Monday, 2 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 3: Warner Brothers

Like other major Hollywood studios, Warner Brothers, as the name indicates, was originally a family-run operation. Albert, Harry and Jack Warner all having started out in different fields, joined their brother Sam when he opened a Nickelodeon in Youngstown, Ohio in 1904. Moving on to a travelling picture show they eventually ran a cinema, before they ventured into distribution, which then led to producing their first feature film in 1917, cashing in on the Anti–German sentiment at the time, called, My Four Years In Germany.

The subsequent success of that film led to the opening of their first, modest, Hollywood studio, located on Sunset Boulevard. The building, which still exists today, is now called Tribune Entertainment. The company was incorporated as Warner Brothers in 1923,with Jack Warner as studio head, releasing an average of around 15 films per year, among which were the profitable Rin-Tin-Tin pictures.

With the studio gradually expanding, and thus in dire need of talent, they poached Ernst Lubitsch from Mary Pickford, who in turn had lured him away from his native Berlin, where he had already established himself as a successful director. Warner sweetened the deal by offering Lubitsch a plum contract that granted him complete control over his films. Hiring the sophisticated European seemed a very unlikely move for the young company, still operating on shoe-string budgets, and to nobody’s surprise Lubitsch soon left for Paramount, whose European touch proved a much better home for his talent.

Darryl F. Zanuck

The following year Jack hired an ambitious young man, who had previously worked as a writer, Darryl F. Zanuck, who would soon infuse the fledgling studio with his boundless energy. Shortly after, in 1925, the ever-growing corporation acquired the Vitagraph company and began experimenting with sound, and a mere two years later, released the landmark film, The Jazz Singer (1927), commonly known as the first sound film (although that is not entirely correct, for Warner’s had already experimented with sound the year before, which resulted in the filming of several operas, among which Don Juan and Manon Lescaut, both 1926), which was made in partnership with Western Electric.

Sam Warner, who had played such a vital role in the company’s humble beginnings and who was also instrumental in the studio’s foray into sound, died unexpectedly in 1927, the night prior to the opening of the Jazz Singer, thus never able to hear Al Jolson utter the magic words that were to change the face of Hollywood, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, folks. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, you ain’t heard a thing”, which officially not only marked the beginning of the age of sound, but also turned Warner Brothers overnight into a so-called ‘major’ studio, next to MGM and Paramount.

Movie attendance grew rapidly after the introduction of sound, and with Zanuck’s rise from writer to producer, by and by he went on to give the studio’s output the distinct look with which Warner Brothers films of that period are identified with.

Hiring new and promising talent, like Paul Muni, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, Zanuck introduced an altogether different style of hard-boiled gangster films with titles like Doorway To Hell (1930), Public Enemy (1931) and I’m a Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), that breathed new, deadly, life into the glossy world of Hollywood. Warner’s, under Zanuck’s reign, is indeed credited with having invented the modern gangster film, a claim which is not altogether correct, as Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (Paramount, 1927) predated Warner’s films by a number of years. But even though Underworld opened to a cascade of rave reviews and also was a box office winner, nobody picked up on it, until Warner Brothers made the genre their own and would henceforth be forever identified with them.

Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933

The tough and hard-boiled gangster films were counter-balanced by the visually stunning and beautifully choreographed musicals of Busby Berkeley, like Gold Diggers Of Broadway (1929), and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).

The year 1928 saw Warner’s takeover of the Stanley theatre chain, followed a year later by the acquisition of First National, including its theatres, stars and production facilities in Burbank, which then became Warner Brothers new headquarters, famously immortalised on the cover of the Pink Floyd album, Wish You Were Here (1972).

The Depression hit the studio hard, resulting in record losses of $14 million in 1932, which prompted Jack Warner to cut the employees’ salaries during an eight–week period. However, when Jack Warner failed to restore them a heavy fight erupted between Zanuck and his boss, leading to Zanuck’s resignation after having been the studio’s head of production for four years.

Zanuck was replaced by Hal Wallis, who would operate as the studio’s production chief for the following ten years, shepherding most of the Bette Davis vehicles, which became the company’s bread and butter during the 1930s and early 40s.
Signed by Zanuck in 1932, the unlikely Davis went on to turn into the Queen of the lot, winning Oscars for the studio in 1935 for Dangerous, and a second one in 1938 for Jezebel, which was Warner’s answer to MGM’s Gone With The Wind (1939).

"Shall we have a cigarette on it?", the signature scene from one of Bette Davis' greatest triumphs during her reign at Warner's Now, Voyager

Apart from the Davis vehicles, the studio scored with its William Dieterle-directed biopics such as The Story Of Louis Pasteur(1935), and The Life Of Emile Zola (1937), the latter of which won the studio an Oscar for Best Picture. Another Best Picture Oscar followed in 1943 with Casablanca. When the winner was announced, Jack Warner got up to accept the award, which understandably enraged the picture’s producer, Hal Wallis, who subsequently left Warner Brothers to become an independent producer.

With Bette Davis’ career on the wane, John Huston’s (The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, 1948) and Howard Hawks’ (The Big Sleep, 1946) pictures provided more or less the only sparkle in an otherwise lacklustre output in A –movies.

