"Verbal messages cause misunderstandings and delays (please put them in writing)"
All Warner Bros. memoranda used to bear this brief directive which points to the importance of textual communication. The context was, of course, orders and instructions but many of the important differences between verbal and textual communication apply equally to the contrasts between screenplays and the movies themselves. We can see a movie once, twice, many times; we can stop frames, rewind and analyse scenes; but the screenplay serves as an important point of reference which can be constantly referred to, stripped of visual distractions and the mode of delivery. It is especially valuable when we can see directions or trace variations within different versions of the script. Just as the study of a play requires the study of text and performance, so does the study of movies.
This microfilm edition of the Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series continues and considerably expands the series launched by the University of Wisconsin Press in print in 1979. Whereas the print series covered some 22 titles in 6 years of publication, we are now offering over 300 titles in two years. For all titles chosen we are filming the Final Shooting Script. Where there are significant differences we are also including earlier scripts variants.
We are grateful to Professor Tino Balio, General Editor, for undertaking the selections according to genre and for providing the introductions and detailed lists. Thanks are also due to Professors David Bordwell and Donald Crafton, also of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and Ezra S. Diman of the University of Wisconsin Press, for their help and encouragement with this project.
Development and Production Director
Research Publications Ltd (now Primary Source Microfilm, an imprint of Thomson/Gale)
This microform edition is an outgrowth of a publication project co-sponsored by the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the University of Wisconsin Press. Inaugurated in 1979, the series published twenty-two volumes over five years consisting of Warner hits of the 1930s and 1940s. The project was made possible by United Artists, which donated the Warner Film Library to the Center in 1969. (UA purchased this library from a television distributor in 1957 during a period when Hollywood studios were disposing of their old films.) In addition to screenplays for most of Warner Brothers’ pre-1950 releases, the Warner library contains eight hundred sound features, fifteen hundred short subjects, nineteen thousand still negatives, legal files, and press books. For the purpose of the screenplay series, United Artists granted the Center whatever publication rights it held to the Warner films.
The goal of the series is to explicate the art of screenwriting in classical Hollywood’s cinema. Hollywood’s mode of production, known as the studio system, divided production into discrete tasks, such as story acquisition, directing, cinematography, art direction, editing, and sound. Screenwriting was typically broken down into stages, beginning with the synopsis (a summary of the action), continuing with the treatment (a description of the major sequences), and concluding with the shooting script (a breakdown of the scenes into separate shots and a description of what the characters say and do.) Seldom did one screenwriter finish a screenplay. More likely, a different writer or even teams of writers worked on each successive stage. Since the shooting script functioned as a blueprint for the production, this document also helps explicate the art of directing and the other arts involved in Hollywood’s film-making process.
This microform edition expands the series by publishing final shooting scripts for a significant portion of Warner’s entire output from 1930 to 1950. The motion pictures have been arranged into the following categories: (1) gangster; (2) crime; (3) social drama; (4) horror-detective-murder melodrama; (5) women’s films; (6) comedy; (7) prestige pictures; (8) musical; (9) Western; and (10) war. This organization not only reflects the influence of genre studies, but it also corresponds to the way the studio organized its annual roster. For each category, motion pictures have been chosen to illustrate important variations in narrative form; for important pictures, intermediate scripts have been included in addition to the final shooting script.
Researchers should know that Warner Brothers has separately donated the production records and distribution records of the company to the University of Southern California and Princeton University, respectively. These documents complement the materials in the Warner Film Library which United Artists donated to the WCFTR.
Introduction - Gangster Films
The emergence of the gangster film as a distinct genre during the 1930s was closely associated with Warner Brothers. Warners differentiated its product in part by exploiting "social problem" movies. An outgrowth of the studio’s leadership in the conversion to sound, the strategy shifted production away from fantasy and the exotic to the realistic and the contemporary. Accounting for the popularity of the genre, Gerald Peary said, "quite atypically, the film industry (during the Depression) participated in the debate over the financial and spiritual health of the country. Whereas most pictures continued to be escapist and non-topical, studios used the gangster film genre in particular to reflect the discontent and alienation, the deep anxiety and hostility, of many Americans facing the Depression. In some 1930 films, the gangster character became the scapegoat for the country’s economic troubles. He was merged with the ruthless businessman whose shady speculative practices were blamed for precipitating the 1929 crash."
