Saturday, September 8, 2012

PRE-CODE PARADE: Warren William in THE MATCH KING (1932)

There was a real-life "Match King." Less than a year before Warner Bros. released their pseudo-biopic co-directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley, Ivar Kreuger killed himself in Sweden, abruptly ending a storied career that had fallen under suspicion. His kingdom was nearly global in scope; Wikipedia claims that at his peak Kreuger controlled between two-thirds and three-quarters of world match production. Whatever the legal facts of his career, Kreuger seemed to many observers like one of history's great con men. That made him a natural role for Warren William, though since names were changed presumably to protect the innocent, or avoid litigation, William's character was called "Paul Kroll." Changing the name gave Warners license to dramatize, turning the Krueger saga into an ultimate rags-to-riches story, as well as something like an equivalent for the world of finance to the studio's gangster films. The real Krueger's fate cast a shadow on William's characteristically charismatic performance, making The Match King probably the darkest of his Pre-Code starring vehicles.

As a young man Krueger lived in the U.S. for several years. Warnerized, Paul Kroll is first seen working as a sidewalk cleaner outside Wrigley Field (referred to generically as "Chicago Cubs Ball Park") where he and his boss run a con by reducing their workforce without reporting the fact to the Cubs, continuing to collect the ex-workers' paychecks. Though thoroughly Americanized -- William gives no hint of an accent -- Kroll is a son of Sweden and writes fanciful letters home telling of fictional financial success. Finally, he gets word from home that his business expertise is needed to save the family match business. He persuades his girlfriend (an atypically easily duped Glenda Farrell) to give him her savings, ostensibly so they can elope, but actually so he can travel alone to Sweden. Here he shows a gift for entrepreneurial bluster he never employed in America, convincing bankers to loan the match company money on his dubious credentials as a successful American businessman so the company can actually buy out another firm, eliminating competition and imposing economies of scale. This will be Kroll's m.o. throughout: keep growing by borrowing and trusting future profits to pay off his obligations. As he puts it several times over, to the point of monotony, "Don't worry about anything until it happens, then let me take care of it." For a while, it works, and at the same time he works the political game, negotiating for national monopolies in match sales in return for bailout loans often made with borrowed money. In this account it's all a big con with an emphasis on confidence and a core of truth: the businesses he buys do make money. But he never ceases to borrow, and after a while he becomes less concerned with accumulating and more concerned with living large with luxurious women. But a storm is coming, Mr. Kroll....

As a super-huckster, Kroll could almost be a hero. But unquenchable ambition corrupts him, especially after he's frustrated in love. When he learns that a disgruntled former employee has developed a "everlasting match" that could destroy his empire, but has never put the formula for the necessary compound in writing, Kroll has the man put in a lunatic asylum. The Depression proves more difficult to put aside. His match businesses continue to profit hugely -- people still need matches to light cigarettes, ovens, etc., but his constant need for more capital to pay off past loans hits a wall when the banks refuse to lend him more money. He tries a characteristic gambit, announcing a second dividend when most firms are doing without a first, in the hope of impressing the bankers, assuming that they want to make only safe loans. But his happy announcement only convinces the bankers that their money can be used better elsewhere, since Kroll apparently doesn't need it. In increasing desperation, he turns to a counterfeiter who provides him with fake Italian bonds -- and in an unexpected, shocking moment kills the man by dumping him into the water during a speedboat ride. The ruse with the bonds doesn't stand scrutiny, however, and Kroll finally faces a reckoning. Everything comes back to haunt him: he envisions not only himself but his faithful, naive assistant going to jail; the poor inventor raving in the madhouse; the counterfeiter going down for the last time. While Ivar Krueger apparently shot himself in bed, Paul Kroll climbs a balcony ledge and then shoots himself, so he can plunge to the street far below and an observer can say, "He rose up from the gutter, and he died in the gutter."

The Match King may have the most stunning death scene in the Warners canon apart from the unbeatably horrific finish of The Pubic Enemy. It's just not what you expect to see after you've grown accustomed to Warren William's con-man comedies. Even here you could feel that there's something heroic in his hucksterism, since he does save his family firm and his gambles, up to a point, pay off. Whom had he hurt on his way up apart from poor Glenda Farrell back in Chicago, and she was out only a few hundred bucks. But power corrupts -- we just rarely see power corrupt Warren William this badly. Though William was a star by now -- The Mouthpiece had been followed by The Dark Horse, Three on a Match and the M-G-M loaner Skycraper Souls before the end of 1932 -- The Match King is less a Warren William vehicle (I could see Edward G. Robinson doing it, too) than a slow-burning Depression-era indictment of the financial practices (and the motives behind them) presumed responsible for the world's economic disaster. It's a disquieting film because it shows us a typical, arguably lovable Warren William rogue turn into an outright monster. His characters usually face a fall after their rise, but it usually results only in his learning a lesson and changing his ways. We respect his drive too much, most of the time, to want to see him pay the ultimate price for his hubris. Here, however, while following the real-life Krueger model, he dies in the broadest sense for Wall Street's sins ... but when we next see him in this survey William will be nearly his most masterful as a man who withstands the Depression -- but at what cost to his heart?

If it's a Warner Bros. picture we have the trailer -- or to be correct, has it.

1 comment:

Judy said...

It's a little while now since I saw this, but I remember finding it a powerful film - and, as you say, a bleaker version of the huckster in William's comedies. Great review, Samuel.