Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Running time: 75 minutes
Wall Street has long had its wolves. Before DiCaprio and McConaughey there was Warren William – a man whose lycanthropic features extend beyond the mere physical. He’s got a hot dog saunter and a dismaying knuckle wag. Glance once at the arches of his ears and you’ll see refinement. Glance again and it’s ferocity. His greazed back hair (sic.) is the follicular embodiment of predation. William plays Kurt Anderson in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE, a dept. store manager who wiles his way into “supreme control,” of the company’s board. Up from the diaphragm and out through gritted teeth, the arriviste summons his modus operandi. “There’s no room for sympathy or softness. My code is smash or be smashed!” And one wonders if the same philippic didn’t underlie his headshot as it made studio rounds. His role in UNDER EIGHTEEN (Mayo, 1932), SKYSCRAPER SOULS (Selwyn, 1932) and THE MATCH KING (Keighley/Bretherton, 1932) trained depression-era audiences to expect this ruthless profiteering sort.
And then there’s Loretta Young. In January of ‘33, Movie Classic magazine mused, “now is the time for some good poet to come to the aid of his country, and write an ode to the wistfulness of Loretta.” I doubt that poet ever did come along, but I still have hope. Ms. Young plays Madeline, a talented and witty ingenue. Her screen presence boasts a kind of voltaic immediacy. Whether enthused or depressed, her inner and outer lives seem electrically linked. Young’s multivalence contrasts against William’s, whose energy seems to be always deployed from reserves that are shaking in his belly, waiting to be growled into being. Madeline would rather be hired for her brains than her beauty, but when times are tough, well, she won’t be so undignified as to decline a job. Even if there are a few strings attached.
One of the most beguiling scenes in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE takes place as Anderson prowls the floors of his store, listening to the sound of a piano. He ventures on a model home meant to show off an assortment of domestic wares. Its proportions are navigable but not quite to size. The camera sees him stepping over a miniature picket fence, like a giant, unconcerned with the domicile’s pitiable defenses. Upon entering, he sees Madeline at the keyboard and his compulsion is apparent. But it’s a kind of shameful fantasy on Anderson’s part, to be caught pining under such impractical, homey surrounds. After all, this is the prig who will later say, “when a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out of a window. That’s the trouble with most men – they don’t realize when they’re through.” But this isn’t the only contradiction Anderson demonstrates.
There’s a brief aside midway through the film, where a store customer asks a sales clerk, “where is the basement?” The clerk answers, “it’s on the twelfth floor.” The customer sputters something, clearly incensed, and the action yields to the next scene. It may seem just played for laughs, but I think it holds the key to this film’s unflinching critique: that competition turns meaning on its head. Precisely when competition seems the only way to survive, it must also produce the extinction of meaning. It will be another 61 years before the Coen brothers release THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, which is, in several ways, a nihilistic reboot of pic.
“Department Store Girls—This is your picture, about your lives and your problems! See what happens in department store aisles and offices after closing hours! Girls who couldn’t have been touched with a 100-ft yacht—ready to do anything to get a job! Beautiful models who whisper their dread of the “Boss” who can “make” or break more women than a sultan!”
~~ Studio Ad Copy (1933)
“Packaged by Warner Bros.—the most prole-oriented of studios—as the suave, cynical personification of ruthless capitalism run amok, William plays a tyrannical department-store manager with a bust of Napoleon in his office in Employees’ Entrance (1933). Showing this Thursday on the first of four William double bills, the film is the actor’s quintessential vehicle: A workaholic, physically intimidating sexual predator, William twice beds winsome shop girl Loretta Young (the first time when she needs a job, the second after she marries his assistant) and repeatedly bests his timorous board of directors: “My code is ‘smash or be smashed.’ Employees’ Entrance capped William’s career year, which was also the Depression nadir: 1932.”
“For a brief period in the depths of the Great Depression, the so-called Heel of Heels was a genre onto himself. Working mainly for Warner Brothers, Williams played a succession of slick, overbearing scoundrels. He was an oilier, more self-possessed Gordon Gekko, with a cool to which bumpkin Donald Trump could only aspire possess — the suave, cynical personification of ruthless capital run amok.”