“There’s no room for sympathy or softness – my code is smash or be smashed!”… Warren William as Kurt Anderson
In the heart of the Great Depression of 1933, Roy Del Ruth’s EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE was released just a few months prior to the election that ousted stock-market-crashing President Hoover and ushered in economic-rebuilder President FDR. The political and economic climate of desperation and uncertainty in this country is a significant influence felt throughout this film.
In this Pre-Code gem, ruthless and cold-hearted Kurt Anderson (Warren William) is head of business operations at the Franklin-Monroe department store. He rules with an iron-fist and his ONLY concern is the success of the business. He doesn’t respect the bankers that rule from the board of directors nor Franklin Monroe himself because he views them as lazy and pretentiously out-of-touch from the capitalist efficiency he demands in order to continue growth. So he chooses to manipulate them instead, to suit his own (and the company’s) needs.
He also ruthlessly dictates over the staff that report to him. But if the employee works as hard and loyally as he does, he shows a tad more respect and loyalty to the working class. Well, sorta. In the case of Garfinkel (Frank Reicher), a 3rd party vendor who was supposed to deliver coats in time for a big advertised sale, reports that he’s only able to provide a portion of the entire inventory, otherwise missing his deadline by a few days. This does not go over well with Anderson. Despite Garfinkel’s $30,000 investment, Anderson cancels the contract immediately with a “now get outta here!”
At a manager’s meeting, the youngest exec, Martin (Wallace Ford) proposes an unconventional idea which is rejected by a 30-year-tenured, senior manager, Higgins, who expresses guarded caution to anything risky in light of the market volatility. Anderson explodes, “Higgins, get out! You’re through… You’re too old … You’re dead wood.” Higgins begs for better respect considering his decades of commitment to the company to which Anderson only barks, “now get out.” Later, after several failed attempts to speak with Anderson, Higgins jumps to his death off the ninth floor. Martin witnesses Anderson’s response to this tragic news which is completely void of any emotion or compassion.
But wait, the list of victims deepens. When a very beautiful and young Madeleine (Loretta Young) first meets Anderson, she is at a vulnerable low point. She’s literally camped out in the home section of the store (assumedly to not only get a jump to the front of the line to apply for a job, but also as a desperate means of residence). She quickly discovers who he is and how he operates. His initial charm is rapidly replaced with his true intentions. She agrees to go on a ‘date’ with him in order to get a position with the company.
Before too long, Madeleine replaces the shame of her ‘Anderson incident’ with meeting and falling in love with Martin. Meanwhile, Martin has become Anderson’s protege. He sees Martin as a hard-working, out-of-the-box thinker whom he can mold to his liking. When Anderson takes him under his wing to place Martin on the fast track of upward mobility, it comes at a hefty price. Anderson makes his expectations clear to Martin. In order to replace Higgins as his right-hand-man, Anderson requires Martin to be fully available around the clock, ruthlessly ambitious as himself, and single. To Anderson, women are disposable toys, nothing more. “Sure I like them. In their place. But there’s no time for wives in this job. Love ’em and leave ’em. Get me?”
Martin and Madeleine secretly marry and vow to hide their marriage so Martin can strengthen his career. As anyone can imagine, this plan is doomed from the start. How could anyone keep such a secret from a sharp and calculating guy like Kurt Anderson? And after a lover’s spat between Martin and Madeleine at a staff party, Martin proceeds to get wasted with his buddies and never makes it home.
For Madeleine, this evening is much more horrific. While more than plenty intoxicated and alone in a separate room, predator Anderson stalks and corners his prey and strategically elevates her intoxication to completely plastered. He then hands her his key to a room upstairs where he insists that she can sleep it off while he remains a gentleman downstairs at the Employee’s Ball. We then see Madeleine knocked out cold on a bed as slimy Anderson creeps in.
Whether you’ve never seen this film or you’re a huge fan that could recite the lines, I’ll leave the rest of the plot details untold to encourage you to see this film very soon. While building a case to show you what a monster Kurt Anderson is, what we haven’t addressed yet is why this film is so appealing. All of these shocking errors of human behavior are also vivid examples of that rare era of ‘forbidden Hollywood fruit’ known as Pre-Code. Not unlike slowing down to see that mangled wreckage from a car accident moments prior, or simply being mesmorized by your favorite on-screen villain, we crave to see what Warren William as Kurt Anderson will do next.
Surely movie goers at the time of this film’s release were completely conflicted. Anderson is a character who has some redeeming qualities to an audience that was struggling to find work and bolster the economy. He valued hard work, he was willing to sacrifice his personal life to ensure a company’s survival, he created jobs for more than a thousand people, and he didn’t have to ‘kiss ass’ of the wealthy to get that done. These are all merits a 1933 audience would applaud. But at what cost?
Let’s not forget that this man is a true predator and a rapist. He gets what he wants in life and he doesn’t care how many victims suffer and sacrifice their own livelihood to support his aspirations. Whether they attempt or commit suicide, or he tries to break up a marriage, or he cruelly deceives via a charming promise that turns ugly and empty, he maintains zero emotional responsibility. In modern psychology, many would suggest he’s a sociopath. So why do we feel strangely invested in his story, as equally as his victims’? I have two words for that answer: Warren William.
While it helps that the audience is already conflicted by the merits of his work ethic; moreover it’s the charms of the bad guy we love to hate… Warren William is tough to match. A side effect of being a Pre-Code fan, is the challenge of looking into the dirty mirror. Do you relate to the victims and root for their hopeful redemption? Or are you shocked because you curiously lifted the curtain, peering into the Pre-Code peepshow, secretly rooting for the villian and pondered why?
Keep in mind, a truly rotten scoundrel is not near as darkly delicious without a polar opposite hero or heroine as a pillar of morality and good-heart to counter all that evil. This was an example of a very young Loretta Young who was early in the process of developing her acting craft. She does a splendid job considering. In my humble opinion she also never looked more beautiful. While I don’t think she is portrayed as fairytale-level innocent, I’m definitely not blaming the victim here. I believe, if anything, she is very realistic in what would be an intensely challenging position for her character. As for Martin, surely he is a somewhat-flawed victim. While he was one of Anderson’s many victims, he was in greater control and choice than his wife and many others. From the moment he said “I do”, he chose Anderson and his broken moral compass over his wife. His benefits-to-risk ratio was greater than the others, as well.