Here’s looking at ‘The Warner Bros. Story’ on PBS’ ‘American Masters’

[16 September 2008]

By Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

When people talk of the movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, they think of the cocky gangsters, the cynical private eyes, the square-jawed warriors.

It was a time when men were men and women were dames and all was wrong with the world. Most of those memorable black-and-white gems came from that little studio in Burbank, Warner Bros.

The studio wrought classics such as “Little Caesar,” “Public Enemy” and “Casablanca.” Later would come the stylish fatalism of “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Searchers.” Judy Garland would ascend in “A Star is Born,” Leslie Caron would steal hearts as “Gigi” and Harry Potter would challenge the “Sorcerer’s Stone.”

They were movies that not only told a story, but often bore a theme. Warner Bros. Studio was founded by the sons of Polish immigrants, four brothers who came to California to make their fortune.

Their story and the saga of the studio they built will be chronicled Sept. 23-25 on PBS with “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story,” airing on “American Masters.”

The five-hour documentary was written, produced and directed by Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel. “The most important thing about the studio was that alone of American studios at its time, it was the most - and to this day to the films of George Clooney, et al. - I think it’s the studio with an American social consciousness that’s unequaled elsewhere in Hollywood,” says Schickel.

“It’s about important matters that were important to the people at the time. So that’s our theme, or it’s my theme with the picture,” he continues.

“I just loved Warner Bros. as a kid. For some reason I identify those pictures as pictures I cared about (by directors) Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks - those guys. And so I feel blessed to do this studio because I feel more personal identification with what I did and with what the ideas coming out of the studio were than I do with any other studio. I think it’s an alive, vital, stirring, mistake-ridden but still triumphal place.”

The four siblings who started the studio were in it for the money, says Schickel. “They were guys trying to make a living in the movie business. There’s a mystery there. How come these guys, not particularly well-educated, coming from nowhere? How come their studio is the studio that would address lynching, would address the poverty of America in the depths of the Depression, would address the whole psychological issues that arise in film noir? Why these guys? How did that happen?

“It’s the mystery that runs through, I think, our film and which we toy with in various ways as we tell the story. But I don’t think we come up with a definitive answer, and I don’t think anybody else will either.”

Times have changed says Schickel, and so have the movies - now mostly directed at young people with short attention spans. “So I wouldn’t say there are movies you can’t make, but I think there are movies that you would have a harder time getting on at this particular juncture than other kinds of movies which might be an easier sale to the studio because of their sense of conditions in the world ... I think the use of adult language in movies is, on the whole, a step ahead for movies and for us as people trying to come to grips with our world,” he says.

“I even think that there’s elements of violence in movies today - not in every popcorn movie you talk about, but there are places you can go with violence that say something significant and meaningful about a violent world. So you have to take it one by one.”

Things also have changed dramatically for serious filmmakers, says Richard Donner, the director who helmed “Lethal Weapon” and “Superman” for Warners.

“When you make a comparison to what once was and what is, there’s no comparison. I mean, what once was, as far as I’m concerned, was a family. A family. We’re talking about the Warners family. There were a group of people who were the executives at the studios who made the decisions on what movies were going to be made. And they trusted you. They allocated the authority to make the movie. They gave you the money. And it was - and you really went out of your way to stand up and be a reliable individual just to thank them, in a strange way. And they left you alone when you made the movie. Today I have no desire to make a movie in a studio system whatsoever. It is the most inept group of human beings,” he says.

“They micromanage you in the worst way, and they have no track record. They have no history in any way. And I’m not talking about an old-timer. I’m talking about people that have come in and are - they’re business people, and they’re all afraid of (losing) their jobs. And that’s reflected within the mother company, the organization.”

Warners Studio eventually fell under Jack Warner’s control. A tyrannical and stubborn boss, he would often argue with his top stars. Warner’s grandson, Gregory Orr, says memos testify to these tilts.

“There’s some wonderful ones between (Humphrey) Bogart and him arguing over some part because these actors had to do what was given to them unless they fought back. Bette Davis certainly did, and people admired her for that. And Bogart did too. But at some point in a conversation, often he would turn to them and say, ‘Whose name is on the water tower?’ That shut them up. He did that with Warren Beatty. He said, ‘Whose initials are on the water tower?’”


There are so many wonderful old TV shows being released on DVD that it makes one reluctant to even sample the new fall TV season. Now on DVD are classic, once-in-a-lifetime series like “Brideshead Revisited,” which introduced Americans to the elegant decline of the aristocracy in England; “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the first series to match fantasy with romance and make it appealing to a wide audience; and “Cracker,” the dysfunctional but fascinating police psychiatrist who knew about man’s weaknesses, but failed to control his. There is “Taxi,” which brought the blue collar to the forefront, and “Cheers,” a show which spun off stars faster than a meteorite. There’s the great early season of “NCIS” before they got rid of the show’s creator and added those two superfluous females to the cast. The sassy and controversial “Duckman” arrives again to curse the universe. The classic “Wagon Train” will be hitching up the horses on DVD in November. And shows like “Rumpole of the Bailey,” the massive “Centennial” and “Jewel in the Crown” are now available to a whole new generation. It makes you wonder: Who needs new network fare such as “The Worst Week” or “Do Not Disturb” or “The Mentalist”?


Paul Lieberstein, who plays the sad sack human resources guy, Toby, on NBC’s “The Office,” also is a writer on the show. But he says he almost never scripts his own lines. “You know, I give him like one or two lines in my episodes, so I feel like, the best and certainly the most Toby talk comes from the other writers ... I tell them to make me a star.”


Zachary Quinto, who plays the evil Sylar on “Heroes,” will become Spock when the newest “Star Trek” movie beams up. Quinto says that he had no master plan to use “Heroes” as a launching pad for movie roles.

“This whole year for me has been such a blur of good fortune that very little of it was by design, you know. I feel like my experience on ‘Heroes’ and the world in which it’s rooted lends itself to the attention that led me to be a part of the (“Star Trek”) movie. I don’t really think of it in terms of how I’ll use ‘Heroes’ to get movie roles or how I use ‘Heroes’ to get other jobs,” he says.

“I remain as grateful to be on ‘Heroes’ now as I did when I first started. And it’s so fulfilling creatively and professionally that I feel like as long as I keep - I think it’s like, you can’t get ahead of yourself because no amount of success or exposure or opportunity is going to really matter or be ultimately fulfilling unless you can be totally present in what you’re doing right now.”

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