Although the gangster film is synonymous with the Depression era, the origins of the genre are found in industrial America of the nineteenth century. The first influence, the Myth of Success, defined America as an open classless society. Propounded in such books as McGuffey’s readers for school children and Horatio Alger novels for adolescents, the myth defined America as a democracy of economic equality in which anyone could climb from rags to riches. "In such a society," said Eugene Rosow, "the individual was ultimately responsible for his or her economic condition, and the Myth of Success was the cultural road map for those destined for wealth, respectability, and status. Those who triumphed were awarded the distinction of being known as ‘self-made men.’"
The self-made men who provided a model for Al Capone, the most notorious gangster of the 1920s, and many a movie gangster patterned after him, were captains of capital such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan. These Robber Barons, as they were called, "produced with governmental aid, financial trusts devoted to their own enrichment and indifferent to the needs and demands of the public," said Rosow.
The second influence of the gangster film, a variation on the Myth of Success, was the boss politics that ruled America’s large industrial cities. As described by Rosow, "Cities were ... governed according to an ethic of criminality that obscured the difference between right and wrong. At the bottom, immigrant voters in the most dense wards provided Tammany politicians with a power base which they used to dispense necessary services, award permits, extend bail and pardons, control pesky building and health inspectors, and make millions in graft. The machine politicians used and demanded liberal bribes to maintain their power, along with occasional help from gangs of thugs."
The third and the most important influence on the genre was Prohibition. In what was perhaps the final convulsion of American puritanism, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment (known as the Volstead Act) in 1919, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages for recreational purposes. The event spurred the growth of organized crime. Prohibition, as the period was called, turned the profits of the liquor and beer trade over to gangsters and provided them with enough capital to expand their activities, to secure legal and political protection, and to buy a certain amount of respectability.
Crime syndicates headed by notorious gangsters such as Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, Dion O’Banion, and Lucky Luciano sprung up in New York, Boston, New Jersey, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Unrestrained warfare among these syndicates to secure their bootlegging empires, for example the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, was heavily publicized. Beginning in 1925, the heyday of the tabloid, the media were saturated "with tabloid exposés of racketeering ... detailing the structure of the urban underworld, decrying the failure of Prohibition, and noting the collusion among mobsters, politicians, and crooked law enforcers," said Gerald Peary.
Films about criminals appeared as early as 1912, with D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley, but not until Paramount released Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld in 1927 did the genre move into the foreground. The right climate now existed to make the genre a success, said Rosow: "A need to acknowledge the brutal, ruthless, exploitation for profit in urban industrial society through a mythic figure, the development of mass media capable of amplifying heroes, and the notoriety of actual gangsters."
Broadway gave dramatic impetus to the movement. The George Abbott-Philip Dunning musical, Broadway, in which tough-talking racketeers stalked the stage between songs, opened in September 1926 in New York and played for seventy-three weeks. This musical, plus other plays such as Crime, Me Gangster, The Squealor, and, above all, The Racket fleshed out the myth of the gangster and provided a catalyst for Hollywood to appropriate this myth for the screen. By the end of the 1920s, all the studios were producing gangster pictures.
Sound contributed to the genre by heightening the realism. Beginning with Lights of New York (1928), Warner Brothers’ first all-talking movie, audiences were introduced to the distinctive, rough, slangy, argot-ridden dialogue of the gangster, words such as "molls," "mugs," "gats," "rods," "cannons," and the like. Audiences could also hear the explosive rat-tat-tat-tat of the machine gun and a car’s screeching wheels as it turned the corner to shoot a policeman or a rival gang member.
Warner’s first cycle of gangster films were produced from 1930 to 1933. In this cycle, three films constitute the paradigm of the so-called "classic" gangster film, Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) and William Wellman’s Public Enemy (1931) produced by Warner, and Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932), an independent production financed by Howard Hughes. Other Warner films in the series include Archie Mayo’s Doorway to Hell, (1930), Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy, (1931), and Ray Enright’s Blondie Johnson, (1933).
The classic gangster film traced the rise and precipitous fall of the urban, often immigrant gangster involved in heavy racketeering and bootlegging during the era of Prohibition. The heroes of the pictures (Rico, (Little Caesar) Bandillo, Tommy (Public Enemy) Powers, and Tony (Scarface) Camonte) were suggested by notorious men of the era, Rico and Tony, supposedly after Al Capone, and Tommy Powers, after Hymie Weiss. Containing a great deal of violence, the pictures depicted gang wars to decide who controlled a city’s drinking. In the process, scores of gangsters and crime fighters were shown murdered with pistols, machine guns, and bombs.
