This is the first in a 3-part series, a collaborative effort by Sean Munger, Robert Horvat and Cody Climer, to profile 12 influential films in the history of Warner Brothers. Robert Horvat is the author of this article, covering the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
You will find a wide range of films that the contributors of this article have considered worthy in outlining a brief history of Warner Brothers Studio in twelve films. Among them are some all-time classics, influential films and the occasional personal favourite. Of course, with over 6,500 films released by the studio since its beginning, the contributors and the reader are never going to see eye to eye what best sums up Warner Brothers. To simply put it, the history of cinema and what is considered influential, great, even awful is always going to be subjective. Nonetheless, we hope that the reader will find our selection of twelve films compelling. Though first, to get a grasp of who Warner Brothers were, we must briefly return back to the beginning of their story, to set the scene for the rise of one of the greatest studios in cinematic history.
Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner were the sons of Jewish immigrants from Poland. They fled the horrible ghettos of Russian dominant Poland for the safety of Ontario, Canada. Years later, after many failed starts as butchers, shoe repairmen and bicycle salesmen, the brothers saw an opportunity with the introduction of nickelodeons and other film theatres. As this new enterprise began to gain traction, the brothers acquired theatres in the United States. As a consequence, they became American citizens in 1918 and moved their growing entertainment business to Hollywood. By 1923, they officially incorporated their emerging film company, in an attempt to match it with the ‘big boys’ on the block.
It was in these early days that no one gave them a chance including the big three studios, First National, Paramount and MGM. What the rest of Hollywood didn’t realize was that the Warner brothers had a steely determination born from years of poverty. Nor did they easily forget how they were mocked by the powerful men of Hollywood. Fortunately, persistence and foresight yielded success early for the Warner Brothers with their first star, a German Shepherd dog named Rin Tin Tin. More importantly their first full-scale film, My Four Years in Germany also helped them become profitable. Then in the mid 1920s Warners ran into financial difficulty and almost floundered. It would take something special to help rescue Warner Brothers now and at the urging of Sam Warner they introduced a new innovation called synchronized sound. To paraphrase Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” would become a catch cry for the motion picture industry introduced by the Warner’s Studio.
The Jazz Singer (1927)
When Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer was released in theatres in 1927, the whole of the motion picture industry was turned on its head. If not for the persistence of Sam Warner, Warner Brothers may never have agreed to add synchronized sound to their movies in the mid 1920’s. As fate would have it Warner studios took that next decisive step in the evolution of motion pictures by creating the world’s first ‘talking picture’. The Jazz Singer would come to represent a whole lot of things to many different people. From issues revolving around racial assimilation, Jewish identity to the controversy surrounding the use of blackface, which by today’s standards is regarded as highly offensive, Jazz Singer carries a special place in cinema history and the study of American society. With plenty of great moments of song and dance, Jazz Singer’s simple plot carries its star Al Jolson on a coming of age story where his character must decide between his love of the stage and his father’s wishes for him to become a Jewish cantor.
Look out for the great scene where Jolson’s character is asked to perform a quick number, in which he informs the crowded cabaret audience (in the film) that ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet’ as he breaks out in yet another ‘talkie’ song. The standing-room-only audiences, in theatres across the United States were left stunned at this new innovation in 1927. Jazz Singer would go on to earn an honorary award for pioneering talking pictures and bankroll Warner Studios from here on end.
One of Warner studio’s most celebrated actresses in the 1930s was a defiant and feisty young woman named Bette Davis. She was a woman who often made waves on and off the screen. She even dared to challenge Warner’s authority by fleeing to Britain in 1937 to get out of her contract because she believed Warners wasn’t doing enough to enhance her career. She eventually and ungraciously returned to Hollywood with her tail between her legs after Warners won a legal case against her from working overseas. After she returned back to Hollywood, Bette Davis missed out on getting the leading role for Gone With The Wind (Selznick never seriously considered her for the role regardless of all the hype). Apparently disappointed, Warner Bros came to the rescue with their very own Antebellum period drama. Much more than an attempt at compensation for missing out on the female lead in Gone With The Wind, Jezebel was offered to Davis as a peace gesture, considering Warners and Bette Davis’ recent shaky past.
