Cast & Crew
During his time in Chicago, Swedish immigrant Paul Kroll aquires a small sum of money by cheating his friends and fellow workers. The people at home in Sweden believe that Paul is a successful businessman, so when the local match factory has business troubles, Kroll's uncle begs him to return home and help them. After stealing the money that his girl friend Babe had saved, Kroll buys a first-class passage and sails home. There, he bluffs the bank into financing a merger between the small plant and a more modern one. In order to maintain his initial success, he continues to borrow more money and ultimately buys all the match factories in the country. After he promotes superstitions such as the belief that it is bad luck to light three cigarettes on a match in order to increase sales, he plots to take over match factories throughout Europe. Soon, by using blackmail and other underhanded methods, the Kroll Match Co. obtains the European monopoly on matches. While on business in Germany, Kroll becomes infatuated with beautiful actress Marta Molnar. He sends her a diamond bracelet and invites her to dinner. When she turns him down, he pursues her doggedly. Eventually she succumbs to his entreaties, and he neglects his business during the romance. Kroll's friend, Erik Borg, suggests that he is wealthy enough to give up business altogether. Kroll's business is so deeply in debt, however, that he cannot stop. When he learns of the invention of an everlasting match, he has the inventor, Christian Hobe, committed to an insane asylum. After the stock market crashes, Kroll's bank loan is not renewed, so he borrows money on fraudulent stock and murders the forger. With the money, he intends to leave the business and marry Marta, who is now working in Hollywood. She has fallen in love with someone else, however, and when the forgery is revealed, Kroll sees no choice but to kill himself.
De Witt Jennings
The Match King
Kreuger (1880-1932) was a Swede whose family owned a match factory. A civil and mechanical engineer, innovative and forward-looking, he saw the possibilities in trussed concrete-steel construction, and prospered. It didn't take him long to switch from building structures to building companies and corporations, including his family's. He not only saw that monopoly was the way to go, but that it was best pursued by dealing in something that people needed and could be cheaply mass produced. In his case, matches. He not only bought and consolidated companies. He bought forests, and secured monopolies from governments strapped by World War I by loaning them money. He invented and propagated the three-on-a-match-means-one-will-die superstition, claiming it brought him extra millions. Marketing was one of his talents, too!
Where he went wrong was in looting the treasuries of newly acquired companies to pay stock dividends on his ever-shakier older holdings, then misrepresenting those holdings to secure ever-increasing loans. It all unraveled when, in a desperate need for collateral, he handed a Wall Street bank consortium $40 million in forged Italian government bonds, and was discovered. End of story. End of movie, too, except that in the Warner retelling he jumps to his death from the balcony of his luxury apartment, faced with the possibility of a switch in residences to Devil's Island. The film is brought full circle, with Kreuger dead in a gutter. It begins not in the gutter, exactly, but on a sidewalk outside the Chicago Cubs ballpark (it didn't become Wrigley Field until 1926). Kreuger is one of a crew of sanitation workers in dazzling white uniforms, sweeping up the cigarette butts and extinguished matches outside. The sight of those burnt-out matches lights a match above his head. Matches - his Holy Grail!
The scene survives the ridiculousness of seeing Warren William, the most aristocratic-looking contract player on the Warner lot, as a sanitation worker. Not that his Kreuger figure, Paul Kroll, remains behind a broom for long. The Match King efficiently establishes Kroll's flair for deceit, as he bonds with his foreman by suggesting they pocket the wages of a fired colleague by just leaving him on the books as a salaried employee. From there, he graduates into scamming the guy's girlfriend out of $460, jilting her while he catches a steamer home to Sweden, where he has lied to his family, misrepresenting himself as a wildly successful entrepreneur.
The family business is in trouble, but the ever-suave William -- whose patrician profile, photographed at every opportunity, sometimes threatens to run away with his performance - scams the nervous bankers into extending the loan with an assurance that Enron would have envied, and establishing a pattern that skyrockets him to riches. Keep acquiring, keep taking out new loans, keep lying and callously using people, and if anyone raises doubts, coolly, soothingly and smilingly say, "Never worry about anything till it happens - I'll take care of it then."
And he does, for a surprisingly long time as the ex-street sweeper turns billionaire plutocrat. Of course, the caricatured fuddy-duddy old bankers should have been more nervous, and not have been so timid about their misgivings. But one can only imagine Depression-era audiences eating up Kroll's broken-field running through the world's financial, um, system, on the assumption that it was based on greed rendering stupid people who should have known better.
The women he takes up with on the whole do better than the bankers, except for Glenda Farrell's broken blossom back in Chicago. As Kroll suavely oils his way from woman to woman, nightclub to nightclub, and drawing room to drawing room, "Just a Gigolo" can be heard on the soundtrack - unnecessary musical italicizing. William never had to work hard to project a cultivated exterior to go with his sang-froid and his smiling assurances. When he's with women here, it's always apparent that he's eyeing each not with lust, but merely as his latest acquisition. He also uses them to secure the kind of insider information best gleaned between the sheets. Thus his lovers - in Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, and presumably other European capitals -- are also his accomplices, materially rewarded.