The pictures also contained most of the iconographic features of the genre. Colin McArthur has organized the iconography into three categories: (1) "those surrounding the physical presence, attributes and dress of the actors and the characters they play;"(2) "those emanating from the milieux within which the characters operate;" and (3) "those connected with the technology at the characters disposal."
Concerning the first category, Warner’s Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney dominated the genre during the 1930s. These stars, said McArthur "seem to gather within themselves the qualities of the genres they appear in so that the violence, suffering and angst of the films is restated in their faces, physical presence, movement and speech. By the curious alchemy of the cinema, each successive appearance in the genre further solidifies the actor’s screen persona until he no longer plays a role but assimilates it to the collective entity made up of his own body and personality and his past screen roles."
In addition to physical attributes, costumes also defined the gangster. Corresponding to the gangster's rise to the top, said Rosow, was a "sartorial progression from dark and wrinkled nondescript clothing to flashy double-breasted, custom-tailored striped suits with silk ties and suitable jewelry. Snap brim hats became fancy fedoras or derby hats; and spats were added to shoes as gangsters became successful. The pinnacle of a movie gangster’s success was always celebrated in a tuxedo and an occasional top hat, for mingling with high society."
Concerning the second category, the milieux of the gangster was the city, in particular its dark streets, dingy rooming houses, bars, clubs, penthouse apartments, mansions, and precinct stations. The city served both as a background for the activities of the gangster and also as "a kind of expressionist extension of the violence and brutality of their world," said McArthur.
Concerning the third category, the gangster, being a modern man of the city, had at his disposal the city’s complex technology, in particular firearms, automobiles, and telephones. The automobile was a major icon and had a twofold function: it was a means whereby the hero carried out his work and it became, like his clothes, the visible token of his success.
The classic cycle of gangster films was shortlived. On December 5, 1933, Congress passed the Twenty-first Amendment, ending almost fourteen years of Prohibition and bootlegging and therefore much of the visible and immediate instigation for gangster films. By then, however, other factors were at work to undermine the genre. The most important factor involved censorship. "Because of their overt celebration of the gangster-hero and their less-than-flattering portrayal of contemporary urban life, these films were as controversial as they were popular," remarked Thomas Schatz. A growing concern about the harmful effects of motion pictures on youthful minds led to the commissioning of studies financed by the Payne Fund which concluded in part that "movies indirectly encourage criminal behaviour by stimulating fantasies and daydreaming." Censorship boards at the state and local levels interpreted many gangster pictures as glorifying the criminal or as showing disrespect for law enforcement. "In order to mollify some of the criticism," said Rosow, "the studios tacked on prologues, added scenes with concerned and angry citizens groups, and had Will Hays (head of the MPPDA) assure everybody that these gangster films flashed the insistent message, ‘Crime Does Not Pay.’"
In 1930, the industry had voluntarily adopted the Production Code, which stipulated among other things: (1) that crimes against the law should never be presented "in such a way as to throw sympathy with the crime as against law and justice or to inspire others with a desire for imitation;"(2) that "the technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation," (3) and that "the methods of crime should not be explicitly presented." But as Rosow pointed out, "Gangster films ... were simply too popular for the studios to pay much attention to a code that, after all, the industry itself administered." However, after the Catholic Church and Protestant and Jewish organizations cried out in protest in 1934, the majors decided to enforce the strictures of the Code.
A stiffer enforcement of the Production Code started the second cycle of gangster pictures. The best way to exploit the genre’s immense popularity and to satisfy the censors at the same time was to turn the gangster into a cop. Cagney, Robinson, and other former screen gangsters were recast as lawmen who were virtually carbon copies of criminal characters. The first reincarnated gangster appeared in Warner’s G-Men (1935). As Rosow described it, "the film exploited every characteristic that had made gangster films popular, except a gangster protagonist who was part Robin Hood." The time was ripe for the reincarnation, for as Rosow pointed out, "the gangster turned G-Man on the screen as the new F.B.I., headed by publicity-hungry J. Edgar Hoover, was riding the crest of a media-produced crime wave which was creating what one commentator saw in 1935 as ‘The Myth of the G-Man.’"
The G-Man hero was quickly joined by the policeman hero. William Keighley’s Bullets or Ballots (1936) used the pretense that the policeman (Edward G. Robinson) had been dismissed from the force so that he could join and destroy the gang. Another variation, exemplified in Racket Busters (1938), depicted a special prosecutor who was given dictatorial powers to clean up a city.
