William Powell and Warren William arrived at Warner Bros. around the same time, late in 1931, and shared the lot for about two years until Powell signed with M-G-M in 1934. Watching their Warners work this month -- Powell is TCM's Star of the Month, while the movie channel did a birthday tribute to William on Dec. 2 -- you get the impression that they must have competed for a lot of roles, since they often seem to be playing the same basic type. Each did take a turn at playing the then-popular detective Philo Vance -- Powell had been playing the role at Paramount earlier -- but the snob sleuth wasn't typical of either man's work at Warners. More to the point, Warren W. biographer John Strangeland relates that W.W. at least once inherited a role from W. Powell. The Dark Horse, one of W.W.'s signature films, was originally meant for W.P., but Powell was pulled, Strangeland relates, because his presence made it all too obvious that Dark Horse was a thinly-veiled and apparently unauthorized remake, with a change of milieu, of Mervyn LeRoy's High Pressure, Powell's second film for the studio. Does that make Warren W. and W. Powell interchangeable parts? Not necessarily. Knowing the inside story, and having seen High Pressure, I can see how the Dark Horse role was more a W.P. than a W.W. part.
Powell had a sort of bipolar screen persona, embodying contradictions and swinging between extremes, especially during the pre-Code era. Even afterward, he could be typed as a detective and a master thief at the same time. He could also be the embodiment of suave sophistication and a bum. W.P could play the extremes more broadly than W.W., from the evidence I've seen. Look at The Dark Horse again. W.W.'s flunkies tout him as the master political promoter of the age, but have to bail the star out of jail before he can go to work. W.W.'s offense is non-payment of alimony, and even behind bars he's fully functional and alive with schemes, working the cons into a frenzy to make an impression on his likely new clients. Compare that introduction with High Pressure. In the earlier film Frank McHugh plays basically the same role he does in Dark Horse as the great promoter's stooge. High Pressure opens with McHugh hunting the speakeasies for his master with an uneasy Jewish businessman, Mr. Ginzburg (George Sidney) in tow. The search has already gone on a while; "Worse than a needle in a haystack is a goy in a gin-shop," Ginzburg laments. They finally find Gar Evans (Powell) in a back room, dead drunk -- I mean Weekend at Bernie's drunk. Rumpled and unshaven, Powell is an effigy of himself, something McHugh can drop on the floor when the bartender informs him that Gar has run up a tab of over $100 -- and that's in 1932 money. "We don't want to buy him," Ginzburg protests, "We just want to rent him." Powell can touch bottom in a way I haven't yet seen Warren William do. His abjection, which proves to have something to do with romantic troubles, is a kind of metaphor for the country's depressed entrepreneurial spirit. But do we want this spirit awakened?
Gar Evans is a master promoter. He whips up interest in a business venture by giving it the appearance of already-achieved success and surefire growth. Properly groomed and sharply dressed after a lengthy steambath, he becomes an embodiment of prestige. A similar function is served by his stooge Clifford Gray (Guy Kibbee, who was retained and built up for The Dark Horse), little better than a bum himself out of season but an inexplicably impressive presence in suit and toupee -- he looks presidential. With Gray as front man, with rented space in a skyscraper, a pretentious board of directors (only short a few bank presidents; they've "been committing suicide so often there's only a few of them left.") and aggressive promotion -- Evans makes ethnically-coded pitches to Italians, Jews, Greeks, etc. -- the team drives up the stock price of "Colonel" Ginzburg's Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company -- Evans dubs Ginzburg a colonel "because you don't look like a Southern gentleman." Gar's pitches are like revival meetings as he reminds his marks of the great men skeptics laughed at like Columbus and, indeed, the Warner Brothers. The whole purpose of it all, the reason Ginzburg pours a small fortune into Evans's coffers, is to drive up the stock before the company produces any rubber from sewage through Ginzburg's miracle process, for which he depends upon an eccentric professor with a degree in chemistry from the University of Northern Jefferson at Detroit. It's a name Gar knows well -- it is, in fact, a diploma mill he ran as a racket back in the Twenties. Suddenly under pressure from the Better Business Bureau to produce rubber, and with the established rubber interests (represented by Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton) eager to eliminate a challenger, Gar and Ginzburg's future, and perhaps their freedom, depends on a madman....or does it?
High Pressure certainly takes a conflicted view of entrepreneurship. Gar is our undoubted hero, but he's also an arch huckster, a promoter whose efforts are disproportionate to the worth of the products he promotes. He's a con man, but Mervyn LeRoy and his writers seem to be saying that the nation may well need some of the confidence hustlers like Evans can instill. Pushing Golden Gate Artificial Rubber may be "the rummiest thing you've done yet," as Gar's long-suffering girlfriend (Evelyn Brent) says, but the movie still gives him a bluffer's chance to save Ginzburg and cash out a winner. The bluffer (so the separately-filmed French version was called) may be the archetypal pre-Code hero, be he a high-pressure promoter like W. Powell or W. William or the Groucho Marx sort who can double-talk foes into submission. There's a clear-eyed cynicism behind the bluffer's canonization, a hard admiration not for the lie, but for the risk he takes. There's also a recognition that the con man has to con himself or else become a living corpse like Powell is at the start of this picture. Today's idolaters of entrepreneurship might not see High Pressure as a flattering picture, but in its peculiar winking way its as much a vindication of the entrepreneurial ethos, almost, as Atlas Shrugged. It probably helps to have William Powell as your hero, as much one here as when he plays the unstoppable bandit in Jewel Robbery. He keeps the picture hopping, and LeRoy puts him through his paces with punchy efficiency. It's another exemplary amoral romp from the days when all conventional moral bets seemed off -- and as for whether W. Powell or Warren W. could romp amorally with more gusto, the jury's still out, and I demand more evidence.