Celebrating 85 Years Of Hollywood History

A five-hour documentary, "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story," a presentation of American Masters, can be seen this week on PBS.
Al Jolson sang "Blue Skies" in the first talking picture, "The Jazz Singer," back in 1927. It's one of many movies that have been just the ticket for Warner Brothers, now chronicled in a new book and documentary. Jerry Bowen takes us on a walk through Hollywood history:

They are blockbuster franchises: "Batman" and "Harry Potter," having earned billions worldwide for the Hollywood studio that launched them.

Which makes the humble origins of Warner Brothers studio, a company started by four Jewish immigrant brothers from Ohio, an even more remarkable story.

"What I like about Warners is it's a real working studio, you know?" said veteran documentary producer and Time Magazine film writer Richard Schickel, who is telling the story in a five-hour documentary, "You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story," a presentation of American Masters to be seen this week on PBS, narrated by studio veteran Clint Eastwood:

"They were an interesting group of people," Eastwood said. "They were kind of tough business guys and no-nonsense guys. Yet, they did some amazing things."

Their first real success was a four-legged star in the silent film era: "They had Rin Tin Tin," who, according to Schickel, was called "the mortgage lifter" by Harry Warner.

Rin Tin Tin put the brothers Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack in the black. And "The Jazz Singer" put them in the history books. It was Hollywood's first talking picture.

"The characteristic picture of Warner Brothers in the early sound era was very urban, very working class, very anti-glamorous."

The studio's hits included "Little Caesar" and "The Public Enemy," starring actors whom Schickel described as "a bunch of plug-uglies."

"They were not handsome. They didn't look like Robert Taylor. They looked like James Cagney. Or they looked like Edward G. Robinson."

The men weren't handsome, and the women weren't gorgeous. But Warner Brothers was making money with its gritty gangster films. Even its groundbreaking musicals had an edge:

"Busby Berkely's a good example," Schickel said. "I mean, all those musicals are about young kids on the brink of economic disaster trying to get a show on. I mean, that's the part you forget because you remember all those fabulous dance numbers."

It was Warner Brothers' golden era: the '30s through the '40s, with golden stars Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and of course James Cagney. And films that endure to this day, with dialogue that still resonates. "Casablanca," anyone?

On the surface life was good. On the back lot it was anarchy, with Jack Warner battling everyone: his brothers and especially his contract stars:

"They were always on suspension," Schickel said. "Everybody in this studio, every major star - Cagney, Davis, de Havillland, Bogart, Flynn - they were always, you know, saying, 'No, I'm not gonna do that picture.' And then Jack would say, 'You got to.' Then he's suspend them."

It was also a time when Warners displayed its social conscience, making a film against the Ku Klux Klan when no else dared ("Black Legion"), and making a movie attacking the Nazis and Hitler ("Confessions of a Nazi Spy") when they were warned not to.

"The Motion Picture Association, you know, the censors said, 'Oh, you can't do that. Consider how much Hitler has' - they really said this to them - 'how much Hitler has done for the German people.' Circa 1939. And you know, to their credit, Harry and jack said, 'Aw screw you, we're gonna do it.'"

The brothers took a tough attitude toward organized labor, too, hiring and arming a private police force to put down a 1945 strike; 150 people ended up in hospitals, and Warners caved in to the union.

The brothers believed the labor unrest was Communist-inspired, and eagerly joined other studios in blacklisting suspected Communist Party members.

Jack Warner proved to be a very friendly witness for the House Committee on Unamerican Activities and its infamous witch hunt:

"My brothers and I will be happy to subscribe generously to a pest removal plan," Jack Warner testified.

"They caved in, there's no question about that," Schickel said.

"So, go along to get along?" Bowen asked.

"Sorta, yeah, I would say so. Yeah. It's not the proudest moment in the history of American movies, you know?"

"Did they ever regret it, the Warners?"

"No. No. I think its characteristic of the movies. Nobody regrets anything. You know, you're always moving ahead, moving ahead to the next scene."

The Warner Brothers scene became a blur, of big films and big names.

In the '50s Doris Day established herself as a star. So did James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" (left), films released after his death at age 24 in a car wreck.

Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack kicked the '60s off with "Oceans Eleven," and "My Fair Lady" won Best Picture and seven other Oscars for the studio in that decade.

In the '70s Warners turned out "A Clockwork Orange," "The Exorcist," and Oscar-winner "All the President's Men."

Christopher Reeve became "Superman" under the Warner Brothers banner, and another emerging star found a home on the lot: Clint Eastwood.

"It's been great, it's been great fun," Eastwood said. "But I've never had a contract with 'em. It's no deal. It's just a handshake."

Thirty-five years and 35 films later, Clint Eastwood still calls the Warners lot home. The "Dirty Harry" series was launched here, and "Million Dollar Baby" (left) and "Mystic River" won Oscars.

Not surprisingly, the corporate powers that took over Warners in the late sixties have largely given Eastwood room to operate, to make his own films.

"Because the corporations have bought a lot of studios, there's always the money factor, the financial aspects," he said. "It's sometimes, at some studios more than others, hard to make a smaller, more personal story because they're always looking for the cape and the glasses or what have you."

Jack Warner was still around when Eastwood showed up, and the actor/director says the bottom line was just as important then, if not more personal:

"Jack L. Warner's famous for walking onto a sound stage and looking up and seeing a bunch of painters painting a ceiling. And he looks up and said, 'What are, what are they, what are they doing here?' They said, 'Oh, they're painting the ceiling for this movie.' He says, 'I'd better see the ceiling in the movie.' (laughter) And he walks out."

There is no ceiling on Warner Brothers' movie success. The vault is a treasure trove: Some of the great films of all time by iconic directors from Hitchcock to Scorsese, with actors to match.

But why celebrate all this now? What's so big about an 85th anniversary?

"The 85th anniversary is meaningless, of course," Schickel said. "You know, I mean, it's a round-ish number. But it's not 90. It's not 100. And it's not 75. Honest to God, I think it's just an excuse."

An excuse to tell a story about four guys from Ohio and the family business that is still entertaining America, one film after another.