[WARNING: SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD]
“When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window.”
The pre-code era had tons of swell villains: Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, the Femm family in The Old Dark House, and Poelzig in The Black Cat are a few of my favorites. But my favorite of the litter is Kurt Anderson of Employee’s Entrance, the tyrannical department store manager played by the much beloved Warren William.
The film centers on the troubles of Madeline (Lorretta Young) and Martin (Wallace Ford), two young people working at a department store run by the ruthless and amoral Kurt Anderson. They fall in love, which makes their jobs complicated and awkward: Martin is a favorite of Anderson’s—so long as he promises to stay away from personal relationships which open one up to “sympathy or softness,” that is, romantic ones. As for Madeline, it seems she procured her job after being coerced into sex with Anderson. Still, the two take the plunge and marry, trying their best to keep their marriage a secret as Anderson finds the stability of his little empire threatened by bankers who may be more villainous than he.
Kurt Anderson dominates the film, emerging as its most interesting and complex figure. There is no doubt he is a bastard, heartless, misogynistic, thirsty for power. He views women as sexual playthings and men as pawns to be thrown away once they “outlive their usefulness.” All things considered, he embodies capitalism at its most callous. And in his darkest moment, he has sex with Madeline while she’s too intoxicated to give her consent. And yet, the film, at times, seems to begrudgingly admire Anderson for all his evil acts. He fights to make sure many of the employees are not laid off, a damn heroic thing to do in the midst of the Depression. When he encounters an embittered man he has sacked, a man who swears to climb his way to the top somehow and then throw Anderson down. Impressed with the man’s ambition and ruthless guts, Anderson re-hires and promotes him! And then there’s Anderson’s affection for Martin. Though he claims to despise softness, he harbors a great soft spot for the young lad. When Martin confronts Anderson in the climax and actually shoots him in a fit of rage, Anderson does not hand him over to the police, but lets him go free.
It’s rare to have a villain this layered, someone so despicable and yet in some ways admirable. These admirable traits do not absolve him in our minds—but he is much more than a straightforward villain.
This has been an entry in the 2016 Great Villain blogathon. Check out the other posts on Silver Screenings, Shadows and Satin, and Speakeasy.