Tuesday, August 1, 2017

#2,398. The Match King (1932)

Directed By: Howard Bretherton, William Keighley

Starring: Warren William, Lili Damita, Glenda Farrell

Line from the film: "Never worry about anything 'til it happens. Then I'll take care of it"

Trivia: The character of Marta Molnar is based on Greta Garbo. Warner Bros. tried unsuccessfully to borrow Garbo from MGM for the role

Most stars emerged from the Pre-Code era virtually unscathed, and went on to have successful careers. A few, like Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, James Cagney, and a handful of others, even rose to the ranks of Hollywood royalty.

And then there’s Warren William.

A former Broadway star, William appeared in over two dozen movies between 1931 and 1934, including Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Cleopatra (in which he was Julius Caesar). Yet what made him such a popular actor during this time period was his penchant for playing total bastards, and one of the most amoral characters he ever portrayed was Paul Kroll, the lead in 1932’s The Match King.

Inspired by the true story of Swedish match tycoon Ivar Kreuger, The Match King opens with Paul Kroll quitting his job as a Chicago janitor to become the CEO (at his uncle’s behest) of a floundering matchbox factory in his native Sweden. By lying about the “financial success” he enjoyed in America, Kroll secures a small loan from the bank, saving the company from ruin. But his dreams for the match factory are much bigger than that, and with the help of his old friend Erik (Hardie Albright), Kroll transforms the business into the world’s largest supplier of matches (with monopolies in countries such as Poland and Germany, just to name a few).

As it did with most businesses, the stock market crash of 1929 hit Kroll’s company pretty hard, forcing the tycoon to get a bit “creative” when trying to raise additional capital. The biggest threat to Kroll’s empire, however, proved to be his love affair with actress Marla Molnar (Lili Damita), which distracted him from his duties for long stretches of time.

With the bank breathing down his neck, Kroll makes one last-ditch effort to save his struggling company. But is it too little too late?

Paul Kroll shows his true colors early on in The Match King; while working as a janitor at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, he convinces one of his co-workers to take a break and watch the ball game, then rats him out to the Foreman (John Wray), who immediately fires the “lazy” employee. But instead of reporting this termination to the main office, Kroll suggests they keep it a secret, thus allowing them to continue collecting the fired employee’s paycheck each week. To make matters worse, Kroll is having an affair with the Foreman’s wife (Glenda Farrell), which ends the moment he bilks her out of $400.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg for Paul Kroll, who, over the course of the movie, lies, cheats, and steals his way to the top of the corporate ladder, blackmailing government officials so they sell only his brand of matches in their country, and, later on, resorting to forgery (and worse) to keep his company afloat. William does a fine job breathing life into what is essentially a despicable character, and in spite of all the wrong that he does, we actually kinda admire Paul Kroll. We don’t root for him, mind you, but William’s spirited portrayal ensures that, at the very least, we want to see what he’s going to do next.

Warren William continued to make movies until his death in 1948, though he never achieved the same level of success he enjoyed at the beginning of his career, when he was dubbed the “King of Pre-Code”. Once the Hays code took effect, the devious characters that had made Warren William a star were either eliminated or reduced to supporting roles. And it’s a shame, too, because if his performance in The Match King is any indication, Warren William was damn good at playing bad.

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