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Airdates: (Episodes 1 and 2) 9-11 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 23; (Episodes 3 and 4) 9-11 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 24; (Episode 5) 9-10 p.m. Thursday, Sept 24 (PBS)
Remember this: No other movie studio could top Warner Bros. in its heyday — maybe even today. During Hollywood’s golden age, it looked and behaved like no other. With the best writers in town (and on a consistent basis, too), the toughest scripts, the most socially conscious movies and a consistent barrage of A-list actors (Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Errol Flynn and Edward G. Robinson), not to mention top tough-guy directors (think John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz and Howard Hawks), Warner Bros. had the pulse of America and its filmgoers down cold.
Now celebrating the studio’s 85th year, the studio gets great coverage here in PBS’ (American Masters) “You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story.” Writer-director-producer Richard Schickel’s five-hour documentary on Warner Bros. doesn’t miss a beat in telling the tale of how one studio excelled in getting audiences into theaters and doing it in a sometimes amazingly cut-rate (we didn’t say cutthroat, did we?) way. This is documentary filmmaking that knows its story well before it speaks.
Narrated by Clint Eastwood in a kind of deadpan way (probably the docu’s weakest link, but a smart move nonetheless), the Warner Bros. story unfolds without a detail overlooked. At least it sometimes feels that way. This telling is so dense that at times there might even seem to be too much Warner Bros. here, if such a think is possible when it’s this delicious. It’s a fascinating story and even has a Hollywood ending, sort of.
The Brothers Warner (“The Brothers Warner” is also the name of a more personal documentary made by Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warber Sperling, which airs as a complementary piece at 10 p.m. Thursday on PBS after the final episode of this docu) — they knew how to keep their feet on the ground. Any stories you’ve heard about the studio’s famous fights with its top talent had mostly to do with Jack Warner, who ran the studio day to day and who was Davis and Jimmy Cagney’s great but revered nemesis. Jack was father, sometimes dictator, but always smart. He ran his studio like a factory, and it worked. If a film was successful, chances were it would be recycled into another film. (That’s why Ida Lupino could duplicate a Davis moment on celluloid, in a different film of course, and make it look refreshingly new.)
The docu spends its first two hours looking at the studio’s golden age, from the advent of sound (even before) to the great period when Warner Bros. knew that Americans had hard-knock lives and produced films that reflected that. Then we move on to the great 1950s, when Warner Bros. fought back the threat of television by getting into the game itself.
We end up looking at the ’60s and ’70s before moving on to more contemporary times. Each moment of the docu is beautiful to look at, rich in film clips, interviews and then mixed smartly with old and new footage of studio talent talking about their unique experiences.
In 1923, the studio’s only bankable star was Rin Tin Tin. But as it unfolds in this docu, the four visionary Warners from Youngstown, Ohio, could take it from there.
Production: Lorac Prods. in partnership with Warner Bros. Entertainment and Thirteen/WNET New York. Writer-director-producer: Richard Schickel. Narrator-executive producer: Clint Eastwood
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