By Susan M. Kelly
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
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
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.
DeMille, “Cleopatra” was chock full of
outstanding performances, none more so than William’s. Though vying for
attention 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
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”.
“Satan Met a Lady”, William left Warners to go freelance and found steady work
alternating between leading man and character parts. He appeared with
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 “The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady” (1940), “Secrets
of The Lone Wolf” (1941), “Counter Espionage” (1942) and “Passport to Suez”
(1943), among others.
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
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
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