Monday, January 19, 2009

The Warner Brothers Story

The first time I saw Richard Schickel on television talking about the movies, he struck me as a bit of a curmudgeon. The fact that I disagreed with him didn’t win me over to his side either.

That was a long time ago and I learned soon afterwards that Schickel was not a cranky analyst, but one of the most astute observers of film in America. He’s written books about several filmmakers, from D.W. Griffith to Elia Kazan to Clint Eastwood and directed the wonderful television series The Men Who Made The Movies (1973) among other works. He recently directed the PBS series You Must Remember This (2008), a history of the Warner Brothers studio.

A book of the same title was released in conjunction with the series and it’s a dazzling project. It’s part coffee table book – although you’d need a pretty big coffee table to hold it – part historical documentary treatment and part a look at what this studio’s message was and continues to be. If you’re simply looking for a pictorial look at 85 years of classic movies, this is for you, but it also is meant for serious students of Hollywood’s past and present as well.

Schickel along with his collaborator, British writier George Perry (most of the essays in the book are credited to Schickel) combine to present a wonderful social history of the studio’s work, especially in the 1930s and ’40s. Schickel makes the point that Warner movies of the ‘30s were as tough as the times in the country, stuck in the midst of a major financial depression. By the time World War ll came, the message of the films was tougher, as though the studio was preparing their audiences for the troubles across the sea. His analysis of 1941’s Sergeant York, as a film that depicted an unassuming American hero, as a moral equivalent for the country’s behavior in the face of danger, is well espoused.

Throughout the book, there are timelines of what happened at the Warners lot – and throughout America and the world – in each year the studio has been in business (since 1923). There are dozens of remarkable photos (I love the one of Errol Flynn being fitted for a costume in a cramped office) and reproductions of gorgeous one sheet posters for various films. Biographies of the major stars, such as Bogart, Cagney and Davis share space with those of lesser celebrated actors such as Leslie Howard along with craftsmen such as director Michael Curtiz (he of Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy fame), Busby Berkeley and composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Schickel also deals with the social consciousness of the Warner executives (he points out how this was the “New Deal Studio”) and gives examples of some of their projects that address social ills. Films such as The Life of Emile Zola and Black Legion (a 1937 work about bigotry starring Humphrey Bogart) were powerful attacks on fascism. Schickel also details 1943’s Mission to Moscow, the studio’s attempt at pleasing the Soviet Union, a country that had become a major war ally. Serious at the time of release, Schickel remarks how ridiculous the film looks today, labeling it, “the most blatant piece of pro-Stalinist propoganda ever offered by the American mass media.”

From the early success of the Rin Tin Tin series to the recent triumphs of such works as Million Dollar Baby and The Departed, this book covers most of the studio's most famous films. Many things have changed over the past 85 years at the Warner Studio, but above all, Schickel would argue, the individuals in charge of production always made films that were earnest and at the same time entertaining.

You Must Remember This: The Warner Brothers Story by Richard Schickel and George Perry, Running Press, $50

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