By Vivaan Shah
The opening thump, or boom, or blast or whoosh or slam of the WB logo that used to pound onto the screen in black and white in the Warner Brothers films of the 1930s and 40s is impossible to evocatively articulate. The sensation that arises is one of thunder and lightning! A dynamic explosion or procession of sounds that resembles at once the crash of drums on a marching parade or an anarchic bugle call of Wagnerian force, courtesy Max Steiner. You could even call it ‘the bugle call from hell’. You can picture the spectre of Mephistopheles enshrouding the ether and summoning up all the forces of wind and earth. The Warner Bros’ works had a kind of darkness, a Faustian worldliness. Along with UFA in Germany they were the probably the studio with the most singular aesthetic, and one can even see the influence of German expressionism creeping into their aesthetic, which can be traced all the way from Warner Bros’ inception in the early 1900s to the early 1990s with Tim Burton’s Batman films.
Early ’30s Universal was mostly associated with Horror, Josef Von Sternberg (the Rembrandt of the screen, who hand crafted and sculpted his every frame) pretty much forged the Paramount style, MGM was kind of a dream world of musicals and whirling landscapes, RKO was renowned for the luridness of their methods even if their material sometimes transcended the mechanics of the marketplace and churned out something genuinely meaningful in their Beethovean capacity. Fox under Zanuck was all about adventure, especially in the mid-50s with the onset of CinemaScope. They’d go to the most far flung outposts of the Colonial empire, adapting Hemingway and other literary lions, fashioning escapades and excursions for both geographical as well as geopolitical measure. Columbia in the late ’50s became unusually brutal and often surprisingly esoteric with their noirs. One could interpret it as a manifestation of Harry Cohn’s hard-headedness. The eccentric studio heads and movie moguls who called the shots like Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg, Adolph Zukor, Jesse Lasky, and others were not necessarily the kindest of men but they certainly seemed to be in the business because they loved movies. Even a guy like Louie B Mayer seemed to be in it not primarily because he loved money but because he loved to cry.
These studios were all devised by these pioneering businessmen in order to break free from the shackles of the Edison Trust. The Warner Bros pictures from the golden period – the 1930s and 1940s right up to 1950 – resonated very deeply with me. The films before and after that were of quite a different magnitude and scale, they were beautiful and extremely moving nonetheless: for example, films like Noah’s Ark (1929), or A Star is Born (1956). But the dimensions prevalent in the down to earth productions of the ’30s and ’40s were almost as if they had been lifted right off the street.
This was before the epics eclipsed the topics, and after the regurgitations of sound caused by the onset of the talkies. The Warner Bros pictures of the ’30s and ’40s had a particular texture, a particular character, a particular feeling, a stylistic singularity and I always felt a kinship towards them. They affected me very deeply, sometimes teaching me about feelings before I experienced them in real life. Particularly heartbreak, which was a favourite topic in these films, but it wasn’t sentimentalized or romanticized. Love was like war in these pictures, and whoever lived to tell the tale was the one emotionally crippled. Out here the hero never really got the girl, and in the case of the women’s pictures when the woman was the hero, she was certainly no stranger to the more sordid aspects of romance. These pictures were almost always about the little guy, and even the romantic misgivings of a Romeo like John Barrymore or an Errol Flynn, seemed plagued with deeply conflicted disillusionment. The scars and bruises from romantic devastation were evident in every line of Bogart’s face, every shrug of Cagney’s shoulders, in every glaring gleam in Bette Davis’ evil eyes, in every sour note in Ann Sheridan’s world-weary smile, and in every cathartic piercing line of dialogue.
This was a landscape in which people suffered very real pain, the hurts were very human, almost primal. From the smart talking street wiseguys to the penny anty crooks, to the dames in the clipjoints and even to the degenerate Casanovas on the washed out shores of Laguna Beach, there were assortments of all sorts of genres at Warners. There was the gangster film, the western, the women’s picture, the prison picture, the working class dramas, the melodramas, the tearjerkers, the jazz band musical, the screwball comedy, the war movie, the horror films, the propaganda films, the adventure film, the swashbuckler, the historical drama, the science picture and the biopic. Within every genre lay an assortment of sub-genres.
These films really represent the Golden Age of Hollywood. The world of speakeasies, fast bands, loudmouths, sharp dames, crooked mugs, hats, overcoats, pointy suits, sirens wailing as swerving cars speed into pursuit, shootouts in deep shadowed industrial hideaways and warehouses, and the inevitable radio ramblings of vast institutional machinery whether it be the Police force or the operator of the Power and Light Company. There was something electric about these films. They also happened to examine in sharp detail and with acute authenticity the lives of the working class and pretty much created ‘The Men at Work Genre’ emerging out of the social consciousness of the times, and also from the proletarian polemics having a distant blood relation to the Group Theatre from the East Coast.
The studio at this time was run unscrupulously by the legendary iron-fisted Jack L Warner, or as some including himself liked to call him – The Colonel. Now in order to scratch the surface of this infinitely alluring character I would probably have to write a thesis. There is however no end to the amount of anecdotes told about him and by him. Under him were a remarkable bunch of producers, such as Hal B Wallis, Mark Hellinger and Jerry Wald.
Some of the most vivid actors of all time like Edward G Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, John Garfield, Paul Muni, Errol Flynn, The Dead End Kids, who specialized in gangster films and really were guys off the street who had seen it all and who brought a whole new dimension to their performances. This was of course before Brando and Kazan methodized the whole thing and made it closer to a documentary where the camera became invisible and the films then became so realistic that it was the kind of thing that could only happen once and you had to be lucky enough to capture on film. But this was before realism, although it was realism of a certain sort, it was more operatic, more dramatic for lack of a better word. The interactions between the characters/the dialogue, they all seemed to be drawn or sculpted and their voices seemed to resonate the deepest fibre of the material. Their Pirandellian equations seemed to be carved out of the earth.
