People who discover the provocative pre-Code movies made in the early 1930s inevitably become fans of leading man Warren William, an urbane actor (sometimes referred to as the poor man’s John Barrymore) who starred in so many memorable films of that period: Beauty and the Boss, Skyscraper Souls, The Mouthpiece, Employees Entrance, The Dark Horse, Three on a Match, The Match King, and many more.
He also gave fine performances as Dave the Dude in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day and served Cecil B. DeMille well as Julius Caesar in Cleopatra. He played a number of prominent detectives including Philo Vance and lawyer/sleuth Perry Mason before starring in his own B movie series asThe Lone Wolf. In later years he transitioned to character roles, effectively playing an older D’Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) and a suave villain in Edgar G. Ulmer’s modern take on Hamlet; Strange Illusion (1945).
As longtime Warren William admirers, my wife and I are enjoying a recent discovery: an obscure radio show from the 1940s in which he stars called Strange Wills. It’s the latest oddity to be unearthed by the folks at Radio Archives, who seek out original transcription discs from the period and perform audio transfers so flawless that you’d swear the shows were being broadcast “live.” There are twenty-six half-hour episodes in all. At one time I would have purchased the physical CDs, but I am finally making the move toward a virtual audio library and simply paid for a zip file instead. To learn more or purchase the shows click HERE.
I wish I could tell you that Strange Wills is a major find. It’s not: it’s a pulpy melodrama about a probate lawyer named John Francis O’Connell who becomes involved with the lives—and fates—of the “strange people” who have left behind “strange wills,” attempting to control the people closest to them from beyond the grave. The show was produced by one of the many enterprising production companies that popped up in Hollywood, especially in the 1940s, ready to supply local stations with professional (if uninspired) programming, usually featuring a Hollywood star who was no longer on the A list. Warren William’s days as a marquee leading man were behind him, but he still had a recognizable name that would attract listeners. Teleways produced the shows, utilizing one writer (Ken Krippene—who purportedly based his scripts on real-life cases), a small supporting cast, minimal sound effects, and organ music by Del Castillio. (The discs were sent out to local stations, which would insert local advertisements at appointed breaks in the show. On these original transcriptions—as opposed to air checks—we’re serenaded by Castillio on the organ with no sponsor in sight.)
What makes the shows enjoyable is the distinctive voice and presence of its star. Not every Hollywood star was at home in front of the radio microphone, but William seems quite at ease. There is a rich theatricality to his delivery that’s a pleasure to hear. He is joined by a capable cast of hard-working Hollywood radio actors who, like most of the working professionals in the field, could handle any assignment thrown their way.
The series’ permanent leading lady is Lurene Tuttle, who’s equally convincing as a beautiful temptress or a victimized wife. (Tuttle, like a handful of other radio actresses, could be called on to play any kind of part: she was Sam Spade’s lovesick Friday Effie on The Adventures of Sam Spade, and the long-suffering mother to Red Skelton’s Mean Widdle Kid on his weekly comedy show.) Other key roles are filled by such familiar voices as Howard Culver, Marvin Miller, Carleton Young, Peggy Webber, John Brown and William Conrad, to name just a few. Their professionalism helps to compensate for some of the weaknesses in the scripts.
William was nearing the end of his life when he recorded these shows (he died in 1948 at the age of 53) but his vigor seems undiminished here, although every now and then the director might have called for a second take.
In many ways it’s a miracle that shows like this survive at all. They were meant to be used and then discarded. Fortunately, someone saved a pristine set of 16-inch recordings, so we can dip into the eerie world of Strange Wills, starring “the distinguished Hollywood actor” Warren William. He remained exactly that to the end of his life, contributing a fine performance to The Private Affairs of Bel Ami in 1947. And just as film keeps his image before us, these radio shows keep that wonderful voice of his alive and present.