One of the most storied of all Hollywood studios, Warner Bros celebrates its 90th anniversary this year with a summer slate which suggests it’s in no mood to slip quietly into dotage.
Leonardo DiCaprio leads the charge in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby later this month, while the feckless Hangover boys get their third outing on May 24. There’s a Superman reboot, Man of Steel, due in mid-June; Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim (Jul 12) pits giant robots against alien invaders; 300: Rise of an Empire (Aug 2) is an historical epic pitting Spartans against Persians; and Jennifer Aniston gets another comedy outing in We’re the Millers in late August.
It’s an eclectic mix, to say the least, but then Warners has always drawn from a colourfully varied palette. The studio wasn’t even out of its teens when Humphrey Bogart toasted Ingrid Bergman with, “Here’s looking at you, kid”, in Casablanca (1942), but it certainly proved a prophetic line. Whether you’re the kind of movie fan who prefers classic gangster flicks, superhero movies, the cerebral power of a Stanley Kubrick film or the fantasy world of Harry Potter — well, we’re all still looking.
Incorporated on Apr 4, 1923, by four Warner brothers — Sam, Jack, Harry and Albert — the studio made its first big splash in 1927 with the very first ‘talkie’, or feature-length talking picture: The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. By then, however, the Warner family had been in the movie business for three decades. They opened their first movie theatre in 1906, and broadened out into distribution the following year. A decade later they opened their first studio in Los Angeles, before moving to the Sunset Boulevard site that is today the home of the Warner Studio.
If it’s difficult to imagine what the history of movies might look like without the Warner Studio’s impact, it’s even harder today to appreciate the extent to which Sam Warner, who championed ‘talkies’, experienced resistance to the innovation from his brothers. Not that it was the only source of sibling conflict. Sam, Harry and Albert frequently clashed with Jack, whose ambitions saw him taking control of the studio during the 1920s. Later, in the 1950s, all four brothers decided to sell their respective interests, only for Jack to secretly buy up his brothers’ shares and become sole head of the studio. His actions led to an irreparable rift. While Sam had died in 1927, shortly before his The Jazz Singer opened, Harry died in 1958 without forgiving Jack for his chicanery.
By that point Warner Bros had long since established itself as a movie-making juggernaut. It had had film’s biggest star during the silent era in Rin Tin Tin — the German Shepherd was even nominated for a best actor Oscar in 1929; legend has it that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes, but credibility demanded that the prize go to a human — and the studio continued to shape and dominate the medium into the 1930s. Little Caesar (1930), starring Edward G Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, was a revolutionary movie in that it feature a gangster as its ‘hero’, in the process establishing a blueprint for gangster flicks such as The Public Enemy (1931), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939), all of which helped James Cagney become a movie superstar, and made the crime movie an abiding staple of the movie-going experience.
Cagney wasn’t the only superstar on the Warner roster, however. Among their stellar contract players were Paul Muni, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart.
Bogart, of course starred alongside Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains and the inimitable Peter Lorre in Casablanca in 1942. While Citizen Kane and The Godfather are often cited by critics as the best American films ever made, Casablanca remains the most loved — and indisputably the most quoted. It was one of a number of ‘booster’ titles made by the Warner studio to support the US effort during WWII, with others including Sergeant York (1941), Watch on the Rhine (1943), Destination Tokyo (1943) and Pride of the Marines (1945).
It wasn’t all Uncle Sam jingoism, however. During the 1940s the studio made movies as diverse as All This and Heaven Too (1940), High Sierra (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Rope (1948).
The post-WWII decades proved to be a challenge to all film studios as they struggled to compete with the novelty of television, and Warner Bros was no exception. Its own difficulties were compounded, however, by a rash decision made by Jack Warner. As hard as it might be to believe today, Jack Warner was at best ambivalent about the studio’s cartoons — among them characters as enduring as Porky Pig, the first Warner cartoon star, and the carrot-chomping Bugs Bunny. In the 1950s, at a time when the studio was struggling for revenue, Jack Warner made the decision to sell off the cartoon shorts for as little as $3,000 per film, a decision that would have multi-million dollar consequences in lost earnings.
Jack Warner would eventually step down from his position as studio chief in 1967, the last of the great movie moguls to do so.
By then, however, Jack Warner and his studio had left an indelible imprint on film-making history, and not least in terms of how the movies were censored. In 1929, with religious figures concerned about the negative impact of ‘talkies’ on the morals of American youth, the Hollywood studio system agreed to implement the self-policing Motion Picture Production Code, which became known as the Hays Code after Hollywood’s chief censor, Will Hays.
Always imperfect, the system survived largely intact until 1966, when the Warner studio released Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Despite its flagrant disregard for the Hays Code, the film won a number of Oscars. With the Code finally a beaten docket, the current system of movie ratings we know today was introduced in 1968.
If the Warner studio struggled during the 1950s and ’60s, it roared back with a vengeance in the ’70s and ’80s. The Exorcist (1973) set the bar for horror film so high that it has yet to be matched. Blazing Saddles (1974) remains a peerless comedy, while The Towering Inferno (1974) created the blueprint for the all-star disaster movie craze. Warners’ release of Superman (1978) is credited with kick-starting the current mania for superhero movies, and the studio can also claim some credit for the phenomena of the multi-film super-franchise. It is responsible for the Harry Potter series of movies, The Lord of the Rings and its spin-off, The Hobbit trilogy, and the most recent series of Batman movies, aka The Dark Knight trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan. Indeed, the Warner studio became the first to gross $2bn dollars in a single year, in 2009.
It’s not all about the money, of course. Among its other awards, Warners has won nine best picture Oscars, including Casablana (1942), My Fair Lady (1964), Chariots of Fire (1981), Unforgiven (1992) and The Departed (2006).
With the first instalment of the Hobbit trilogy just released and another on the way later this year, and a summer slate designed to appeal to all tastes and ages, the Warner juggernaut shows little sign of running out of road. Here’s looking at you, indeed…