Amongst the women, there were powerhouse personalities like Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford. The more approachable Ann Sheridan (a particular favourite of mine) whose nature of a rough and tumble dame who knew how to handle herself and who had seen it all was contrasted with a friendly, jovial and almost accessible sense of kindness and understanding. There were the tarnished angels like Joan Blondell, Priscilla Lane, Olivia DeHavilland, Ida Lupino, and Doris Day. And among the vast gallery of character actresses and second ladies there was the passive wisdom emanating from the wisecracks of an Eve Arden or the silliness of an Ann Sothern, or a Mary Astor or even the tremendous humanity in the inherent anguish in Gladys George’s outwardly calm exterior. These men and women are very close to my heart and they often remind me not just of people one sees in the movies but also the people one knows in real life.
There were cinematographers like the fantastic James Wong Howe (also known as Low-Key Howe for his moody lighting). In the editing and montage department, there was the genius of Don Siegel – pulsating the action with a brisk pace yet loading it with meaning, detail and historical context.
Musically too, these films sounded a particular way. No other films sounded like that. Be it the thumping, pounding, dynamic background score of Max Steiner or the declamatory persistence of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the metaphysical yearning of a Franz Waxman, or the elaborate frivolity of Adolph Deutsch, or even the jazz upheavals and ballroom eloquence of M.K Jerome, Ray Heindorf, and Frederick Hollander. You could tell a Warner Bros picture from a mile away by the way it sounded and by the way it looked.
With writers like The Epstein Twins (also known as the boys) who were called in to doctor a lot of scripts and always gave it punch and vigour and came up with some of the most outrageous one liners; Robert Rossen who was the socialist siren, the voice of the working class, right off the streets of the lower East Side, and who always managed to smuggle in hard edged social commentary, and attacks on capitalism (he was later blacklisted), and my favourite writers of all time Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay. Their work is truly unparalleled and cannot be compared to that of any other writer of any other medium; it is singular and at times startling. Along with Clifford Odets I think they were really the first guys to employ vernacular dialogue in their scripts. Be it the skid row section of New York, or the working quarters of Los Angeles, or the truckstops on the interstate highways. They breathed life into everything they touched, and boy did they breathe. It was almost like a windstorm of breath, gut, sound, and fury. Their dialogue going by sometimes at so rapid fire a pace that it was too quick for the ear to grasp, but you could still feel the bite and sting of it.
The smart aleck, streetwise, street corner, Runyonesque universe that Warner Bros devised in this era, culminated in the freewheeling style of the Warner Bros Looney Tunes Cartoons, and some of these films felt like one of them. I was actually introduced to this world through the Looney Tunes Cartoons of my childhood.
From the Warners tradition an interesting breed of directors emerged who were schooled in the hard-boiled no-nonsense films of the studio. Among the most remarkable of these men was a man by the name of Don Siegel who was head of the montage department, and was in charge of shooting second unit and inserts for the more prestigious pictures before embarking on a distinguished directorial career of his own. He was Clint Eastwood’s mentor and was said to have taught Mr. Eastwood the art and craft of filmmaking. Some of these directors’ careers spanned the entire century. The longevity of their careers was unbelievable, especially with John Huston, an eccentric of epic proportions, whose first film was in 1941 and whose last film in 1989. Guys like John Huston and Don Siegel were the last of the tough guys and worked with actors from the Cagney and Bogart generation all the way up to Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson. One can only imagine the anecdotes and stories that they had.
These films often reflected society as a war zone between individuals, groups, communities, social classes, and above all ethics. These were probably the first films to blur the moral boundary between characters. The protagonists were sometimes as crooked as their antagonists. These films also dabbled in adult subject matter and didn’t necessarily make movies for children.
Raoul Walsh pretty much coined the Warner Bros style of the ’30s and ’40s along with other master filmmakers like Michael Curtiz, who worked in practically every genre imaginable; Anatole Litvak, for whom Max Ophuls apprenticed and from who he learned the art of the dolly and tracking shot; the spectacular Busby Berkeley, the hilarious Lloyd Bacon, the masters of melodrama such as Curtis Bernhardt and Jean Negulesco or Vincent Sherman and the more high brow ones like William Dieterle (also known as the Plutarch of the screen) for his famous biopics. Directors who were perhaps not considered auteurs but tough no-nonsense hacks and who churned out four in some cases fives pictures a year, and hopped on from one project to the next.
These films also really represent the strengths of the old studio system. The assembly line and consistency of output provided artists and technicians with endless opportunities to cut their teeth and sharpen their saws. They literally had no time to have lunch, that’s the way they used to function. There was a sheer profusion of work being done by these people and the filmographies are staggering in both quality and quantity. By the time they were able to do what they wanted to do they had already been through a baptism in bottomless lava.
The Warner Bros’ tradition carried on into the early 90s with radical works like Goodfellas and Natural Born Killers. Through the ’60s and ’70s you had films like Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, and Mean Streets which kept up the Warner Bros’ reputation for explosive output, both sociologically and dramatically.
In today’s day and age of conglomerates and multinational corporations, it’s worth thinking about what these studios are doing to uphold their heritage and legacy. These films really remind us of a time when the studios and the movie business was run by people who loved movies first and foremost and money later. Individuals took calls and risks almost like gamblers unlike today where you have committees and corporations deciding what is fit for exhibition and public consumption.
It seems evident to me at least in metaphorical terms that if Disney represented splendor, MGM glamour, Paramount pomp, Universal the circling globe, then the truth was at Warner Bros!
Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St. Stephen’s College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently, he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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