The only time William's performance stumbles is when he's asked to convince us Kroll would throw it all over for a permanent attachment to Lili Damita's actress deliberately modeled on Greta Garbo. It's completely out of character, including when he hires a gypsy violinist to cancel a concert to fiddle up a storm under her balcony and we realize it's more about his flaunting his own extravagant flair for showmanship than for anything like ardor. Damita did not enjoy a long career, and made more headlines for her marriages to Errol Flynn, and later Michael Curtiz, than for any of her performances. So it's perhaps unfair to judge her on the basis of this one, where the Garbo caricature was so clearly driving it. Not that it was altogether fanciful. In 1919, Kreuger was one of the financiers behind the startup of Svensk Filmindustri. Part of the fanfare involved hosting the visiting Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Garbo can be seen in footage commemorating the festivities on one of Kreuger's yachts. Years later, after Kreuger's empire collapsed, Garbo was one of his investors left holding the bag.
Native Minnesotan William (1894-1948) was a natural for talkies, with his sonorous voice and assured deportment, even if its stage origins sometimes made him seem a bit stiffer than necessary. His flair for suave amorality beneath a smilingly worldly, wolfish aplomb made him a good fit for Hollywood's racy pre-Code vehicles, even when, in the case of this one, his unscrupulousness extends to murder and railroading into an asylum an inventor who comes up with an inextinguishable match. Mostly, though, William toiled steadily to break the hearts of the likes of Dolores Costello, Marian Marsh, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Loretta Young and Ann Dvorak. The Match King in fact was made on the heels of Dvorak's best film, Three on a Match (1932). Taking its title from Kreuger's fabricated superstition, it's about the tribulations of three reunited schoolgirl friends; Dvorak has the centerpiece role between Bette Davis and Joan Blondell. William also starred, and acted opposite Davis the same year in The Dark Horse. William made six films in 1932 for Warner. King of the pre-Code smoothies, he moved easily from debonair cad roles to Julius Caesar, D'Artagnan, Perry Mason and Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon remake, Satan Met a Lady (1936). He's overdue for re-emergence. Perhaps the current revival of interest in pre-Code talkies will hasten it.
There were no laggards on the Warner lot. Davis made eight films in 1932. The pervasive hurry-up pacing contributed to the energy that was a hallmark of the Warner house style. The Match King was the first feature directed by William Keighley, in this case with Howard Bretherton. They fit right in. Those old Warner black-and-whites, although sometimes dated, are almost never dull, often exciting to watch today, crackling with urgency and zest. This one, full of tabloid oomph, is lean and fun. You just know, given the fast-pulsed atmosphere on the Warner lot, that nobody sat around introspectively musing on the irony of Kreuger -- with his emphasis on controlling the means of production and mass-producing on a monopoly basis things that lots of people bought -- providing the model for the Hollywood films that became so central to American and international life.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis (uncredited)
Director: Howard Bretherton, William Keighley
Screenplay: Houston Branch; Sidney Sutherland; Einar Thorvaldson (novel)
Cinematography: Robert Kurrle
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: W. Franke Harling, Bernhard Kaun (both uncredited)
Film Editing: Jack Killifer
Cast: Warren William (Paul Kroll), Lili Damita (Marta Molnar), Glenda Farrell (Babe), Juliette Compton (Sonia Lombard), Claire Dodd (Ilse Wagner), Harold Huber (Scarlatti), John Wray (Foreman of Janitors), Spencer Charters (Oscar), Murray Kinnell (Nyberg), Hardie Albright (Erik Borg), Alan Hale (Borglund), Edmund Breese (Olaf Christofsen), Robert McWade (Mr. Larsen).
by Jay Carr
Kreuger: Genius and Swindler, by Robert Shaplen, Knopf, 1960
Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934, Columbia University Press, 1999
Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, by Mick LaSalle, Thomas Dunne, 2002
The Match King
The film is loosely based on the Swedish industrialist Ivar Kreuger, who killed himself 9 months before this movie was released.
The character of Marta Molnar is based on Greta Garbo. Warner Bros. tried unsuccessfully to borrow Garbo from MGM for the role.
According to Variety, the novel and film are based on the life of Swedish industrialist Ivar Kreuger who swindled thousands after developing an international match monopoly. According to Variety, the character of Marta Molnar is based on Swedish actress Greta Garbo. According to Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. tried to borrow Garbo from M-G-M for the role. Before the credits roll, shots of people around the world using matches are seen to suggest a worldwide reliance on them. A November 1934 article in New York Times notes that the Polish government complained that two of the disreputable characters in the story had the names of Polish national heroes. Production records contained in the film on the film at the AMPAS Library note that the production took twenty-five shooting days for a total cost of $165,000.