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An Ambitious Undertaking
Richard Schickel's decision to tackle the entire history of the Warner Bros. studio was an ambitious undertaking. Schickel's track record on such projects varies wildly. His "The Men Who Made the Movies" series was a valuable historical record of some of the finest directors of the first half of the 20th century. More recently, however, his documentaries have alternated between one-on-one interviews with people like Spielberg and Scorsese, and larger projects such as "Charlie: The Life and Art of Charlie Chaplin" from 2003, which unfortunately offered little new insight into the work of that creative genius. The worst I can say about Schickel's recent effort is that they feel like promotional pieces, and this Warner Bros. documentary is no exception.
That said, it's hard to complain when you're treated to clips of Al Jolson singing, or the great gangster films with Cagney and Robinson, or the hard-boiled social dramas of the early 30s, and of course the Busby Berkeley musicals. Part One covers the years from the beginning of the studio, through the pivotal year of 1950, just as the studio system was really starting to collapse, and film forever relinquished its title to television as America's first choice in entertainment.
Part Two covers the period of 1950-1989, and in many ways is just as interesting as the first part, even though we've seen many of these clips before. From the studio's grappling with television, to its cutting-edge films of the 60s (Warners was one of the key studios in the American New Wave, with films like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "Bonnie and Clyde", and "Mean Streets"). The segment takes us through the 70s and 80s, with entirely too much time spent on Clint Eastwood, and not nearly enough on Stanley Kubrick, whose work remains some of the most intensely personal and unique to ever come out of a Hollywood studio.
Part Three is essentially a re-hash of Warners' biggest hits over the last decade-films like "The Matrix" and "Harry Potter". Half the episode is devoted to Clint Eastwood, one of our finest filmmakers (and I felt his inclusion here, as the director of films like "Bird" and "Unforgiven", was far more justified than spending so much time on the Dirty Harry films in part two). Considerable time is also spent on George Clooney, who remains something of an anomaly in 21st century Hollywood-a star with great taste in selecting intelligent projects, and who is able to alternate between well-produced entertainments like "Ocean's Eleven", and more serious-minded films like "Good Night and Good Luck".
The good news is that the documentary includes many clips (all restored) that help to give a really good view of the changing trends in cinema over the last century. The bad news is that too little time is spent on the actual workings of the studio. We hear surprisingly little about the Warners themselves, for instance, in the first episode (although more time is given to Jack L. Warner in part two, which covers the years when he essentially took control of the studio.) It was especially good to see the early years covered. It's important to remember that Warners' biggest earner in the silent days was Rin Tin Tin, even though they also had prestige director Ernst Lubitsch under contract, who made some of his best films there in the 1920s. A real treat was the clip from "My Fours Years in Germany", the first film produced by Warner Bros. in 1918, and one of the real classics of its time.
A fair amount of time is spent on some of the major directors, such as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock (who worked briefly but memorably at Warners in the early 50s).
Ultimately, though, even at five hours, the documentary leaves viewers hungry for more. This is perhaps an inevitable problem when trying to cover an entire studio's history. It's good to see this update of Warners' history, which was previously tackled in the 1992 documentary "Here's Looking at You" (also hosted by Clint Eastwood).
The history of the great studios of Hollywood's golden age is a subject that is of great importance to the history of American show business, and world cinema in general. MGM, the most prestigious studio in its day, was documented in the superb "When the Lion Roars" documentary in 1993. Unfortunately, neither Paramount, 20th Century Fox or even RKO (among the major studios) have ever had anything approaching a documented history like this. Paramount and Fox, in particular, with their galaxy of stars and directors, would seem ideal candidates for the next such documentary, although neither studio presently has any interest in preserving their history. RKO of course is not as well known today, since the studio itself is long gone, and lacked the contract players, specialty genre films and distinctive studio moguls that defined the other studios. And while studios like Columbia and Universal have grown to a staggering size today, they were distinctly "minor" studios in the golden age, making their history of that period less easy to document.
As it is, "You Must Remember This" is a commendable effort to provide a survey of the output of Warner Bros. over the last 90 years. It's flaws are understandable, given the amount of material to be covered.
Poor Little Rich Girl (1936)
My favorite Temple film
Anyone familiar with Shirley Temple (once the nation's biggest star, today nearly forgotten) knows that while her films almost always contained a great deal of charm and talent, they were, for the most part, quite average as films. HEIDI is perhaps rightfully regarded as her most timeless film, and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM is an above-average musical comedy for her. But by and large, I find her films unmemorable, even such famous titles as BRIGHT EYES, CURLY TOP, THE LITTLE COLONEL, THE LITTLEST REBEL, DIMPLES and WEE WILLIE WINKIE (directed by John Ford, no less) fail to impress me on repeat viewings.
So why is POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL my favorite Temple film? I think it's because it's so quintessentially a 1930s movie. The soap radio program, to the urban setting, to the music numbers-everything about this film is just purely of its time. It's really a time capsule into the time in which it was made in a way that few films really are. Paradoxically, it is also a timeless film in many ways, which really can be attributed to the talent and energy from all the principals in this film. Jack Haley and Alice Faye are in fine form as the husband and wife team of Dolan and Dolan; movie fans will recognize Gloria Stuart (from TITANIC) as Michael Whalen's love interest, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, especially Henry Armetta.
The film contains sparkling black and white cinematography against the classy urban sets that 20th Century Fox could do so well. This also contains some excellent songs. The radio finale serves the film well and really acts as an excellent time capsule all around.
The Strong Man (1926)
A Classic of American Slapstick
This film, starring the sublime Harry Langdon, is one of the finest pieces of American slapstick to emerge from Hollywood in the silent era.
The directorial debut of Frank Capra, this film contains much of the heart and character that Capra would later use in his masterworks of the 1930s and 40s. His training here was obviously important to his growth as a filmmaker.
Langdon plays Paul Bergot, a Belgian soldier who comes to the United States after the end of the first world war as an assistant to a strong man performer, Zandow the Great. He is also looking for the girl with whom he kept a correspondence during his time in battle.
The film traces Langdon's efforts to find the girl, and to prove himself to her. Along the way, there are many brilliant moments that add up to one of the finest comedies of all time.
How does this film compare to Langdon's other features? I would argue that it is his strongest, at least from a structural standpoint. It is also probably his best-developed. I can whole-heartedly recommend TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP (one of his funniest films), and LONG PANTS (another masterwork that is very representative of Langdon's unique sense of humor).
It is often said that Langdon is one of the "big four" giants of silent comedy. I would argue that, if success in feature length films is a criteria, then that is a true statement. I recently watched a silent W.C. Fields picture ("It's the Old Army Game") and realized what makes Langdon so special. While other great silent comedies are remarkably funny, clever and brilliant, Langdon was perhaps the only other silent clown who, in feature films at least, was able to reach the heights of sublime brilliance that certified Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd their places at the top.
THE STRONG MAN is Langdon's masterpiece. You won't be disappointed.