9/12/20: Two Good Actors – Two Serious Inventors

By Fred Muenz

Warren William Krech, aka Warren William, was born in Aitkin, Minnesota in December, 1894. His father was publisher of the local newspaper and encouraged young Warren to think about a career in journalism. When a new opera house was opened in Aitkin in 1903, however,  he quickly became fascinated with the theater, and decided on an acting career. After his high school graduation he was accepted by the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. As he was about to finish his senior year at the Academy, the U.S. entered World War I, and he enlisted in the army. While training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he met his future wife, Helen Nelson, who was seventeen years his senior. He and Helen would remain together for the rest of his life. Sent to France shortly before the Armistice was signed, he decided to remain in the country after his discharge from the army, and tour with a theatrical company.

1924 found him back in New York and making his Broadway debut in the H.G. Wells play The Wonderful Visit. Making a name for himself, Warren had appeared in 17 more Broadway plays by 1930, when he made the trip west to Hollywood. During his time in New York, he had even managed to appear in three locally produced silent films, including a small part in a “Perils of Pauline” serial, PLUNDER (1924), still using his real name, Warren Krech. Possessed of a deep, rich speaking voice, he was a natural for talkies, and soon became a member of the Warner Brothers stock company. With his patrician bearing and persona, he found himself playing ruthless businessmen and devious lawyers. This was pre-code Hollywood at the height of the Great Depression, and audiences hissed and jeered at the sinister character roles he was assigned to play. He did manage to step away from those roles a few times. The studio loaned him to Cecil B. DeMille, to play Julius Caesar, opposite Claudette Colbert, in CLEOPATRA (1934). He also played Perry Mason in four films before being replaced by Ricardo Cortez, and he replaced William Powell as detective Philo Vance in two films, before finally leaving Warner Brothers for MGM.

In real life, Warren was shy and retiring. His five-time co-star, Joan Blondell, said of him “he was an old man, even when he was a young man”. An avid inventor, he held multiple patents, including the lawn vacuum, used by landscapers, and a prototype recreational vehicle (RV), which he built so he could get some extra sleep while being driven to the studio. Stricken with multiple myeloma, Warren William died in September, 1948, at age 53. His wife, Helen, followed three months later, in December, 1948.

Warner Baxter was born in Columbus, Ohio in March, 1889. His father, Edwin, who owned a cigar stand in Columbus, died when young Warner was just six months old. Shortly after his father’s death, Baxter and his mother moved in with relatives. A few months later they left Columbus for New York, where Baxter became interested in dramatics and participated in school plays. Finally in 1898, they moved to San Francisco where, following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, they were forced to live in a tent. Warner showed an early pre-disposition for entrepreneurship  when he charged people a penny to watch a neighbor boy eating worms and flies. In 1908, Baxter and his mother returned to Columbus, where the nineteen year-old took a job selling farm implements.

Within a short time, however, he gave up his sales job to become part of a vaudeville act touring small towns. After a few years on the vaudeville circuit, he made his Broadway debut in a play called Lombardi, Ltd. His film career began as an uncredited extra in a local production in 1914. By 1921, he was starring in Holywood silent films and on his way to becoming a matinee idol. He was the first American actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, for his performance as the Cisco Kid in IN OLD ARIZONA (1928). Although he played in a number of westerns, including the Cisco Kid two more times, he had a lifetime fear of horses. By 1936, he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood, and one of the few who didn’t object to being typecast. He was just happy to give the movie-going public what they wanted. In the early 1940’s, he suffered a nervous breakdown. To make things earier for him, the studio cast him in a series of Dr. Ordway, “crime doctor” films. The ten movies in the series, beginning with CRIME DOCTOR (1943), each took only a month to film and were made entirely on studio sets.

An avid inventor, he held a number of patents, including a radio-controlled device, still in general use, which allows emergency vehicles to change traffic lights from several blocks away as they approach an intersection. To show the effectiveness of his device, he installed it in Beverly Hills, at his own expense.

By the early 1950’s he was suffering from severe arthritis which caused him so much pain that he was barely able to eat. This left him with a vitamin deficiency and on the verge of starvation. In Februatry, 1951, he was treated in a hospital for three weeks, and showed enough improvement to go home. By April, however, he was back in the hospital, this time submitting to a lobotomy to ease the pain and allow him to eat. Following the surgery, he developed bronchial pneunomia, and died on May 7th. Warner Baxter was 62. Sadly, his mother outlived her son by eleven years.

ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK

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