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

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Underrated - "The Sea Wolf"

During its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Warner Brothers studio was known for its edgy criminal films and serious melodramas. The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) are its most famous films from this timeframe, but there were dozens of other beautifully crafted works as well including The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and Now, Voyager (1942).

A wonderful film that has remained under the radar is The Sea Wolf (1941), directed by Michael Curtiz. Born in Hungary, he would enjoy his greatest triumphs at Warner Brothers with an impressive lineup of films he directed from the Errol Flynn swashbucklers such as Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to his best-known works such as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Curtiz’s finest films were full of energy featuring memorable characters; The Sea Wolf is a prime example.

Based on Jack London’s 1904 novel, The Sea Wolf is a tale of Captain Wolf Larsen, an intense sea captain who is a walking set of contradictions. Tyrannical in his treatment of his crew and other human beings, he is also a reflective, educated individual who has read the works of Darwin and Milton. Larsen is proud of what he has accomplished, at one point recalling his accomplishments from an early age, rising from cabin boy to captain of his own ship. Given this power, he acts as he sees fit; when the legalities of his decisions are questioned by a new crew member Larsen tells him, “I’m obeying the law, the law of the sea.”

One of the film’s many assets is the quality work of the actors, none more so that Edward G. Robinson as Larsen. Robinson, who could chew up the scenery on occasion, reins it in here, as he gives the captain the necessary rough edges while at the same time dealing with matters onboard in a even-handed, if slightly harsh fashion. He can be quiet and reasonable at one moment and then cruel and childish the next, as in the scene where he asks the crew to refrain from making fun of the ship’s alcoholic doctor (Gene Lockhart, in a touching performance) and then immediately kicks him down a flight of steps. It is one of several moments that sums up Larsen’s complexities and it is handled with great assurance by Robinson. For me, this is arguably his best screen performance.

John Garfield has a small part as a con that joins the crew of the ship (named Ghost) to hide from the law. His character is a bit of a screen stereoptype – tough on the exterior, yet revealing his tenderness underneath – but Garfield manages to flesh out his character of George Leach quite nicely. Garfield, who would go on to bigger and better things, has a lot of charisma on display in this small role.

Ida Lupino is fine as another con on the run who is picked up at sea along with the writer Van Weyden. Lupino’s part is also small and she brings what she can to it. Alexander Knox, portraying Van Weyden, is thoughtful and quite serious. His best scene is one between Larsen and himself as he tells the captain the description of him for his next book. Knox’s character is nicely written, as he is a fish out of water and we as the audience can identify with his struggle to maintain his dignity amidst the rowdiness of the ship.

A pleasant surprise is Barry Fitzgerald, who seemed to show up in about one-third of the melodramas of the time. For me, Fitzgerald was too one-dimensional in many of his performances, relying on his thick Irish broque to lend emotion to his character, but here, he adopts a low-key approach and delivers an excellent performance. His character is quite mean-spirited (a bit of an alter-ego of the captain) and Fitzgerald is appropriately menacing with a devlish laugh. His scene with Van Weyden, when he reads the writer’s quotes about Larsen, is one of his best in the film.

The screenplay by Robert Rossen is first-rate and definitely one of the best of the many strengths of the film. Rossen would go on to be an excellent director later in his career with films such as All the King’s Men and The Hustler, but he was first and foremost an outstanding writer, having penned the screenplays for such Warners films as The Roaring Twenties , Blues in the Night (1941) and Edge of Darkness (1943).

His writing here is tough and to the point. Characters such as Larsen are allowed to dream for a while but those moments are brief, as the harsh reality of his existence returns. There are so many good lines here, as when Larsen tells the drunken doctor, “Sit down until you finish drinking your supper” or when Larsen tells Van Weyden, “I’ll choose my death as I chose my life. I did everything by myself.”

One of the best-written scenes takes place when Larsen enters his quarters and discovers Van Weyden reading his copy of “Paradise Lost.” This is a crucial scene, as we discover the conflicting nature of Larsen, as a man who loves reading classic works – if only to prove his intelligence to others – yet wonders if the insight gained from understanding these writings have made this endeavor worthwhile.

At one point in the scene, Larsen tells Van Weyden that he (Van Weyden) is fortunate as he has a family that loves him and would support him if times ever were bad:

You wouldn’t have to struggle for a living. You wouldn’t have to live in a world where your hand was turned against every man’s and every man’s against yours, even your own brother’s.

You seem to find it necessary to justify yourself, don’t you Captain Larsen?

My strength justifies me, Mr. Van Weyden. The fact that I can kill you or let you live as I choose. The fact that I control the destinies of all onboard the ship, the fact that it’s my will and my will alone that rules here. That’s justification enough.

That’s great screenwriting!

Much credit also belongs to other contributors to the film, including Sol Polito’s cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Polito, who could always be counted on to create the proper mood for a melodrama, as he did in dozens of films from I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) or Now, Voyager (1942), does so again here, as he uses shadows and fog to great effect. Light is at a minumum here, not only in the belly of the ship, but everywhere on board.

Korngold’s score is appropriately somber, although he does include a haunting love theme for the characters portrayed by Garfield and Lupino. Unlike some composers at the time who would write wall-to-wall scores, Korngold kept the music in the background for most of this film. This was one of the more subdued scores for the man who contributed brilliant music to other Warners films such as 1942’s Kings Row (one of the greatest film scores of all time, in my opinion), Juarez (1939) and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Regarding Curtiz, he directs the film with a steady hand, using many closeups, which help heighten the underlying message of power and class. His direction is at times claustrophobic, a wise choice for scenes aboard a ragtag ship, but he also creates space at certain moments, as in the scene with the blood transfusion; as Curtiz films this, he lets each character – Larsen, Leach and the ship’s doctor – have his moment.

Warner Brothers, like other movie companies during the height of the studio system, made hundreds of solid films like The Sea Wolf. Other films may have won more awards, but honest, well-crafted, entertaining projects such as this deserve to be remembered just as much.

A final note: Apparently Jack Warner wanted to change the title of The Sea Wolf, as he felt it was too similar to his studio's film of the previous year, The Sea Hawk (also directed by Curtiz). Producer Henry Blanke resisted and London's title was retained.