Jezebel is often described as Hollywood’s second most famous portrayal of a spoiled Southern belle that made Bette Davis a superstar. Her willingness to play a somewhat unlikeable character, like Julie Marsden, won her acclaim from all quarters. In a nutshell, Bette’s character arrives wearing the wrong dress to a southern society ball. The dress is so shocking that Bette’s character Julie Marsden exiles herself to a leper colony to regain her honor. Jezebel evokes images of New Orleans of the 1850s with style and to its credit successfully avoids what is often termed as the ‘plantation myth’. However, its focal point is the elaborate Olympus Ball scene during which Bette Davis and Henry Fonda’s characters love for each other falls apart. It is here that Davis character is shunned and humiliated in front of not only the ballroom’s crowd, but by her fiancé (Fonda).
The early history of Warner Bros could have so easily turned into a Humphrey Bogart tribute with so many significant and important films from that era, like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Fortunately we cannot in good conscience simply turn this article into a Bogart ‘lovefest’. However we cannot let the opportunity slip by not adding one Bogart picture to the history of Warner Bros in 12 films.
There is nothing new that this author can add in the praise of Casablanca, arguably one of the greatest film ever made. So in case you have been living under a rock, Casablanca is a story about political and romantic espionage that is set against the backdrop of World War II. It is an exciting story where Humphrey Bogart sets the standard for as the tough-minded hero and Ingrid Bergman with her warmth and tenderness. With a host of great supporting actors, Casablanca doesn’t seem to miss a beat. Though what is most remarkable about the film during the production process was that no one, not even the writers, knew exactly how the film would end. Was Ilsa (Bergman) supposed to stay with her husband or was she supposed to run off with Rick (Bogart)? Spoiler alert! Bogart doesn’t get the girl but everyone can appreciate and identify with Rick and Ilsa’s ill-fated love affair.
Over the years since its release in 1942, we have all come to adore this timeless classic and we will still be talking about in fifty years from now. Why ? Because it has managed to weave itself into the fabric of our culture and being with such great affection. Casablanca will go down in Warner’s history as arguably its quintessential picture, encapsulating the spirit of great romance, patriotism, intrigue and idealism.
White Heat (1949)
The heyday of gangster movies in the 1930s brought the best out of all the studios big stars and the worst out of their characters. More than any other studio, Warner Bros dared to show the seedy American underbelly. They threw down the gauntlet to the other studios to try to match them for style and onscreen killing. Amongst Warner’s stable of stars were Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Humphrey Bogart and the energetic James Cagney. Cagney, especially made a meal out of playing a two-bit hood in 1930s in defining films such as The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties. Cagney, like many of his actor peers, would be type cast and exploited by Warner Bros as a gangster actor for most of his career. The Roaring Twenties in 1939 would be Cagney’s last gangster movie for a period of ten years. James Cagney would enjoy a change of pace by starring in amongst other things comedies and musicals. His best performance came arguably not in a gangster movie but in Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biographical film about George M. Cohan. But as the years rolled on, Cagney got itchy feet again to play the archetype gangsters that made him famous.
White Heat was that vehicle that would reintroduce Cagney back to the underworld. Cagney’s magnificent return to the gangster genre, after ten long years was electric. But White Heat revealed something different about Cagney and the roles he was used to in the 1930s. Our 30s gangster was no longer simply a killer whose violent behavior was easily explained by poor rearing or environment. The 40s gangster had developed with complexities. In Cagney’s character Cody Jarrett was a complete psychopath with ‘mommy’ issues. Jarrett’s psychopathic devotion to his mother seems to keep him sane, until she dies and he completely loses the plot.
In the films famous ending on top of a gas tank, Jarrett is shooting at police down below. He’s eventually cornered with nowhere to go and is fatally wounded. He fires two bullets in the tank which burst into flames, but before it blows up Jarrett, he utters this famous line, “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!” These last famous words are almost fitting for Cagney and the heights he scaled as an actor. For Warner Brothers, White Heat wouldn’t be the end of Cagney nor the gangster. Cagney would live on and gangster movies would morph into a new sub-genre.