Tuesday 3 November 2009

The Match King (1932)

Director: Howard Bretherton and William Keighley
Stars: Warren William, Lili Damita and Glenda Farrell

Five seconds of Warren William on screen in a precode and it's the easiest thing in the world to believe that he was the only actor who ever lived. Nobody else could do what he did on screen, and only the introduction of the Production Code could bring him down. After 1934, he spent the rest of his career as a shadow of his former self, simply not allowed to be the most magnetic rogue on screen, and when I say 'rogue' I don't mean a rogue like Errol Flynn or George Sanders, I mean a rogue like you've never seen before unless you've seen Warren William. He could do the most outrageous things, the most ruthless things, the most nefarious things, and make you love the fact that he did them to you.

Here he's Paul Kroll, who starts the film as a janitor working at the ballpark of the Chicago Cubs, getting chewed out by his boss for not pulling matches out of the cracks in the pavement. He soon switches that around though, coming up with scheme after scheme. He works out that one of his company of six can get into the ballgame simply because the other five can easily cover the work. When the boss discovers this and fires the man inside, he persuades him to keep the man's name on the payroll and split it between themselves. Soon it's eight men who don't exist and the money gets put into the bank account of the boss's babe, conveniently called Babe.

Of course Kroll wins over Babe and when his uncle Gustav calls him back to Sweden to help out at the family's match factory in Holmtide, he heads over on the money from Babe's bank account with her thinking they're going to California. Gustav thinks that Kroll is doing him a huge favour, given that he has such huge holdings back in Chicago, but Kroll cons him too, along with everyone else, even organising a bank loan with those non-existing holdings as collateral. Only Erik Borg, who he went to university with, knows he's a fraud and he brings him on board to keep him quiet, reiterating his motto, 'Never worry about anything until it happens,' he says, 'and I'll take care of it then.'

This film is only 79 minutes long and it blisters along at such a pace that it feels like half that. We're breathless when it finishes, because Kroll doesn't just take over the Holmtide Match Co, but the neighbouring village's match factory too. Then it's another and another until he's obtained a monopoly over all match manufacture in the whole of Sweden. First Sweden, then Poland, through a canny trade at just the right moment, courtesy of one of his girlfriends who sleeps with the right politicians. He gives them enough money to balance their budget at the last minute and in return takes a monopoly there too. On and on he goes, shifting countries so quickly that we have to see where he is by the names emblazoned on the ground at the airfields he flies into, names that hover like the similar locations in TV's Fringe.

Eventually you'd think there was nowhere left for him to move upward to, so he comes up with a concept just as relevant today. He can't sell any more matches because there isn't a need for any more matches, so he has to create a need. He invents a superstition that it's bad luck to light a third cigarette with the same match, propagating it through the media. It's a primitive form of DRM through social engineering, attempting to enforce not just who you can buy a particular product from but how you can use it, just as the music and software industries are attempting to do today through the aid of technology. Kroll has them outdone in the ruthless stakes though, as evidenced by what he does to the man who invents with the everlasting match or the forger who provides him with valuable forged bonds.

As hard as it might be to believe, Warren William played a number of men as ruthless as this in the precode era, films like Skyscraper Souls, Employees' Entrance and The Mouthpiece, and he did so better than anyone else ever could. Paul Kroll doesn't have a single redeeming characteristic, not one, yet we can't help willing him on in everything he does, whether that be his business of taking over the world or his wooing of the lovely film star Marta Molnar, the only character in this story to come close to being a match for him (pun very much intended). She's played powerfully by Lili Damita, given that Greta Garbo was unavailable to play a role based on herelf, and she leads him on a merry chase, but we're heartbroken when it's finally over.

How Warren William did what he did isn't easy to fathom. It's obviously part talent and part charm, qualities he had in abundance, but there are a lot of talented charming actors out there. Even adding in the time, given that he found himself in the right place at absolutely the right time; ready, willing and able to play these parts that nobody else could play during that tiny five year window when they could be made. Whatever it was we can only be thankful for it and wish that there were more of these pictures out there to be found. Each one I cross off my list is a discovery, but I don't have too many of them left, more's the pity.

There's able support here, not just from Lili Damita, but also from names like Glenda Farrell, who plays Babe, and Claire Dodd, who plays one of his spies in foreign lands. Alan Hale has a very brief part, as does Harold Huber. The script is solid, fast paced and consistent and the direction, by two directors rather than one, is similar. The biggest name though, other than William, belongs to a man who isn't even associated with the film except through inspiration. He's Ivar Kreuger, the real Match King, who built his empire through a Ponzi scheme similar to what Bernard Madoff did recently, until with 75% of the world's match industry under his thumb, the whole thing collapsed and he took his own life in March 1932, nine months before this film was released. His story was as fantastic as a Hollywood movie, which no doubt is why it quickly became one. It's just as timely a warning today as it was 77 years ago in what apparently wasn't always a different age.

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