Here’s looking at Warner Bros. which is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Earlier this year, Turner Classic Movies, which is a member of the Warner Bros. Discovery family, celebrated the centennial with a monthlong tribute to the studio that gave the world such landmark films as 1927’s “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature with synchronized recorded singing and some dialogue; the ultimate gangster flick 1931’s “Public Enemy,: the glorious 1938 swashbuckler “The Adventures of Robin Hood”; and the beloved 1942 “Casablanca.
And during its Golden Age, its roster of stars included such legends as Rin-Tin-Tin, John Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Paul Muni, John Garfield and Sydney Greenstreet.
Max is currently streaming the four-part documentary series “100 Years of Warner Bros.” (the first two episodes premiered at Cannes). And also arriving this week is the lavish coffee table book “Warner Bros. 100 Years of Storytelling” from Running Press published in partnership with TCM. Penned by film historian, author and photographer Mark A. Vieira with a forward by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, the book is a treasure trove of stunning photographs from the past century of the studio, as well as the storied history of the company formed by the fearless Polish Jewish immigrant siblings Sam, Harry, Albert and Jack Warner.
I recently did an email interview with Vieira about his books and the brothers Warner.
Do you think Warner Bros. is the greatest studio, especially during the Golden Age of Hollywood?
This is an impossible question to answer. If we look at the first 50 years of the American film industry, we can almost say which studio was the most profitable and powerful. It was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, although Warner Bros. surpassed it at various times, as did Paramount. Looking at the entire century, it’s a toss-up between Warners and Universal, but even this is difficult to say because those film companies are no longer individual entities controlled by bosses like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. Those companies are parts of conglomerates. Warner Bros. still exist (unlike RKO or United Artists) because it had sound management and adapted to changing times.
What movie is the shining example of what Warners did best?
What Warners did best was pull stories from the newspaper headlines and making engaging films from them, whether the topic was gangsters or Nazis. The film most often cited as the shining example of Warners’ know-how is ‘Casablanca.’ Hal Wallis initiated the project, assigned it to the best writers, the best director, and cast it with the unlikely Humphrey Bogart, an example of the Warner penchant for taking chances. As directed by Michael Curtiz, the film has an urgency, the feeling of history in the making I was pleased to provide a ‘Casablanca’ photograph that has rarely been published and never in this quality: a moody portrait of Bogart in his white dinner jacket. Every image in the book passed through my computer so that I could restore and enhance it. Warner Bros. had the largest photographic staff and laboratories in the industry. I wanted the book to reflect the superb quality of the Warners images.
How did the four Warner brothers create the studio 100 years ago?
The family businesses began in 1908 with the purchase of a movie projector, but not until 1923 had they weathered sufficient storms and droughts to be ready to incorporate. (By the way, the name is Warner Bros.; you never spell out ‘brothers.’) Early in their lives the four brothers (Sam, Albert, Harry and Jack) heard their father’s repeated counsel. Quoting the Alexandre Dumas book ‘The Three Musketeers,’ he said, ‘All for one, one for all.’ This got them through the turbulent twenties, from Poverty Row to a lavish three-studio spread.
They also took a lot of chances.
Like most of the moguls, the Warners loved gambling. If they lost one round, they had financiers to back them up, because they had earned respect with their resourcefulness and hard work. They took a chance with a dog and Rin-Tin-Tin became their star. They took a chance on approaching America’s greatest actor and John Barrymore became their star. They took a huge chance on sound technology, without industry support, and with only a few theaters wired for sound. The smashing success of Al Jolson in ‘The Jazz Singer’ pushed the second-string Warners company into the front ranks.
MGM had an incredible roster of stars under contract, but so did Warners.
The Warners team found actors to embody the heroes of its groundbreaking films: James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Kay Francis. These were the heroes of urban melodramas, the stories of survival in the Great Depression and the criminal underworld. These stories were made at other studios too, but not with the same ruthless honesty; happy ends were not found in every Warners film. These films touched the hearts of the urban audience, which constituted the do-or-die first week of a film’s audience. Before Darryl F. Zanuck left Warners and merged his little Twentieth Century Pictures with the failing Fox Film Corporation, he had gotten Warners to do many (successful) costume films. Hal Wallis continued this policy with the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, which became hugely popular. Why? Because Flynn was as sincere in his portrayals as Robinson, Davis and the rest. Their acting was rooted in honesty.
Which was the greatest decade for Warners?
The great Warner years transcend one decade. Most of the classics, the films that have found second and third and fourth lives on TV, cables, VHS, DVD, streaming and in repertory (if you’re lucky) were made between 1932 and 1946.
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