January 18, 2010

Warner Brothers Forever

I can't be sure if it's the fact that TCM has filled its schedule for fifteen years with Warner Brothers movies -- and so I've simply been inundated with them to the point of brainwash -- but I think Warner Brothers is my favorite of the old time studios.

This opinion was confirmed when I recently read "The Hollywood Studios" by Ethan Mordden. I'm less familiar with Paramount, Universal, and to a lesser extent Columbia (mostly because TCM doesn't always play a lot of movies from these three studios because of rights issues and such and also because the studios themselves release very little onto DVD), so reading about these studios and their movies from the Golden Age has made me eager to find some of these films and explore some new cinematic territory.

But the chapter on Warner Brothers was enough to remind me that even if/when I do see more Paramount or Universal films, they probably won't be enough to dislodge my love for the WB studio.

DIGRESSION: RKO is a very close second to Warner Bros in my love, but the problem for RKO is that their "off-the-wall-ness" is exactly why I love them and exactly why it's hard to see the studio as having a distinct style, meaning I love individual RKO movies, but the studio as a whole is harder to pin down and therefore harder to love. Warner Brothers had a style, and it's that style that elevates the fluff and the b-movies and the mediocre stuff into watchable/lovable territory. A great RKO picture is as good as it gets, some of the best, most unique stuff Hollywood has ever done -- but a mediocre-to-bad RKO picture is snoozeville for the most part and there's not a "studio style" to elevate the material and make it interesting. The hard, snappy, fast-paced, socially conscious, and working-class/"ethnic" style of Warner Brothers in the 30s and early 40s gives all of their films a fun, freewheeling vibe that makes even the b-pictures worth a look. RKO, because their films lacked that distinct studio style, rise or fall on the strength of the individual pictures. END DIGRESSION

Warner Brothers has most of my favorite movie stars: James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck (she wasn't under exclusive contract at WB, but she made quite a few movies for them), Ida Lupino, and John Garfield. They also had a great stable of character actors (with Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet at the top).

Also, Warners made gangster pictures -- one of my favorite genres.

Warners had edge. Their movies sounded like America. As the grandchild of first and second generation Italians, I've got a kind of romantic view of the working class immigrants who came to America at the turn of the century and I see a lot of that romanticized view in the films of Warner Brothers from the 30s and 40s. I have a cousin named Johnny Rocco, for goodness sake -- how could I not thrill to Edward G. Robinson as the gangster of the same name in "Key Largo"?! (N.B.: My cousin is in NO way a cruel gangster with a sadistic streak -- he's a sweet, unassuming kid who is as gentle as a little puppy. Nor do I endorse cruel, sadistic gangsters as likable or admirable. But come on, it's kinda freaking cool that a notorious Warner Bros gangster played by legendary Eddie G. Robinson shares the same name as my teenage cousin! "Johnny Rocco's gonna get ya!" "Don't double cross Johnny Rocco, now!" "Johnny Rocco's gonna be on top again!" It's hilarious and awesome.) Warner Brothers is the studio of my grandparents' and great-grandparents' America. It's the studio of my family's American experience.

Also, the fast, snappy style (which was basically Jack Warner's way to save money and make movies on the cheap as quickly as possible, not really a conscious *artistic* choice) is the most "modern" in the sense that it stands up today even amidst the rapid cutting and frantic pace of today's movies. The complaint that old movies are "slow and boring" is hard to apply to the Warner Brothers pictures -- their movies zip along at tommy gun speed. I also admire the economical way that Warners is able to tell a story. Anything more than 90 minutes is an epic at Warner Brothers. They can tell a whole man's life story in about 75 minutes and not make you think you've been short-changed.

One key to this is the fabulous use of montage in a classic Warner Brothers picture. Spinning newspaper headlines; quick, wordless shots of action, Action, ACTION that communicate the plot within seconds; expressionistic visuals that use canted angles, exaggerated set design, and superimposed images for a surreal effect; sound mixes that create an almost dreamlike/nightmarish mood -- the Warner Brothers montage can take a nothing film and make it suddenly seem all worthwhile (Don Siegel was the king of Warner Brothers montages in the late 30s/early 40s -- I especially love his stuff in "Blues in the Night" and "The Roaring Twenties").

Obviously I adore tons of movies from the other studios; this little blog post isn't to say that I *dislike* any of the other major studios -- far from it, in fact. Each studio had its strengths and weaknesses and each studio made movies that fill my long list of favorites. Don't misunderstand me: I'm pretty much all about everything from the classic age of Hollywood, regardless of studio. But when it comes to picking just one studio from the Golden Age as my "go-to" studio, it is Warner Brothers. Their style is most in tune with what I love and look for in classic movies. They may have made them cheap and quick, but they also made them raw and wise-cracking and gutsy. Warner Brothers movies had moxie. And I've always been a sucker for moxie.

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