Hollywood’s golden age was marked by the so-called factory system. This period was marked by dominance of the studio system: the studio has exclusive contracts with actors, writers, directors, cameramen, etc. As such, each studio eventually carved out an individual niche for itself. Although every studio could point to films that broke free from this niche, for the most part they were known for certain kinds of movies.
Ironically enough, while it was MGM that would put the definitive stamp on what is known as the Hollywood musical, the first feature length musical-recalled more famously as the first talking feature-was produced by Warner Brothers. The Jazz Singer is, as stated, more famously referred to as the first talkie, but in fact it’s reliance on the new gimmick of sound had more to do with singing than with dialogue. What’s less well known is that it was the follow-up to The Jazz Singer, another movie starring Al Jolson, that became the top grossing movie of all time. In fact, The Singing Fool held the box office record until it was eclipsed by Gone with the Wind.
Despite huge truckloads of money depositing the grosses made from their early sound movies featuring Jolson, it wasn’t musicals that put Warner Brothers on the map. Warner Brothers quickly became known for pictures that were gritty, realistic and relatively free from the glitzy glamour with which MGM was associated. Just a quick look at the biggest stars under contract to Warner Brothers gives an idea of the kind of movies they were making: James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis. You don’t have to be a film historian to suddenly have your head filled with visions of gangsters and tough broads when you think of those stars.
As the name of the studio might suggest, Warner Brothers was founded by single family: Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner. But enough about them, let’s focus on the movies. Warner Brothers stands out from the pack by virtue of consistently putting out the most realistic-for its time-films of its day. Most of the movies featured working class characters that Depression-era audiences could more easily identify with than characters featured in many of the films produced by other companies. In addition, the characters had more of a real-world feel to them because the plots often focused on contemporary issues. Indeed, one surefire way to describe the average Warners movie of the ’30 is by saying it was “ripped from the headlines.”
The perfect examples, of course, are the gangster movies such as Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. These movies presented such surprisingly accurate portraits of modern day hoodlum life that they were often accused of glorifying the gangster. The violence of these films was instrumental in leading to the censorship clampdown known as the Hays Code. But gangsters were only the tip of the iceberg for Warners Brothers in their insistence on putting real life issues up on the screen.
One of the greatest of all the Warner Brothers “ripped from the headlines” movies-indeed, one of the greatest movies of all time-was I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring the incredible Paul Muni. Muni was the Robert DeNiro of his day, and when I say of his day I’m talking about the 70’s and early 80s for DeNiro. This movie shows what happens when a returning war hero inadvertently takes part in a crime and is sentenced to a brutal chain gang in Georgia. After his escape, he becomes a model citizen and successful engineer, only to be ratted out by a jealous lover.
Lied to by the political powers-that-be, he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in chains and so escapes again. The final fade-out is among the most powerful in American movie history. When asked how he survives, he disappears into the darkness with these words “I steal.” Warner Brothers was the best in Hollywood at showing the dark side of the Depression from which other movies were a vehicle for escape.
Paul Muni also starred in a genre of movies for which Warners Brothers was equally famous at the time, though is perhaps less so now. The biopic now goes under the probably even less truthful moniker “docudrama.” Muni played, among others, legendary French naturalist writer Emile Zola, Mexican President Benito Juarez and Louis Pasteur. Edward G. Robinson won great acclaim playing Paul Ehrlich, the doctor whose research into syphilis led to the first drug treatment for that disease.
Warners Brothers also led the pack in giving strong socially conscious roles to actresses. Part and parcel with this was the fact that Warners Brothers also produced some of the most scandalous pre-code pictures in America. Anyone who smirks at the thought that a 1930s movie can’t possibly be sexy need only look at Baby Face when it makes one of its appearances on Turner Classic Movies. Starring an impossibly young and surprisingly sexy Barbara Stanwyck-all you guys who think of names like Jolie, Johansson and Lopez when it comes so sexy actresses should be required to watch this movie-Baby Face was probably the final nail in the coffin of Hollywood freedom from censorship.
What is it about? A young woman pimped by her own father flees to the big city and rises up the corporate ladder by rarely getting up off her back. Stanwyck’s character is openly contemptuous of men and never leaves any doubt that her constant bedding down has nothing to do with love. Her rise up the corporate ladder is presented in a way that is so creative you would never see it done in a movie today: Each sexual conquest takes place off-camera, metaphorically alluded to instead by the camera outside the building where she works rising another story to a more important and higher-paying section of work. Eventually she sleeps her way to the very top. Stanwyck wasn’t with Warner Brothers for a long time, but most of her pictures there were pre-code and they’re almost all as deliriously good as Baby Face. Especially noteworthy are Night Nurse, Illicit and Ten Cents a Dance.
