Tuesday, September 23, 2008

PBS American Masters: The Warner Brothers Story

Tonight, PBS broadcast the first of three programs (2 are 2 hours, the last is one hour) in the series “You Must Remember This: The Warner Brothers Story”, about one of Hollywood’s most prolific studios. The link is here. This is part of the American Masters series.

In 1999, Warner Brothers started to use, occasionally, a rippling orange photograph of its Burbank lot, accompanied by a “piano concerto” like rendition of its Casablanca theme, coming to a crashing conclusion. I remember seeing this trademark before “The Green Mile” and it sets the viewer up for a real journey. Yet, before many of its pictures (especially the Harry Potter ones and many summer action pictures) it does not use the full mark, instead preferring to start with the music or sound background of the film proper. I think it is one of Hollywood’s most effective trademarks. (The other good ones are for Twentieth Century Fox and the “Metropolis”-like mark for Lions Gate).

Casablanca is considered one of the greatest films of all time by many afficiandoes It gest mentioned here, but only after a long history that starts in the 1920s when four brothers in Ohio, of German and Jewish heritage, started with a boyhood hobby of picture shows, gradually added sound and speech, marketed first in nickelodeons and soon had a real movie company and moved to Burbank. The name “Warner Brothers” reminds one of “Jonas Brothers”.

The studio developed a reputation for darker, more cynical films, often with a backdrop of sympathy for the working man victimized by the greed of unfettered capitalism, particularly in the 1930s with the Depression. Many of the movies involved racketeering and the mobs, like “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.”

The documentary traces the careers of Bette Davis, and Ronald Reagan, who describes what it is like to play a man who has just lost his legs.

There were some artsy films like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Mendelssohn’s music, and Jezebel, where Bette Davis’s red dress is all the more striking in black and white.

The World War II period films examined the morality of balancing the individual and the group, and especially of sacrifice, as well as themes of pacifism. An example was “Sergeant York”. It explored democracy as a system where “everybody’s equal, and the big people listen to the little people.”

Despite its New Deal, leftist roots, the studio was gung ho in supporting the Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist purges and blacklists.

The first evening ends with a mushroom cloud scene from “White Heat” with a change of an era in 1950.

The second evening featured excerpts from some well known WB films of the 70s, including "Deliverance", the Kubrick films ("Full Metal Jacket") and the first series of Superman.

The sections of the documentary are You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet (1923-1935), Good War, Uneasy Peace (1935-1950). A New Reality (1950-1970 (to deal with competition from television), Woodstock Notions (1970-1989), The Big Tent (1980-Present).

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