife Helen were so far apart in age - she was 17 years his senior - was quite a surprize. They stayed together the rest of their lives in spite of his parents objections, and the presumed siren calls of his being a film star during the Golden Age of Hollywood. THAT is an accomplishment.

Which film do you consider Warren William's best? Worst?

This is a VERY tough question. I've had the unenviable task of introducing Warren William to many people over the last five or six years, and I'm always aware of the difficulty of deciding just which persona that I want to reveal based on the temperament of the person who is seeing him for the first time. Not everyone appreciates him as the magnificent bastard of Skyscraper Souls or Employees' Entrance - he did his job so well in those pictures that some people simply dislike him as a result. If I were going to pick the film that seems the most satisfying to modern audiences AND features one of his best performances, it would be The Mouthpiece (1932). It has a great character arc, and some genuinely riveting scenes. And, although it has some modest deficiencies, I think Lady For a Day is quite satisfying. Although the focus of the picture is on May Robson, Warren has a fantastic role and gives a great performance in it.

As to his worst film, I'm going to have to pick Satan Met a Lady (1936). I know it is starting to garner a minor rep as an underrated screwball farce, but I'm not on that bandwagon. It's a cheap, unruly attempt to forge a mystery / comedy hybrid and it fails miserably, as least partly because Warren overplays his role to grotesque proportions. And my runner up is Smarty (1934) - as reprehensible and disagreeable a film as I've ever seen. 

What was the most fun piece of information/trivia you found out about Warren William?

The love he showed for dogs was simply amazing. Warren and his wife had no kids, and it was clear that their dogs were surrogate children for the couple. During his life he did a LOT of charity work for animal rights, and even donated some of his estate to help those creatures that had given him so much pleasure. The thing that almost everyone else comments on is his amateur inventing career, and the creation of his "rolling apartment" - the panel truck that he personally built and outfitted as one of the earliest recreational vehicles. If there were one other thing I'd like to have that I couldn't find, it would be some photographs of his motorized brain child.

The last thing I'd like to say, Raquelle - after thanking you for your interest - is that if people love Warren William, I hope they'll continue to spread the word of his career. My greatest wish is that 50 or 100 years from now, there are still fans talking about him and rediscovering his work. And if they want to learn more, I'm proud to have done the work for them to find out what they'd like to know. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood

Warren William
Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood
by John Stangeland
February 2011
212 pages
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 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

1.The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947) as Laroche-Mathieu
2.Fear (1946) as Capt. Burke
3.Strange Illusion (1945) as Brett Curtis [Also Known As Claude Barrington]
4.Passport to Suez (1943) as The Lone Wolf [Michael Lanyard]
5.One Dangerous Night (1943) as [Michael Lanyard] The Lone Wolf
6.Counter-Espionage (1942) as Michael Lanyard [Also Known As The Lone Wolf]
7.Wild Bill Hickok Rides (1942) as Harry Farrel
8.The Wolf Man (1941) as Dr. Lloyd
9.Secrets of the Lone Wolf (1941) as Michael Lanyard [Also Known As The Lone Wolf]
10.Wild Geese Calling (1941) as Blackie [Bedford]
11.The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance (1941) as Michael Lanyard [Also Known As The Lone Wolf]
12.Arizona (1940) as Jefferson Carteret
13.Trail of the Vigilantes (1940) as Mark Dawson
14.The Lone Wolf Keeps a Date (1940) as Michael Lanyard [Also Known As The Lone Wolf]
15.The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady (1940) as Michael Lanyard [Also Known As The Lone Wolf]
16.Lillian Russell (1940) as The Famous J. L. [Jessie Lewisohn]
17.The Lone Wolf Strikes (1940) as Michael Lanyard
18.Day-Time Wife (1939) as Bernard Dexter
19.The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) as D'Artagnan
20.The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1939) as Philo Vance
21.The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939) as Michael Lanyard [Also Known As The Lone Wolf]
22.Wives Under Suspicion (1938) as District Attorney [Jim] Stowell
23.The First Hundred Years (1938) as Harry Borden
24.Arséne Lupin Returns (1938) as Steve Emerson
25.The Firefly (1937) as Major De Rouchemont
26.Madame X (1937) as Bernard Fleuriot
27.Midnight Madonna (1937) as Blackie Denbo
28.Outcast (1937) as Dr. Wendell Phillips Jones
29.Go West Young Man (1936) as Morgan
30.Stage Struck (1936) as Fred Harris
31.Satan Met a Lady (1936) as Ted Shane
32.The Case of the Velvet Claws (1936) as Perry Mason
33.Times Square Playboy (1936) as Vic Arnold
34.Widow from Monte Carlo (1936) as [Major Allan] Chepstow
35.The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935) as Perry Mason
36.Don't Bet on Blondes (1935) as Odds Owen
37.The Case of the Curious Bride (1935) as Perry Mason
38.Living on Velvet (1935) as Gibraltar [Walter Pritcham]
39.Secret Bride (1934) as Robert Sheldon
40.Imitation of Life (1934) as Stephen Archer
41.Cleopatra (1934) as Julius Caesar
42.The Case of the Howling Dog (1934) as Perry Mason
43.The Dragon Murder Case (1934) as Philo Vance
44.Dr. Monica (1934) as John [Braden]
45.Smarty (1934) as Tony [Wallace]
46.Upper World (1934) as Alex Stream
47.Bedside (1934) as Bob [Brown, Later Known As J. Herbert Martell]
48.Goodbye Again (1933) as Kenneth [Bixby]
49.Lady for a Day (1933) as Dave The Dude
50.Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) as [J.] Lawrence [Bradford]
51.The Mind Reader (1933) as Chandra [Chandler, Also Known As Dr. Munro]
52.Employee's Entrance (1933) as Kurt Anderson
53.The Match King (1932) as Paul Kroll
54.Three on a Match (1932) as Robert Kirkwood
55.Skyscraper Souls (1932) as David Dwight
56.The Dark Horse (1932) as Hal S. Blake
57.The Mouthpiece (1932) as Vincent Day
58.Beauty and the Boss (1932) as Baron Josef Von Ullrich
59.Under 18 (1932) as Raymond Harding
60.The Woman from Monte Carlo (1932) as Lieutenant George D'Ortelles
61.Expensive Women (1931) as Neil Hartley
62.Honor of the Family (1931) as Captain Boris Barony

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