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Warner Bros.' five-hour trip down memory lane

September 23, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Television Critic

Warner Bros. Studio turns 85 this year, an anniversary now marked by two of the most recognizable symbols of success, High Hollywood style: a No. 1 summer blockbuster -- "The Dark Knight" -- and a long, thoughtful PBS biopic.

The three-part “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story," which premieres tonight, is written and directed by Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel, and is based on his book by the same name. It bills itself as a five-hour walk through the studio's history.

But the "this" you must remember is that the film is essentially a birthday present from Warner Bros. to itself, an endless toast rather than a purely journalistic examination. Which is perfectly fine, of course.

And Schickel has certainly constructed a rich, tasty birthday cake. There are layers of Hollywood history ordered both chronologically and by theme, filled with commentary from players, stars and critics (including our very own Kenneth Turan) and iced with a series of delicious film clips.

Certainly there are worse ways to spend a couple of hours than watching Martin Scorsese wax lyrical about "Baby Face" or "Bonnie and Clyde," or hearing an elderly James Cagney dismiss the modern methods of acting -- "we worked six, sometimes seven days a week," he says at one point. "It was factory work, but it was the job and you did it."

Just don't come looking for behind-the-scenes dirt, deal-making, career-breaking or even much in the way of historical tension. Things like Bette Davis' famous flouting of her Warner Bros. contract and Jack Warner's "friendly testimony" before the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities are mentioned, but only in passing.

In fact, most things are mentioned only in passing. Even with five hours to play with, it's difficult to explore 85 years of any influential company too deeply, much less one that employed the likes of Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Davis and Joan Crawford. And that's just the early years.

Narrated by Clint Eastwood, who has worked with Warner Bros. extensively, from the "Dirty Harry" years, through his Oscar-winning "Million Dollar Baby," "You Must Remember This" opens in 1923, when Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack officially incorporate their new motion-picture company. These first two hours, which take us to 1950, are perhaps the most interesting, if only because this was when the studio was at its purest. No television to compete with, no subdivisions, no multimedia marketing -- the brothers just made movies. Lots of movies, that created many of our most beloved stars.

Warner Bros. started with Rin Tin Tin and worked its way up, through John Barrymore and Al Jolson, coping first with the advent of sound -- which the brothers initially had little regard for except as a means to convey the clash of swords in their swashbucklers -- and then with a country transitioning from post-World War I bubble to pre-World War II bust.

The films of the 1930s remain among some of the industry's strongest, particularly at Warner Bros., which unlike many other studios starkly addressed social issues. Sex, drugs, and the almost obsessive fears of a floundering working- and middle-class were all served up in films such as "Baby Face" "Heroes for Sale" and "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang." (Note to viewers: You might want to have a pad and pen ready for your next trip to Netflix or Amazon.)

Although the studio embraced all manner of themes and genres, from swashbucklers to gangster films to Looney Tunes, the early years set a philosophical and political tone that would define Warner Bros. for the coming decades -- a willingness to explore the darkness, but buoyant in its belief in America (see "Yankee Doodle Dandy").

Using subtitles like "The Gathering Storm," "The Reluctant Romantic," "Dreaming Democracy" and "A Touch of Insolence," Schickel lays out an uber-narrative extolling the studio's finest films and greatest stars. In a way this is an impossible task -- there is just too much ground to cover.

Still, some structure is required to keep the film from becoming simply "Warner Bros.' Greatest Hits," which is essentially what it becomes on the second and third nights, when we move through the low points of the '60s through the industry renaissance of the '70s and '80s.

By the time we reach present day, Schickel's thematic thread begins to fray, and in its place is a series of critical commentary about films such as "Bonnie and Clyde," "Mean Streets" and "Unforgiven." While most of us are happy to wallow in conversation about our favorite movies, the most interesting observations come from Eastwood and George Clooney, who both speak with something like longing of Warner Bros. as being the last studio that still feels like a studio.

While so much of moviemaking is outsourced and freelanced, underwritten by hedge funds and multitiered distribution deals, there is something comforting in the fact that Warner Bros. still occupies the bit of Burbank it has occupied since 1929 -- still marked by the signature water tower bearing the initials that have indeed meant so much to so many for so long.




'American Masters'

Where: KCET

When: 9 p.m. today, Wednesday and Thursday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children.)

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