If you want to see the former glory of a once great nation and its culture in decline, go to a museum. That is, of course, unless the art on display has been tainted or altered by the very forces causing the decay. Because a major ritual for the current Visigoths in power is to erase the accomplishments of the past, as they present both a truth that threatens their control and a quality they cannot hope to match. Hence, they can only deny their existence. Nonetheless, museums still survive and, for the art of motion pictures, one of the best is Turner Classic Movies (TCM).
All this month, TCM has been celebrating the 100thanniversary of the iconic Warner Brothers studio with nonstop showings of its films. The four brothers Warner (original Yiddish name — Wonsal) founded the studio in 1923. In yet another uncountable achievement of the great American dream, three of them — Samuel (Szmuel), Harry (Hirz), Albert (Aaron) — had emigrated from Poland with little money. They combined their meager assets to buy a movie projector, with which they showed films in mining camps in Pennsylvania and Ohio, until they could buy a theater in New Castle, Pennsylvania, then later form a distribution company. This eventually led to their starting the studio with the help and acumen of their Canada-born youngest brother, Jack.
I sometimes cited the Warner Brothers in my decade as a Hollywood-based screenwriter (1992-2004), when frustrated writer friends would dip into anti-Semitism as a reason for their not getting work, lamenting that Jews controlled the Industry. To which I’d answer, “They should. They built it.” Further blighting my peers’ kneejerk prejudice was the fact that several of my underemployed writer pals were Jewish.
Nonetheless, Jewish moguls autonomously ran five of the six major film companies that they founded during the classic studio-system period: Metro-Goldwyn Mayer – Louis B. Mayer; Paramount — Adolph Zukor; Columbia — Harry Cohn; 20th Century Fox — Darryl F. Zanuck. (The sixth, Universal Studios, always had more of a corporate framework.) These moguls had differing visions for their output, but all of them shared one attribute that no studio head does today. They were profoundly, patriotically pro-American.
And never more so than with the country at war and her men in harm’s way. Even their postwar pictures criticizing the military (The Best Years of Our Lives, From Here to Eternity, The Caine Mutiny) did so constructively, not condemnably. Compare this mindset to the ceaseless slew of soldier-bashing films that infested the War on Terror (Green Zone, Redacted, Rendition).
Under the classic system, each studio had its own distinct style and specialty. The largest and richest one, MGM (“More stars than there are in the heavens!”), thrived with star-driven (Gable, Taylor, Powell, Rooney, Astaire, Kelly) dramas, comedies, and musicals, but left genre-centric entertainment to the others. Universal ruled in Horror, immortalizing screen incarnations of legendary monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. Paramount cornered Comedy, thanks to the genius of W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges, and Bob Hope with or without Bing Crosby.
But no studio could touch Warner Brothers in three categories, each dominated by an actor inseparable from it: Gangster pictures — James Cagney (The Public Enemy,Angels With Dirty Faces, The Roaring Twenties, White Heat), Women’s Melodrama — Bette Davis (Jezebel, Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, The Letter), and Swashbucklers — Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, The Adventures of Don Juan). The financial success of these films bolstered Warner Bros. through the vicissitudes of the entertainment business all the way to the present. But like all the others, no film they make today can even or ever come close to the artistry of their predecessors, such as anything starring Humphrey Bogart (The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), or directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train), John Ford (The Searchers), or Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo).
When times got tough for the studio system in the late Sixties and early Seventies, with the younger generation abandoning overproduced schlock (Hello, Dolly, Doctor Doolittle, Star!) for countercultural innovation (The Graduate, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy), Warner Bros. didn’t fall behind like its competitors did. It led the change with jarring, violent hits like Bonnie and Clyde, Bullitt, The Wild Bunch, and The Exorcist, which turned the Gangster film, Detective film, Western, and Horror film on their heads.
Even in the mid-to-late Seventies, Warner Bros. maintained a constant high quality with some of the finest pictures of the period — All the President’s Men, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Big Wednesday, The In-Laws (okay, we’ll overlook The Swarm) — and the first, best big-screen superhero film, Superman. Seen through the current interminable glut of dark, ugly comic-book movies, Superman flies as high as the character it depicts.
But like visiting a museum, where we can absorb a level of artistry not only unachievable in our time but actually repellent to the zeitgeist, watching these grand films invokes melancholy over how low society has fallen. One of the Warner Bros. TCM selections I saw this month was the dramatically mediocre yet visually stupendous — in widescreen technicolor — World War II epic, Battle Cry (1955), based on a Leon Uris saga. The story follows several young men — of every race — assigned to a Marine unit under a tough but caring major (Van Heflin), who has to whip them into shape for Pacific Island combat. The film shows more respect for the men and Marines than the entire modern woke Marine command does, let alone Hollywood. But the most striking scene comes at the end, when Tab Hunter gets off the train at a clean, bright, pleasant Penn Station in Baltimore. Given the filthy, foul, crime-ridden places the station and the city are today, after 50 years of Democratic control, it really seems like a museum piece.
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