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By Susan M. Kelly

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Warren William Still Photo from Smarty1934 Warren William Real Photo CardA slender, striking appearance earned Warren William the title of “the poor man’s John Barrymore”.  Though he never quite achieved top level star status, his looks did help him break into the ranks of leading men, however briefly.  He made his mark mostly playing ruthless businessmen and cads but also headlined in three separate whodunit series.  His was an eclectic yet illustrious resume, giving credence to his talent and presence as one of Hollywood’s more dependable actors.

Warren Kretch was born in Aitkin, Minnesota in 1894.  The son of a newspaper publisher, his own journalistic aspirations quickly took a back seat to acting when he enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.  With the outbreak of World War I, young Warren joined the service and left for Europe.  He remained in France after the war and joined a theatrical troupe and eventually returned to the States in the 1920’s.

Upon his return he played in stock and made a few films on the East Coast.  In 1923 he had a small part in serial star Pearl White’s play “Plunder”.   Soon he heeded the siren call of Hollywood and, as Warren William, was signed by Warner Brothers in 1931.  He started out playing supporting roles in films like “Expensive Women” and “Under Eighteen” (both 1931) but his good looks quickly earned him a raise to leading man status.  He found steady work over the next several years, with appearances in everything from “Beauty and the Boss”, “The Mouthpiece”, and “The Match King” (all 1932) to “Employees Entrance”, “Goodbye Again” and “Dr. Monica” (all 1934).

When not putting him to work themselves, Warner Brothers loaned him out to other studios, where he gained note in the Damon Runyon story “Lady for a Day” (1933).  The following year, also on loan, he appeared opposite Claudette Colbert in “Imitation of Life”.  The pairing was so successful that they were cast again as Julius Caesar and his erstwhile lover in “Cleopatra” (1934).  A stunning masterpiece brought to life by the great Cecile B. 1936 Warren William Faccino's Tobacco CardDeMille, “Cleopatra” was chock full of outstanding performances, none more so than William’s.  Though vying for Colbert’s 1930's Quaker Oats Warren William Standeeattention with the dashing Henry Wilcoxon, as Marc Antony, William managed to stand out as arguably the quintessential Caesar.

Back at Warners the following year, William was cast in his first detective film, taking over from William Powell as Philo Vance in “The Dragon Murder Case”. Soon after, he became the screen’s first Perry Mason in “The Case of The Howling Dog” (1934). The film, based on Erle Stanley Gardner’s book, presented the only known case where Perry Mason actually defends a guilty client.  William’s interpretation is far removed from the more recognizable TV version of the detective. His Mason is somewhat less principled, willing to cut corner’s to defend his client. It’s an intriguing performance and bears watching for any true fans of the Gardner books.

He reprised the role of Mason in a string of films over the next few years, from “The Case of the Curious Bride” (1935), to “The Case of the Velvet Claws”(1936), another Mason groundbreaker which actually sees Perry married off to secretary Della Street!  When not filming detective roles, he continued to appear in a slew of other Warners movies including “The Secret Bride”, “Living on Velvet” (both 1935) and “Satan Met a Lady” (1936), a heavily veiled adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon”.

Upon finishing “Satan Met a Lady”, William left Warners to go freelance and found steady work alternating between leading man and character parts.  He appeared with Mae West in “Go West, Young Man” (1936) and reprised his Philo Vance role in the hilarious “The Gracie Allen Murder Case” (1939). Showcasing his great range, he appeared as D’Artagnan in “The Man In the Iron Mask” that same year.

1939 was a busy year for William.  On top of his other appearances, he began work on his third whodunit series, as lighthearted jewel thief Michael Lanyard in “The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt”.  The film kicked off what would become a very successful series of Columbia B movies including Warren William Tobacco Card with Mary Astor“The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady” (1940), “Secrets of The Lone Wolf” (1941), “Counter Espionage” (1942) and “Passport to Suez” (1943), among others.

When not headlining the Lone Wolf series, William kept busy with a series of character roles.  He appeared as Dr. Lloyd in the classic horror film “The Wolfman” (1941) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and in “Strange Illusion” (1945), a melodrama modeled after William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”.  In 1946, he had a role in “Fear”, a short but sweet version of “Crime and Punishment” and followed it up with a strong character part in 1947’s “The Affairs of Bel Ami”.

The role would prove to be his last, as his career was brought to an abrupt end with his death from cancer in 1948.  He was only in his early fifties at the time of his death, leaving fans and friends to wonder just how much more he might have accomplished. Though his career was all too brief, his legacy is no less remarkable.  He may not have achieved the status of John Barrymore, but Warren William was certainly a presence all the same.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey.  Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

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