The gangster-cop cycle metamorphosised into two additional variations in the 1930s - the middleman and the Cain-and-Abel. As Schatz describes it, the middleman variation was
related to the gangster-cop film, but "the hero is aligned with neither the pro-social nor the criminal forces ... . This kind of film generally involves an initiate-criminal’s decision, motivated by the love of a good woman and/or the sudden recognition of the error of his ways--to go straight, thereby placing himself between the forces of crime and social order." The best example of this variation is Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties (1939). "The opening of the picture is a seeming throwback to the classic gangster biographies of the early ‘30s, with Cagney portraying racketeer Eddie Bartlett ... . Eventually, however, the film lapses into the middleman motif, when Bartlett falls for a good woman ... whose refusal to marry him precipitates his fall from power. By the film’s end Cagney has quit the rackets but cannot escape his criminal past," said Schatz.
Another new element in The Roaring Twenties is the notion that criminals are formed by social conditioning and are therefore capable of reform. Said McArthur, the picture "suggests that the experience of violence in the First World War, and the bitterness of unemployment after it, forced men into crime."
The notion of social conditioning as a key to understanding criminal behaviour linked the middleman variation to the Cain-and-Abel. The latter variation counterbalanced the gangster with an equally strong pro-social figure. Said McArthur, "Films such as Crime School, Gangster’s Boy, and Angels With Dirty Faces, all made in 1938 ... show an awareness that bad home conditions, a criminal environment, and the brutal treatment of young people in reform schools, produce criminals."
During the 1940s, the gangster protagonist was integrated into comedy (Brother Orchid (1940)) and was drafted for the war effort to battle Nazi agents (All Through the Night (1943)). However, the most significant development was the rural gangster. A hybrid of the city gangster and the Western outlaw, this variation emerged full blown in 1941 with Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra. Starring Humphrey Bogart, High Sierra contained a hero of tragic proportions who reevaluated his past misdeeds but realized the inevitability of his fate. "Such an ambivalent portrait of the hero and his changing values," said Schatz, was "a great deal more complex morally and socially than that of the late ‘30s bandit precursors."
Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest (1936), which starred Humphrey Bogart and was based upon the play by Robert E. Sherwood, anticipated the variation. This film and others such as Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (United Artists, 1937) "cast the gangster-hero into a rural environment, thereby setting up oppositions between gangster and police and also between urban and rural values." "In addition," said Schatz, "the late ‘30s regeneration of the Western genre seems to have contributed to this variation."
During the post-war period, the gangster film re-emerged in new forms. Warner produced what Rosow called "the emotional high-water mark of the genre," Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949), starring Jimmy Cagney. The picture showed the influence of Film Noir and the semi-documentary. The influence of the former is seen in the psychotic behaviour and suicidal impulses of the Cagney character, Cody Jarrett. The influence of the latter is seen in the detective story framework of the picture. In addition, the picture showed the influence of new developments in technology. The government agents possess a formidable, sophisticated array of electronic machinery, spectographs to analyze dust particles, oscillators to give out directional signals, and a whole battery of weapons for detection and submission.
Of Cagney’s character, Jack Shadoian said, "Cody Jarrett is the most vicious gangster hero to date, but also the most tortured and suffering." At the seat of his aberrant behaviour is his Oedipal fixation. As Shadoian goes on to say, "In White Heat the classic gangster figure ... takes on disturbing dimensions.
Nothing like the emphasis of the old gangster films is possible in 1949 ... the gangster has to be offered on a different set of terms. There is no specific location of conflict anymore. His adversary is the world and everything in it, including himself. There is no longer any question of wanting something, of directing himself to a specific task or goal. All he can do is exhibit an irreparably damaged psyche, an archaic, direct, human loyalty. His aim is instinctively to protect the remnants of his humanity, his mother and his attachment to her by getting on top of the world, by wiping it out before it wipes him out. The conflict has never assumed such proportions before."
White Heat was the last big gangster film of the period of the studio system. Although much interesting activity went on in the genre afterwards, it was not until Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967 (by Warner Brothers, coincidentally) that the genre reasserted itself.
Cohen, Henry, ed. The Public Enemy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Gomery, Douglas, ed. High Sierra. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
McArthur, Colin. Underworld U.S.A. New York: The Viking Press, 1972.
McGilligan, Patrick, ed. White Heat. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Peary, Gerald, ed. Little Caesar. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Rosow, Eugene. Born to Lose: The Gangster Film in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Sachs, Arthur. "An Analysis of the Gangster Movies of the early Thirties," Velvet Light Trap, No. 1, pp. 5-11.