John Huston

However, Warner Brothers, after having been influential in the rise of the gangster film, is the one studio, next to RKO, that is most identified with film noir, a movement that had its origins in the Warner gangster films, but was also heavily influenced by the German expressionism of the 1920ies and the poetic realism that suffused French films in the late 1930s. John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) is generally quoted as the first film noir, but the movement reached its peak after the war, and Huston, as well as Hawks, are both responsible for some of the genre’s finest films. Clear definitions of the genre, however, remain somewhat vague, and they have been the subject of countless discussions and disputes between film historians. Mildred Pierce (1945) is no exception: Drama, melodrama or film-noir? Curtiz' classic transcends clear genre definitions. Starring Warner’s latest addition, Joan Crawford, who had recently arrived on the lot after having been let go by her alma mater, MGM, Michael Curtiz’ film noir–drama won her the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Like all the other studios, Warner Brothers, too, was forced to divest themselves of their string of movie theatres by the Government’s anti-Trust laws in 1950, which inconveniently came in the same year that television found its way into the ordinary American household, thus spelling the end of the studio-era. Jack Warner was relatively slow in breaking into the lucrative television market, setting up Warner’s TV division in 1955, with his son-in-law, William Orr in charge.

But even though movie attendance was in decline, the studio had a number of impressive hits during the 1950s, most significant among which are the films of Elia Kazan and George Stevens, whose Giant was Warner’s biggest box-office of that period, earning $12 million dollars in North American rentals. The year Giant was released Harry and Albert Warner resolved to retire, selling their shares in Warner Brothers to an investment group. Their brother, Jack, stayed on as president, but with the new part-owners on board, his power was considerably reduced.

Davis and Crawford, the divine feud during the shooting of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Bette Davis, who had contributed considerably to turn Warner’s into what it is today, returned to her old studio in 1962 for the garish Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. The film’s director, Robert Aldrich, had great difficulties in getting the picture financed, as he couldn’t convince anybody to invest in a film starring the “two old broads”, Davis and Crawford. Eventually, Warner agreed to come up with the money, and the film, made on a shoestring budget, became one of the studio’s biggest hits, reigniting Bette Davis career in the process.

Dunaway, about to write fashion history with her iconic look in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde

In 1964 the studio was awarded a third Best Picture Academy Award for the glossy musical My Fair Lady. The studio’s biggest grosser of the 1960s, however, was a film Jack Warner hated, Bonnie And Clyde (1967), which rang in an altogether new era in Hollywood film making. Even though the picture was directed by Arthur Penn, it had been Warren Beatty’s baby, and he did everything to get the project off the ground, running into severe road blocks on the way, as the ageing Jack Warner, who by that stage was hopelessly out of touch with the public’s taste, didn’t believe in the picture’s potential. As it was, the picture not only raked in millions, but also garnered a total of ten Oscar nods. And maybe it was this misjudgement that finally caused Jack Warner to sell his share in the company to the Canadian based Seven Arts Corporation in 1967.

The eve of the 1970s was a tricky and trying time for any Hollywood studio as audience tastes shifted rapidly and most of what was held dear by Hollywood’s old guard had to be violently thrown overboard if the studios wanted to survive.
And like most other film companies, Warner’s went through a myriad of takeovers and changes over the years to come, which had former employees and movie buffs alike nostalgically reminiscing about the golden days of the studio era, for even though the former studio bosses might have been autocrats and even hated by some, at least they loved and believed in what they were doing.

Nevertheless, the studio had a couple of commercial as well as artistic hits with films like Deliverance (1972), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), The Goodbye Girl (1977), and most famously, with The Exorcist (1973), which apart from making millions also made waves by causing people to faint and commit suicide, as it brought an entirely new meaning to the word ‘horror film’.

Marisa Berenson, in one of the Gainsborough-inspired images created by John Alcott for Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, Barry Lyndon

In 1971 Warner Brothers started its affiliation with Stanley Kubrick, who henceforth produced and released all his films through Warner’s, without ever having to leave his adopted country, England, where he settled at the beginning of the 1960s.
Clockwork Orange (1971) was the first of the five films he would make for Warner’s. And even though an outsider, and much older than most of the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ directors, he moved with the times, his films like The Shining (1980) and the aforementioned Clockwork Orange being as controversial as they were commercially successful. Kubrick’s best film, however, the elegiac Barry Lyndon (1976) proved to be a box-office failure, even though it deservedly ended up with a handful of Oscar Nominations, of which it received four.

Today Warner Brothers is part of the world’s biggest media conglomeration, Time Warner AOL. And after having gone through a rough patch, financially during the 1990s, things are looking up again, due to the overwhelming success of the Harry Potter and The Matrix series. More noteworthy, though, is the studio’s independent company, New Line, producing exciting, off-beat films like Boogie Nights (1997), Wag The Dog (1998), and Magnolia (1999), and, more recently, the Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

Warner Brothers is one of the remaining Hollywood studios that offers studio tours, and unlike Paramount, where I didn’t find the tour-guide to be particularly knowledgeable, the one at Warner’s was willing to delve deep into the history of Warner Brothers rather than concentrating on the recent activities on the lot, which, like in most other studios, mainly revolve around television and a number of blockbusters.