“Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with all your clothes on.” That’s Warren William speaking to Alice White in the salacious EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933), and it’s one of many “pre-Code” lines in a very, VERY pre-Code picture. In fact, EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE is one of those pre-Coders that movie fans especially revere for its wall-to-wall sexiness and astonishing impact. A packed house of TCM festivalgoers certainly loved it Friday night.
Warren William plays Kurt Anderson, a tyrannical, ruthless, uncompromising New York City department store manager — “kind of like Mussolini running Macy’s,” joked film historian Bruce Goldstein in his introduction. Anderson’s business motto is: “Smash or be smashed.” His attitude toward women is: “Sure I like ‘em. In their place.” And their “place,” if they’re young and virginal, is: in his bedroom, especially if they want a job!
When Anderson fires a longtime store employee for not being aggressive enough about dreaming up ways to increase business, the man commits suicide. Anderson barely bats an eye at the news, declaring that “when a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window.” Harsh — but also supremely compelling. Warren William’s autocratic tycoon characters are among the greatest joys in pre-Code cinema, in films like Beauty and the Boss, Skyscraper Souls, The Match King and Upperworld. If you see one, you want to see them all (luckily, they pop up on TCM regularly). And EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE is arguably the best of the bunch.
When you stop to think about it, there’s really not much of a “story” in this film. Anderson seduces and hires gorgeous Madeline (Loretta Young), then plots to disrupt her burgeoning relationship with his No. 2 man, Martin (Wallace Ford). On paper it’s a wisp of a soapy plot, but on screen it’s elevated to something fascinating and witty, due to the characters. Part of William’s appeal as a scoundrel, after all, is his infectious charm.
Other pleasures here are Loretta Young, at the peak of her beauty, and silent-era star Alice White making a bit of a career comeback, something that was much remarked-upon by critics. Her character is young and pretty like Young, but certainly not virginal, and White displays fine comic chops as an airhead seductress. Also, director Roy Del Ruth keeps the pace moving like lightning. EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE is based on a play, but aside from the on-screen writing credit, you’d really never otherwise know it. The film does not feel stagy at all.
Critics gave this picture rave reviews. “The stuff that makes for box office,” said daily Variety. “It’s 75 mins. of entertainment without a faltering moment… Warners has framed a pic with a punch reminiscent of the days when motion pictures were real sheckelgarners.” Another critic wondered, “Do you think they’ll ever permit Warren William to be a good boy again? I doubt it!”
Friday night’s screening was preceded by a mini master class in pre-Code cinema courtesy of Bruce Goldstein, who is Repertory Programming Director of New York’s Film Forum and a pre-Code expert. He explained that the studios decided to ignore the Production Code in the early 1930s mainly as a way of luring Depression-era audiences back into theaters. “Two out of five stories should be hot,” an internal Warner Brothers stated, according to Goldstein, who went on to narrate a wondrous montage of clips from such pre-Code gems as Safe in Hell, Three on a Match, Baby Face, Night Nurse, Call Her Savage, Blessed Event, Female, and The Story of Temple Drake.
Goldstein also said, “This beautiful 35mm print of EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE was made from the original camera negative and preserved by the Library of Congress — your tax dollars at work on something worthwhile for a change!” That line drew perhaps the heartiest applause of the night.