"The movie magic behind the world's most famous shield"—from the DVD cover
Jack Warner and his three brothers—Harry, Sam, and Albert—founded their studio in the early 1920s, when movies were still in their infancy. Their first big star was an ornery German shepherd named Rin Tin Tin (who received 12,000 fan letters a week at the height of his popularity). Intrigued by the new technology of synchronized sound, in 1926 Warner Bros. teamed with Western Electric to form Vitaphone, and caused a sensation the following year with the release of The Jazz Singer. Though most of the film was silent, when Al Jolson opened his mouth to sing, his own voice actually filled the theater. Had the public not reacted positively, Warner might well have ended up in bankruptcy, just another footnote in the history of the movies. Instead, the studio won an honorary Academy Award for the feat, and remains a major Hollywood player to this day.
In the 1930s and '40s, Warner's fame rested with their gangster pictures (with tough-guy hoods like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, and Humphrey Bogart), adventure pictures starring such actors as Errol Flynn, the kaleidoscopic musicals of Busby Berkeley, patriotic wartime shorts, and the Looney Tunes cartoons. In the years that followed, the studio won Best Picture Oscars for The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Casablanca (1942), My Fair Lady (1964), Chariots of Fire (1981), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), and Unforgiven (1992). While the reputation of Warner Bros. was never as grand as that of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during Hollywood's Golden Age, the ultimate irony is that, through a reversal of fortune, the conglomerate AOL Time Warner now owns the Golden Age film library of MGM.
Facts of the Case
This documentary, initially produced for Ted Turner's TNT network in 1991, tells the history of Warner Bros. through its movies. In the style of MGM's That's Entertainment!, classic film clips are introduced by five big-name narrators (Clint Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg, and Chevy Chase). In addition, we are able to see interviews with key figures; rare studio screen tests for actors like Orson Welles, Paul Newman, James Dean, and Marlon Brando; and outtakes from films starring Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis, Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and even Porky Pig (!).
Viewers expecting production values like those from That's Entertainment! will be disappointed. The filmmakers do well to cram more than 75 years of highlights into this hour-and-a-half film, but the linking narration is not particularly well written or compelling. The story is mostly told chronologically, but it feels a little unbalanced. More than half of the documentary is devoted to films from the '30s and '40s, and coverage of the last thirty years or so isn't nearly as in-depth. Modern filmmakers covered include George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Richard Donner, and Tim Burton.
Since this documentary is unrated, I should note that, unlike the MGM compilations, it's not particularly family-friendly: there are violent and potentially scary excerpts from films like Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry, and The Exorcist; occasional profanity is not "bleeped"; and a bare (male) rump is on view in a scene from The Main Event. I mean, it's nothing kids can't see or hear on premium cable, but I thought I'd pass it along anyway.
Since this documentary was filmed for television, the DVD transfer preserves this aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Note, however, that clips from widescreen films are not letterboxed, but are instead presented in pan and scan format. The contemporary segments featuring the narrators have a disappointing, washed-out appearance that may have looked fine on a 25" television, but is not as satisfying on a wider screen. The film clips have not been restored, including those from the this documentary's box-mates, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, however, this only serves to highlight how wonderful the restored versions look. I haven't seen the VHS release of this film, but I wouldn't expect this DVD to look much better. A generous 44 chapter stops are available. There are no extras on this disc, which is housed in one of Warner's trademark "snapper" cases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A few omissions struck me: why was there no coverage of Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane), Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train and Dial M for Murder), Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in America), or Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles)?
This entertaining documentary provides a decent look at the history of Warner Bros. It is currently available only as a bonus disc in the Warner Legends Collection box set. In this age of HDTV, the picture quality of this 1991 production is disappointing, but much of the material itself (particularly the outtakes and screen tests) is priceless. Apparently, the net proceeds from sales of this disc will be donated to the Motion Picture and Television Fund (which provides retirement services to members of the entertainment community).
Warner is to be congratulated for its charitable contributions and for making this film available. The court strongly cautions the prosecutor against performing his Al Jolson impression of "Toot-Toot-Tootsie" again while we're in session. Court is recessed.
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