Shadoian, Jack. Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1977.
Introduction - Women’s Films
Through much of its history, women’s films were consigned to a minor status under such headings as "weepie," "sudser," or "tearjerker." As Jeanne Allen put it, "Unlike the adventure films of swashbuckling heroes or hard-boiled detectives, women’s films have been regarded derrogatorily as escapist fare, providing an emotional catharsis by blending familiar experience and fantasy fulfillment. Their explicit appeal to and ability to arouse emotional response were a sure sign of their trivial position." But recent feminist film scholarship has revealed that the woman’s film was a durable genre representing a significant percentage of Hollywood’s output during the studio years, a key component of the star system, and a mirror of the changing tastes of American women.
The genre reached its full maturation between 1935 and 1950. "During this fifteen year period," said Joanne Yeck, "it was Warner Brothers that led Hollywood’s production of the woman’s film. They ‘owned’ three of the genre’s most important leading ladies: Kay Francis, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford, and not only produced more tearjerkers than any other single studio but significantly advanced the form."
Although the antecedents of women’s films can be found in melodrama and the domestic novel of the nineteenth century, the genre did not develop in the motion pictures until the 1920s. Christian Viviani dates the birth of the genre with the first version of Madame X, directed by Frank Lloyd in 1920. An adaptation of a French play by Alexandre Bisson, the influence of Madame X was structural and dramaturgical in nature: "A woman is separated from her child, falls from her social class and founders in disgrace. The child grows up in respectability and enters established society where he stands for progress ... the mother watches the social rise of her child from afar; she cannot risk jeopardizing his fortunes by contamination with her own bad repute. Chance draws them together again and the partial or total rehabilitation of the mother is accomplished often through a cathartic trial scene."
D.W. Griffith influenced the genre by instilling the essentially American domain to the action. In such films as True Heart Susie (1919) and Way Down East (1920), Griffith introduced elements which were used again in the 1930’s. "In addition to traditional elements such as the secret, the illegitimate child, the rejected woman, the seduction, the silent love," notes Viviani, "Griffith introduces the city/country dichotomy, the critique of prejudices, no longer aristocratic but petit-bourgeoise, even rural."
The advent of the talkies, which provided the possibilities of dialogue, firmly established the genre as a Hollywood staple. Thereafter, women’s films, unlike the Western or the musical continually adjusted to the demands of its particular segment of the market, "following the ever changing course of feminine issues on a personal issue," said Yeck.
The genre developed differently at each studio, influenced in part by studio style and the star system. Capitalizing on its innovation of sound motion pictures, Warner built a reputation for producing pictures having a realistic look and contemporary ring.
Warner’s first variation of the genre was known as the "fallen woman" cycle. Influenced by the true confessions type of popular literature, films such as Sinner’s Holiday (1930), Play Girl (1932), and The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932), typically "told stories of good girls, ranging from socialites to working class, who by loving the wrong man, fell into a life of sin," explained Yeck. Because the stock characters in these pictures consisted of kept women, prostitutes, and unwed mothers and because the action typically contained ladies in lingerie, passionate love scenes, and harsh language, the fallen woman cycle became a casualty of censorship in 1934, when the industry decided to enforce the Production Code.
To comply with the Production Code, Warner modified the maternal melodrama pattern of Madame X to create vehicles for Kay Francis, the studio’s first big female star of the period. These melodramas contained simple characters, clear-cut moralities, and happy endings in which good triumphed over evil. Launched by I Found Stella Parish (1935), the new version of the maternal melodrama, according to Viviani, had the following structure: "Actress or singer, the woman (unfit mother) pulls herself up by means of her talent to the pinnacle of money and fame, gaining weaponry with which to do equal battle against the society which has dispossessed her of her role as mother."
Following this stop-gap measure, Warner next modified the genre to exploit the talents of its greatest female star, Bette Davis. Explained Yeck, "Davis’ persona was neither romantic nor maternal and her obvious strength of character made portraying victims of fate unplausible." Out of this need to find a suitable woman’s film persona for Davis, Warner’s significantly enriched the woman’s film by popularizing two additional types, which Yeck calls (a) the "sisters" formula and (b) the classical protagonist.
The sisters formula placed two women in competition for the same man. Unlike the romantic triangle formula, however, the two female protagonists were not antipathetic to one another. Rather, they were friends and shared a real or symbolic bond of affection. First used in The Old Maid (1939), the sisters formula was repeated in In This Our Life (1942) and Old Acquaintance (1943).
