At a time when Leo first roared, the Torch Lady’s torch first burned bright, and long before “The Transmitter” beamed its familiar sound, four brothers from an Ohio steel town eagerly pursued success in a young and growing Hollywood.
Hard to believe four brothers would bank their careers on the rising success of a four-legged star named Rin Tin Tin. Nonetheless, in 1923, brothers Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack L. Warner did just that, and Warner Bros. Pictures slowly rose to prominence. Daryll Zanuck was eventually welcomed and became the studio’s top producer. The boys were also wise to recognize the talent of director Ernst Lubitsch and convinced him to be their head director. However, the Warners were still without a quality “human” star who could be seen in front of the camera. Sam and Jack signed Broadway star John Barrymore and the studio quickly prospered. Rising quickly from the familiar silents, Warner Bros. would launch itself directly into a historical wall of sound.
The story of the Warners and the brilliant evolution of the studio can be viewed on PBS’s wonderful educational series American Masters, airing September 23rd through 25th. (Check your local listings) You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, promises to be a well made scrapbook of movie clips and rare footage carefully arranged for reverent viewing.
The five hour testimonial was produced by Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel and will touch upon the most important aspects like the cultural phenomenon of The Jazz Singer (1927) to the magic of Harry Potter.
The documentary will show Warner Bros wasn’t afraid to rip open and exploit the seedy underbelly of America’s social consciousness as seen in 1933’s sexually blatant Babyface. And, while Busby Berkeley’s films might look grand and glamorous, the stories always focused on poor kids trying to do what they could to reach the American dream. Handsome fellows and beautiful dolls didn’t always grace the Warner Bros. screens. No, instead Warner Bros. prided itself on a cavalcade of stars born of grit and strength: the faces of Cagney, Crawford, Davis, Robinson, and Bogart could be seen by the numbers.
But the studio also captured the early success of color pictures and kept the country happy with musicals. When the public grew tired, Warner Bros. changed paced and released Errol Flynn swashbucklers. Bullets and broads later dominated and Warner continually confronted deep dark psychological issues in the studio’s dark film noir pieces.
Warner Bros. thankfully trusted directors like Howard Hawks, George Cukor, and Hitchcock and released true cinematic gems like King’s Row, Casablanca, and Now, Voyager. And while Disney may have created an empire from the introduction of Mickey and Silly Symphonies, Warners thrived on the success of the sarcastically tinged Bugs Bunny and Merry Melodies cartoons. Warner Bros. also put its trust on a perky Doris Day and a rebellious James Dean and scored big with audiences.
The evolution of television may have kept many people at home in the late 50’s through the 60’s, but Warner Bros. persevered, releasing controversial films like Rebel Without a Cause, Cool Hand Luke and Bonnie and Clyde.
The studio later gave us Lethal Weapon and gambled on superhero flicks like Superman and Batman (1989). And no one will forget how Warner Bros allowed the Wachowski’s to meddle with modern film conventions and bend our movie-watching brains when they gave us The Matrix.
Now I’m sure it’s no secret, most film buffs share a high degree of contempt for Jack Warner and some of his convoluted ideas and methods. However, given Warner’s 85th anniversary, I believe we can put aside the hate and fully appreciate the revered catalogue of films that have graced America’s darkened theaters for years. Yes, we can take time out to celebrate a studio that still challenges the ‘accepted” film conventions and manages to entertain us at 24 frames per second.
If you’re like me and simply can’t get enough of the Warner Bros. mystique, a wonderful 480 page companion book is now available. A DVD release of this documentary is expected soon, yet no release date has been set yet.
You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story is airing nationally on PBS beginning September 23rd and ending on the 25th. Shows should run at 9ET, but please check local listings for scheduled times. Oh, and if you feel truly adventurous, an encore show is also scheduled for early morning.