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. 


  1. Thanks for a great interview, Raquelle, and to Mr. Stangeland for his book on Warren William. Congratulations.

  2. What a wonderful interview! You asked some great questions that I would want to ask the author and John Stangeland's passionate responses were very interesting to read. I must say, the interview has done the trick and has sparked an interest in me to find out more on Warren William :)

  3. Marvelous interview Raquelle! Thank you to Mr. Strangeland for doing this for the classic film community!

  4. Thank you for that interview! And I thought I recognised Mr. Stangeland's name from somewhere--comic books!

  5. great interview Quelle, i def gotta get this book! funny, but i love 'Smarty', not that i think its a good film but its just so damn stoopidly funny i cant help myself!

  6. I've just watched two Warren William films, 'The Mouthpiece' and 'The Match King', both of which are brilliant. (I slightly preferred 'The Mouthpiece' which is amazingly witty and powerful and definitely deserves to be on DVD.)So I was very interested to learn more about him from this interview and your book review. I noticed the other day that Warner Archive has just released a set of three of his movies, but sadly they have only included one pre-Code.

  7. thank you for documenting his stories!!

  8. Great interview, I couldn't quite place Strangeland at the beginning. Never heard of Warren William before but it's whet my appetite. Thanks for sharing.

    Anthony Hopkins Movies


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