Amalgamations of good and evil traits, Davis’ classical protagonists were character studies of women alone struggling for self understanding. Like the sisters formula, the classical protagonist roles responded to a new level of sophistication in audiences as America emerged from the Depression. Davis introduced the classical protagonist in Dangerous (1936), which won her an Oscar for best actress. Repeating the formula in Jezebel (1938), Davis won her second Oscar for best actress. Joanne Yeck said of this latter picture, "Jezebel not only dramatically changed the direction of Davis’ career but also had an incalculable effect on the woman’s film genre."
Dark Victory (1939), Davis’ next picture, became a classic. Said Bernard Dick, Dark Victory is a classic "because we are all at the center, sharing a woman’s confrontation with her morality as if it were our own. By portraying a human being facing the ultimate (and universal) reality, Dark Victory brought the woman’s film to its apogee. Nothing lay beyond it, for there is nothing beyond death met finely. Death met finely is transfiguration."
During World War II, the classical protagonist formula served the genre well. As Yeck described it, "The American woman’s audience was changing. The war was changing them. As women left home and entered the work force to make up for the male labor shortage, the sensibilities of the housewife and mother were being permanently altered. They were exposed to a larger world. In a sense, they were being masculinized." In Now, Voyager (1942), Betty Davis played the role of Charlotte Vale, the daughter of a domineering Boston matriarch. Of Davis’ performance, Allen said, Now, Voyager offers something rare and vital in American mass culture: the story of a woman’s struggle to gain initiation into adulthood and a relative measure of independence." In My Reputation (1946), Warner used the classical protagonist formula as a vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck who depicted a single woman, with two young sons, confronting widowhood, sexuality, and maternal responsibility, a condition that faced thousands of American women.
By the end of the war, the Davis formulas had lost their boxoffice appeal. To sustain interest in the genre, Warner introduced the noir woman’s film. This phase of the genre was an amalgamation of the personal taste of Warner producer, Jerry Wald, and the new screen persona of Joan Crawford.
A former Warner screenwriter, Wald first made his mark as a producer by specializing in men’s crime and action melodramas. After producing The Hard Way (1943) starring Ida Lupino, who won the New York Critics best actress award, Wald switched to the woman’s film. Producing Mildred Pierce (1946), which won Joan Crawford an Oscar for best actress, Wald perfected the mold that was to characterize Warner’s women’s product for the next five years.
Central to this phase of the genre was the new screen persona of Joan Crawford. Influenced by Wald, Crawford "carefully forged the image of a strong career woman with lower-middle-class roots, one who was resourceful and strong, but still sexually appealing, and who could hold her own in a man’s world," said Albert La Valley.
By linking the screen persona of Crawford to the crime melodrama in Mildred Pierce, Wald gave the woman’s film the look of Film Noir. This phase of the genre had the following characteristics: (1) cynical themes; (2) flashback sequences that served as the major structuring devices of the narratives (e.g. Mildred Pierce (1946), Humoresque (1947), Nora Pretiss (1947), Possessed (1947), and Beyond the Forest (1949)); (3) voiceover narration to increase the subjectivity of the action or to provide omniscient commentary; (4) realistic action that eliminated the genre’s tear-jerking qualities; and (5) expressionistic camera and lighting techniques.
These elements sustained the woman’s film at Warner Brothers until the 1950s. By then, audience tastes had changed again the result of demographics and television. Although new formulas were devised to revive the genre, other studios took the lead.
Allen, Jeanne, ed. Now Voyager. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.
Allen, Robert C. and Douglas Gomery. "The Role of the Star in Film History," in Film History: Theory and Practice.
Dick, Bernard F., ed. Dark Victory. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Elsaesser, Thomas. "Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama," in Barry Keith Grant, ed. Film Genre Reader. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Women in Film Noir. London: BFI, 1978.
Klaprat, Cathy. "The Star as Market Strategy: Bette Davis in Another Light," in Tino Balio, ed. The American Film Industry, rev. ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.
LaValley, Albert J., ed. Mildred Pierce. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
Viviani, Christian. "Who Is Without Sin? The Maternal Melodrama in American Film, 1930-1939." Wide Angle 4 (1980): 4-17.
Yeck, Joanne Louise. "The Woman’s Film at Warner Brothers, 1935-50." Ph.D. dissertation. University of Southern California, 1982.
