Wednesday, September 12, 2012


By 1933 the Great Depression had thrown the utility of democracy itself into doubt. Movies reflected that anxiety and a darker longing for a strongman as Americans looked to Italy, then to Germany, or in some cases to the USSR for more effective models of government. Roy Del Ruth's Employees' Entrance comes early in this fateful year and is an adaptation of an older play, but it catches that anxiety for leadership in its ambivalent presentation of Warren William as a strongman of business. His department-store general manager is hard and ruthless, a heel in many ways, but you get the impression just the same that he's a necessary man for the moment, the type the business (if not the country) needs to get through the Depression and on to recovery.

Kurt Anderson (William) rose from nearly the bottom, the shipping department, to his position of power at Monroe's Department Store behind the ineffectual aristocrat owner. Graphics illustrate a surge in sales under Anderson's management until the Depression hits. While the owner tries to inspire his workers, from the remove of his yacht, with inane bromides, reminding them repeatedly that the founder was a descendant of James Monroe and Benjamin Franklin, Anderson grows still more intolerant of failure. We see him break a contract with a supplier whose labor troubles have delayed delivery of an important shipment, despite the supplier's protest that Anderson's action will ruin him. Anderson is unmoved; there's no margin for error now. Nor is there much time to be, as they said back then, "human." The store is his world, and in an almost surreal moment he wanders through the Home department at night, only to find a light on inside a model house. There's someone living there: a homeless newcomer to the city, Madeline Walters (Loretta Young), who thought that squatting would guarantee her the first spot in  tomorrow's line of job applicants. Anderson is more amused than angered, and the girl is pretty. He makes sure she gets a job, after he gets his that night.

Anderson realizes that, to survive, Monroe's must be willing to innovate and experiment. The workers, himself included, must be willing to sacrifice as well, He institutes a pay cut; whoever doesn't like it can quit. Whoever's unwilling to try new sales ideas can quit, if Anderson doesn't fire him first. One old-timer doesn't like a bright idea from young Martin West (Wallace Ford). West has noticed that women are more likely to buy men's underwear than vice versa. Why not sell men's underwear in the women's department? The idea scandalizes the old-timer, but Anderson can't afford not to try something, and he can't afford to keep dead weight like that old-timer on the payroll. Later, the old man comes back to the store and jumps out a window. Meanwhile, Anderson adopts West as a protege, hoping to mold him in his own image. That includes adopting Anderson's total devotion to business, and that means no close personal relationships with the opposite sex. Anderson treats women like objects -- he has another girl (Alice White, a failed studio project who probably gives her best Warners performance here) on the payroll just to seduce and thus distract another of the old fuddy-duddies on the board of directors -- and he urges West to do the same. What Anderson doesn't know is that West has not just fallen in love with Madeline, but married her in secret.

Things threaten to fall apart as the Depression deepens. Anderson's enemies on the board conspire to vote him out of office. Lest you root for that result, the movie makes clear that the coup would put Monroe's in the hands of bankers who would almost certainly ruin it and put everyone out of work. Meanwhile, Martin's secrecy strains his new marriage, until a fight at an office party drives Madeline back for one night into the arms of Anderson. When Anderson finally finds out the truth, he uses the tryst to turn West off  Madeline for good. But when she attempts suicide an enraged West resolves to kill Anderson. Expecting the board to vote him out at any moment -- his allies are desperately trying to contact the at-sea owner to get his proxy votes on their side -- Anderson practically welcomes death, daring Martin to shoot....

We assume now that Pre-Code audiences were pretty sophisticated, even if their product got dumbed down, as far as content was concerned, under Code Enforcement. But I'm not sure if 1933 viewers caught the almost homoerotic vibe I detected in the story. I have to say "almost" because the William character remains a seducer of women, but he's definitely a misogynist and clearly believes he can only have an emotionally satisfying (albeit all business) relationship with another man. In any event, his sexuality, such as it is, is sublimated, his libido transferred to aggressive entrepreneurship except during his rare, random downtime encounters with Madeline. Entrepreneurial aggression and competitiveness turn him on more than anything else. He approves when Martin dresses down a graphic artist whose fashion drawings aren't up to snuff, and he approves even more of that supplier we saw him destroy at the start of the picture. When he discovers the man working a menial job in Monroe's and learns that he's saving money to start a rival business for the sole purpose of destroying Anderson, he offers to invest in the venture. When the man spurns that offer, Anderson gives him a promotion instead, and his rise continues as the film goes on. If the suicide seems to damn Anderson's conduct, this recovery seems to vindicate him. If your alternatives during the Depression are despair or hate, he'll take hate. Something has to motivate people. My hunch is that Depression audiences wanted to see survival, not despair, and they applauded a degree of ruthlessness most often displayed in Warner Bros' pictures, whether by gangsters, gold diggers or the hard-charging hucksters Warren William so often played. In Employees' Entrance he's at his antiheroic height. He convinces the viewer that his course is necessary, even as the picture itself appears to agree that it imposes a cost that some people are understandably unwilling to pay. If that old man's suicide doesn't convince a viewer that William's character deserves ruin, then the picture has probably made its grim point, probably more obvious to its original audience, that not all of us will make it through -- not all of us have what it takes in hard times. There's a kind of consolation in the thought that not all of us need to be as ruthless as Kurt Anderson, that someone like Martin West can walk away, but not all of us have Anderson's responsibilities. Employees' Entrance is a film of its moment in its exploration of what it takes to be a leader when the nation seemed to need leadership more than ever, but still wasn't sure of what it wanted.

The original trailer stresses the heel aspect of the William character, though the film itself is somewhat more evenhanded. As usual, it's from

Note: TCM just broadcast another William movie, 1934's Upper World, this very morning, so this Warren William survey, which already had a few films to go, is far from over.

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