by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I knocked off and planted myself in the living room to watch an intriguing special on PBS, the first in a three-part series on the history of the Warner Bros. studio. Called You Must Remember This (after the opening line of the famous song from what’s probably the most famous movie Warners ever produced), the film was a production of Richard Schickel — which meant he had access to the interviews he’d done with famous filmmakers of the classic period in the 1970’s (including William Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy and Howard Hawks) and could therefore include people who are dead now but whom he caught on film talking about the great days of Warners while they were still alive.
These episodes dealt with the studio from its inception (the Warner brothers released their first film, My Four Years in Germany, in 1918 — bespeaking their tendency in later years to make movies based on current news events — but the studio didn’t become an ongoing operation until 1923) and hit the usual notes sounded in histories of Warners: that it was the “proletarian studio,” the one whose films acknowledged the Depression and depicted the struggles of the people victimized by it instead of pretending it wasn’t happening the way films made at MGM and Paramount did.
Schickel and his narrator, Clint Eastwood (a talent incubated at Universal and then lured away to Warners; Dirty Harry was his transitional film, released by Warners but actually shot either on location or at Universal) argued that this was due to the personal politics of the Warner brothers and their realization that they were filling a market niche the other studios were ignoring, but as I’ve pointed out in this pages before it had to do mostly with their acquisition of the First National company in 1928 and the sort of theatre chain they acquired thereby. First National had been a studio founded by theatre owners who were worried that Paramount was buying up so many production companies and so many theatres — and freezing out the ones they weren’t buying so those theatres wouldn’t have access to quality product involving major stars — so the theatres who weren’t part of the Paramount chain formed a chain of their own (the original First National logo was a picture of a chain ringing a map of North America) and pooled their resources to form a studio and hire major stars, including the two biggest names in film in 1918: Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.
First National limped along throughout the 1920’s, building the Burbank studio Warners still uses today but quickly losing Pickford and Chaplin (who left to be even more independent by starting United Artists), and because their theatres were the ones Paramount and Loews (MGM’s parent company) hadn’t wanted, they tended to be in grungier neighborhoods of cities and in rural areas. So since the First National theatre audiences weren’t as affluent or as sophisticated as the upper-class big-city audiences who went to the flagship Paramount and Loews theatres, they wanted more working-class fare.
The show soft-pedaled the usual myth that The Jazz Singer saved Warners from bankruptcy but built up a few of its own, including making the statement that no one tried to imitate Busby Berkeley’s big production numbers (plenty of people tried — LeRoy Prinz, Sammy Lee, Dave Gould, Hermes Pan, Bobby Connolly, among others — though no one, with the possible exception of John Murray Anderson, did them anywhere nearly as well) and calling Mildred Pierce Warners’ first true film noir. (What about The Maltese Falcon? They depicted it, all right, in their segment on Bogart but had some surprisingly nasty things to say about it, including one odd quote from Martin Scorsese — he was a significant director at Warners in a more recent period but it also seems like every documentary about the history of film is legally obligated to have Scorsese in it somewhere — that the sequence in Falcon in which Bogart gives Peter Lorre back his gun and Lorre renews his demand to search Sam Spade’s office, and Bogart as Spade laughs, was so overacted on Bogart’s part “it seemed like John Huston was asleep that day” — when actually the sequence is in the book much the way it appears in the film, and I certainly find nothing objectionable or overacted in Bogart’s performance in the scene.)
The show also repeated the myth that Bette Davis became a big star only because she was under Warners contract — whereas I think Davis probably would have become a star no matter where she ended up: even her first studio, Universal, could have launched her had they given her the lead in the 1931 Waterloo Bridge instead of relegating her to a minor role where she had more screen time with her back to the camera than she had facing it. I’ve often wondered how Davis’s career might have gone if she’d ended up at MGM, which unlike Warners had an infrastructure able to make major stars out of women; at MGM Davis would have been competing for parts with Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer, but she would also have been built up more carefully, she wouldn’t have had to do crappy pictures like Housewife and Satan Met a Lady that Jack Warner shoved her into, and she’d have had the advantage of a studio that specialized in the “women’s picture” instead of one where she had to fight her ass off for decent roles because the Warners machine was geared towards building male stars. (It’s pretty amazing that even after her walkout, her two Academy Awards and her incandescent performance under William Wyler’s direction in Jezebel — oddly, this documentary discussed Jezebel and The Letter, mentioned them as probably the two best films Davis made in her 18 years as a Warners contractee, but didn’t mention Wyler’s name once! — Jack Warner was still shoving her scripts like Garden of the Moon with a nothing female lead almost any actress with a face and a figure could have played.)
Overall, You Must Remember This — despite the myth-making — was a respectable documentary, handicapped by showing a lot of clips from a lot of films while offering very little context for them (there’s a sequence from William Wellman’s 1933 masterpiece Safe in Hell — for which a good case could be made as Warners’ first film noir — but it’s there only to illustrate the relative sexual freedom of the so-called “pre-Code” period) and also by rushing through the first three decades of Warners’ existence to get to the more recent periods that will feature people most television watchers today have actually heard of; but there’s also a lot of good stuff here and clips from some movies I’d love to see again, including the brilliant if also rather silly 1950 anti-Klan movie Storm Warning (with the kinky scene in which Doris Day, of all people, gets whipped by the Klansmen); they also showed the 1937 Black Legion but suggested that the “Legion” was simply code for the Klan, when in fact not only did the Black Legion actually exist (it was its organizers, not Warners’ writers, that copied the Klan in their regalia and rituals) but the writers actually used the real Black Legion oath in their script (something I didn’t realize until I ran across the text of the actual Black Legion oaths in one of Charles’ books about 1930’s fascist movements in the U.S. and remembered where I’d encountered it before: as the oath Humphrey Bogart and the other wanna-be Legionnaires take in the film!).