Introduction - Social Dramas
Warner’s social dramas, said Andrew Bergman, "remain without exception fascinating documents, demonstrating both a gritty feel for social realism and a total inability to give any coherent reasons for social difficulties." Social dramas fall into three categories: (1) films of social consciousness; (2) newspaper pictures that portray the immoral world of yellow journalism; and (3) working men’s films.
Social issues as depicted by Warner underwent a process which Variety called "Burbanking," referring to the company’s studio in Burbank, California. Problems that appeared general at first were resolved by the central character. For example, Michael Curtiz’s Black Fury (1935) dramatized labor and industrial unrest. Based on the 1929 murder of a coal miner in Imperial, Pennsylvania, the picture looks like a documentary. As Roddick describes it, "Placard-bearing strikers march down the street of Coaltown and kids in the schoolyard shout ‘Dirty scabs!’ as replacement workers are brought in." Company police are depicted as thugs and the workers as "model representatives of the ‘little man’." After this initial presentation of industrial conditions, the narrative shifts to the personal vendetta of Polish miner Joe Radek (played by Paul Muni), whose heroism triggers a federal investigation of the mob connections of the company police force. What started as an expose becomes a melodrama. The theme switches from disgruntled labor versus capital to labor versus strike-breaking syndicates. Thus, while flying the banner of political militancy, Warner maintained the status quo. ‘If anything," said Variety, "intelligent capitalism management is given a subtle boost."
Even in Mervyn LeRoy’s I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Warner’s "most unequivocally pessimistic picture of life in Depression America," in Roddick’s opinion, the conflict within the picture was set within the context of a fundamentally just society. Based on Robert E. Burns’ autobiography I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, the picture indicts American society for turning its back on veterans after World War I and exposes the horrors of the Georgia chain gang. Like Black Fury, Chain Gang has a documentary look; the depiction of prison life, for example, vividly portrays the long workday, the beatings of prisoners by the guards, and the squalid living conditions. Offsettting this pessimistic vision of prison society, said Roddick, is the fact that "all the social agencies outside the state of Georgia ... are shown as rooting for Allen (the protagonist) ... . The implication of the film is fairly clear; remove the chain gang system and reform the administration of justice in Georgia and all will be well. It is the chain gang which is the target of the film, not American society as a whole."
Although Warner’s message pictures are of great interest to film and social historians, their stark realism had the potential of alienating audiences. Variety’s review of Wild Boys of the Road (1933) tells why. The picture, which describes young men and women turning into tramps in their search for employment and undergoing sorry hardships, "makes a depressing evening at the theatre, one that the general fan public would gladly avoid," said the review. Explaining its rationale, Variety added, "Indeed, the very merits of ‘Wild Boys of the Road’ are its difficulties. The acting is so gripping and the incidents so graphic that they conspire to make the hour’s running of the subject one of considerable discomfort to the spectator. The picture presents a distressing condition only too absorbingly. The spiritual travails of these youngsters detached from their families and homes and left to roam the country, battered, rebuffed and hardened by adversity, is something to leave an impression of gloom not easily erased. Every incident, every character ceaselessly brings to mind the most gruesome underside of the hard times. It may be a public service to herald these facts to unwilling ears, but the theatre cannot well hope to prosper materially in such a venture."
During the Depression, the films of social consciousness implied that "the normal mechanisms of American society have gone awry, and the lives of individual Americans are threatened by forces which can best be dealt with by the enlightened intervention of the (Roosevelt) Administration," said Roddick. Examples of such films are William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933) and Alan Crosland’s Massacre (1934). The first two depict unemployment problems and the third, the treatment of American Indians. How social problems are resolved by New Deal compassion is seen in Wild Boys of the Road. At the climax of the picture, the kids have run into trouble with the police and have been brought before a judge with a Blue Eagle on the wall. (The Blue Eagle was the icon of Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration.) As Andrew Bergman describes the scene, "the judge (Robert Barrat) wears rimless spectacles and is a reasonable facsimile of the President of the United States. He listens with assured compassion to Frankie Darro’s brief on behalf of underprivileged children: "Jail can’t be any worse than the street." Barrat nods knowingly and intones, "Things are going to get better all over the country ... I know your father will be going back to work soon." And so all the battling, rock-throwing, and hassling with authority is no metaphor; just the depiction of a justifiable grievance being resolved by a wise and silverhaired government."
