This is the second 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. The first installment is here. This article is by Cody Climer (covering 1950s and 60s) and Sean Munger (covering 1970s).
The middle decades of Warner Brothers history are an example of the transition through which the American film industry as a whole went between the 1950s and the 1970s. Now challenged by television–which many people thought at first would kill off the film industry entirely–movies had to reinvent themselves to remain relevant and popular, and they by no means had a lock on the attention of audiences. Our contributors chose these films to represent how Warners, and Hollywood itself, strove to adapt to new circumstances.
Strangers on a Train (1951)
Strangers on a Train is the first adaption of a Patricia Highsmith novel (among the more famous is The Talented Mr. Ripley) and was adapted for the screen by Raymond Chandler (of Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep). This also Alfred Hitchcock’s first box office success after several less popular movies. This film also contains one of the most dangerous stunts in film history involving a man crawling under a running carousel. Hitchcock said he would never try to recreate such a deadly scene again.
The movie starts with Guy (Farley Granger), a tennis star meeting Bruno (Robert Walker), a rather peculiar fan on a train in New England. They strike up a conversation where Bruno dreams up a plan where he can kill Guy’s estranged wife so that he can remarry and Guy can kill Bruno’s domineering father. He considers it the perfect plan because they are completely unconnected other than their random encounter on the train. “My theory is that everyone is a potential murderer,” is Bruno’s reasoning. Guy thinks this is just a bizarre and dark bit of whimsy, but it turns out to be a real plan for Bruno. What follows is a twisted noir with Hitchcock’s typical takes on gender and violence.
There are several parts of this movie that I find fascinating. Robert Walker’s portrayal of the sexually ambiguous psychopath Bruno is such a great villain. He moves through the story wreaking havoc for anyone who has the misfortune to encounter him. Farley Granger as the charming yet gullible Guy, who tries his best to keep Bruno out of his life, does an excellent job I think of bringing the viewer into the story. Also Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Patricia plays a very savvy woman who uncovers Bruno’s murderous plans.
The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964)
“I wish, I wish I were a fish.”
Released in 1964, this has Don Knotts as a cartoon fish in a movie about World War II. What makes this movie so special? Well, the fact that it was the last of its kind–and it was just remastered and re-released on Blu-Ray last year.
I remember seeing this as a kid, probably on a Saturday afternoon. The Incredible Mr. Limpet doesn’t feature any memorable acting, animation or musical numbers, but it is remarkable for its tenacity in being republished. This movie has survived through TV, VHS, DVD and now Blu-Ray. Disney has movies like this too, such as Pete’s Dragon, or Bedknobs & Broomsticks: movies that mix live action and animation that are made for the whole family. These are the movies that we see as kids and think back on fondly, but when we re watch them as adults, we tend to cringe (the ’80s are full of these too like The Neverending Story or Labyrinth). We buy them for our children, nieces and nephews or grandchildren in the hopes they might get that same feeling we did at their age, of seeing the world that we had in our imaginations, where the real and surreal interact. We might not be able to recapture that feeling ourselves, but we can try to share it with those who can still enjoy it.
This also happens to be the last Warner Brothers film with animation produced in house. It marked the end of an era for the film studio. The ’60s were the peak of mixed-media family films, but Disney seemed to always excel at children’s movies while studios like Warner Brothers fell behind. Warner Brothers didn’t reopen their animation Studio until the mid-1980s, and that was to focus on television, which they do to this day.
Blazing Saddles (1974)
One of the truly classic Warner Brothers films–and one of the great comedies of all time–is Mel Brooks’s madcap Western send-up, Blazing Saddles. Though it’s a very funny movie, few people realize quite how ground-breaking it was at the time. It has that distinction both for fairly minor firsts, like the first time farting was ever heard in a mainstream film, but also its extremely scathing and very raw depiction of racism, which Hollywood tended to shy away from. You can do things in comedy you can’t do in serious pictures, and Brooks used the format to its fullest advantage.
Ostensibly Blazing Saddles is a Western about a town called Rock Ridge, which, when descended-upon by gangs of bandits in the cynical attempt by evil land speculator Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) to run its citizens out of town, turns–reluctantly at first–to a new sheriff (Cleavon Little). The sheriff is African-American. Featuring classic supporting performances by Slim Pickens, Mel Brooks himself and Madeline Kahn, who received an Academy Award nomination, Blazing Saddles is a rare example of a metafictional movie, which ultimately breaks out of its own story as its climax devolves into a zany comedic riot at the Warner Brothers studio. But at its heart Blazing Saddles is a statement against racism and for inclusion, and its heart is very much in the right place.
Released in 1974, Blazing Saddles came at the high point of Mel Brooks’s illustrious career and creative genius. It’s truly a film for the ages, but also one that really pushed the envelope of what was acceptable in cinema. Brooks deserves credit not just as a gifted entertainer but a courageous trailblazer in that regard.