The Warners Brothers gritty reality carried into the 1940s as well. The 40s also brought superstardom to Humphrey Bogart. It was his turn as private eye Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon that finally made him a household name; this after a decade of being one of the most reliable best supporting actor in movies. Of course, it was a little movie he appeared in just one year later that cemented Bogart as a legend: Casablanca.
That picture, while a classic in the best sense of the word, is also a classic example of what Warners Brothers became best at in the 40s: melodrama. And nobody did melodrama better in the 1940s-whether for Warners Brothers or any other studio-than Bette Davis. Starting with The Letter in 1940 and ending with Beyond the Forest in 1949-the movie in which she actually said her second most quoted line “What a dump!”-Davis starred in a series of films that at the time were called either “tearjerkers” or “weepies.” Today, these films would be known by the particularly egregious moniker “chick flick.”
The typical Warners Brothers movie of the 30s and even well into the 40s are characterized not only by relatively working class milieus, but by a quick pace. Most of the films of this period come in around 90 minutes or less, and they seem even quicker because so much content is packed into them. In addition, the dialogue of the Warner Brothers movies crackled with wit and period slang. In fact, most of the slang still used today that refers to the Depression: cup of joe, mugs, dames, dirt rats, etc. can be traced back to the Warners Brothers movies. Most of that slang wasn’t in popular use at that time and just as we learn slang terms from entertainment vehicles today, so did moviegoers back then.
It should be noted that this type of furious pacing and fun dialogue also marks the Warner Brothers brand of musicals. Of course, since Warners Brothers did produce the first musical, it should be mentioned that, although they take a back seat to MGM when it comes to that genre, they weren’t exactly out of the musical business.
Two words are really all that are necessary to describe Warners Brothers musicals: Busby Berkeley. His kaleidoscopic direction are the hallmarks of a Warner Brothers musical, but equally important is that fact that in between all those dazzling displays of beautifully plump dancers turning into huge flowers and flags and such, viewers were usually treated to a backstage romance story that was peppered with far more memorable dialogue than could be found in the glossier musicals over at MGM.
Although Busby Berkeley is most famous, of course, for his often surrealistic set pieces, one Warner Brothers musical that stands apart from the crowd and is worth tracking down on Turner Classic Movies is a little gem called Hollywood Hotel. It features sisters Rosemary and Lola Lane in bizarre tale of mistaken identity and Hollywood deception and a brilliantly amusing movie parody of Gone With the Wind within the movie.
Of course, no history of Warners Brothers would be complete without mention of their animation department. At the height of the Hollywood golden age, there were basically three studios making serious money from animation: Disney, MGM and Warner Brothers. Disney, of course, was focusing more the most part on feature-length animation, though they continued producing shorts. The typical Disney short followed the same path as the features: kid-friendly subjects and soft-focus animation. Over at MGM Tex Avery was putting his stamp on some of the most outlandish and surreal animation ever produced in Hollywood. Warners Brothers, as was their custom in every other genre, focused on snappy dialogue and grittier characters.
Bugs Bunny is nothing if not working class; same with Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. Regardless of how highly esteemed you may place the animation of the great Warner Brothers animators: Chuck Jones, Robert Clampett, Friz Freleng or even Robert McKimson, you have to admit that what you probably remember first about those cartoons are snatches of dialogue.
While a Tex Avery cartoon may produce memories of eyeballs the size of Rhode Island popping out of a character’s sockets, when you think about to the Warners Brothers cartoons you probably remember such lines as “Duck season!” or “What a maroon!” It is the sly dialogue that makes Bugs, Daffy and Foghorn so memorable.
Warner Brothers posted a legacy during the Depression and war years that remains as popular today as ever among serious film buffs. That legacy would be even greater if television networks would deign to show movies made before 1995, but except for Turner Classic Movies that just isn’t going to happen. Which is a real shame. I defy any network exec to prove that a fifteenth showing in thirty days of You’ve Got Mail would really bring in more of profit than an annual showing of The Public Enemy or I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Warner Brothers consistently made terrific movies on much lower budgets than other studios, proving that you don’t need 100 million dollars to make a classic.