After the Depression, the films of social consciousness show the normal mechanisms of society as being restored, but now society is "at risk from a variety of subversive organizations which briefly seduce Americans away from basic Americanism," said Roddick. Three films exposed right-wing terror groups: Archie Mayo’s Black Legion (1937), Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), and Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe (1941). (The screenplay of Meet Joe Doe is not included in this series because the publication rights are not available.) Based on the headlines and the stories surrounding a Ku-Kluxish organization in the Midwest in 1935-36, Black Legion traced "the economic envy upon which the promoters of such organizations feed," said Variety, which added, "The action includes floggings, the burning of a chicken farm, destruction of a drugstore, (and) a neophyte’s taking of the oath of allegiance amid a woodland gathering of the clan." "While it lacked the overpowering impact of I am a Fugitive," commented Bergman, "Black Legion was a strong film, and part of that strength lay in its refusal to wheel in the federal government as a ‘deus ex machina’. It had faith in its audience’s ability to focus its righteousness without the New Deal audio-visual aids."
Mervyn Leroy’s They Won’t Forget (1937) attacked lynching and mob violence. Lynchings had become endemic to the South by the 1930s. "The number of incidents soared to twenty-eight in 1933, dropped to fifteen in 1934 and reached twenty-three in 1935," said Bergman, who added, "The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People observed that some ninety-nine percent of the lynchings committed since 1882 had gone unpunished and concluded that the problem could no longer be kept in state hands." And whenever federal anti-lynching bills were introduced, they usually got stalled in the Senate, the result of Southern filibusters.
They Won’t Forget was based on Ward Greene’s Death in the Deep South, an account of the Atlanta trial of Leo M. Frank. Frank, the superintendent of a Georgia pencil factory, had been accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl and was lynched by a mob after his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The film exploited the historical antipathy between North and South by transforming the superintendent into a Yankee professor at a business school and the victim into a young secretarial pupil. Describing the picture, Bergman said "LeRoy concerned himself with the politics and sociology of lynching, with the act as a social problem which an enlightened government would have to root out."
The second category of social drama--newspaper pictures--includes Mervyn LeRoy’s Five Star Final (1931) and Hi, Nellie (1934) and Roy Del Ruth’s Blessed Event (1932). Five Star Final, had the most impact. Based on the successful play by Louis Weitzenkorn, which had long runs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the picture attacked yellow journalism with the same verve Warner brought to the early crime films. The editor of the New York Evening Gazette played by Edward G. Robinson, is pressured by his publisher to run a sequel on a twenty-year-old murder case to build up circulation. The story causes the woman involved in the scandal and her husband to commit suicide. After Robinson berates the paper’s management and resigns in disgust, Five Star Final "ends with a close-up of the Gazette lying in the gutter; a gob of dirt splatters down on to it, and a broom sweeps it down the gutter with the other garbage," says Roddick. As noted by Variety, "Story is a hard rap at the readers of such tabs ... and while these readers will make up a large part of its audience, they won’t mind." As noted by Roddick, "The whole impact of the studio’s social conscience pictures is summed up in that phrase: the films were critical, but well within the conventions of entertainment".
The third category of social drama-workingmens’ films consists of a host of low or medium budget dramas and melodramas that celebrated the resilience, pluck, ingenuity, and perennial dreams of the workingman. Said Sennett, "The studio was exceptionally fond of making films about the hard-working ‘little people’ of the country’s middle class who, after all, found the movies their cheapest form of entertainment." These pictures depict the following occupations: auto racing (The Crowd Roars (1932)), taxi driving (Taxi! (1932)), commercial flying (Ceiling Zero (1935)), and construction (Manpower (1941)), among others.
Of the group, five Jimmy Cagney vehicles are the most interesting. Cagney’s role as Matt Nolan in Taxi! in which he plays an independent cab driver caught up in a war between rival cab companies, sets the tone. "As a deese, does and dem, chip-on-the shoulder, on-the-make example of Young America the character knows no better interpretation on the screen than that which Cagney gives it," said Variety. This picture, directed by Roy Del Ruth, and The St. Louis Kid (1934), directed by Ray Enright, depict little guys threatened by big business and demonstrate Warner’s "populism at its most basic," said Roddick. "They are not message pictures," adds Roddick, "but they are ideologically identical to the more socially conscious crime movies of the same period; self reliance without frills is what the situation calls for." In addition to Taxi! Cagney starred in The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), two action pictures directed by Howard Hawks, and City for Conquest (1940), a prize fighting picture directed by Anatole Litvak.
The social drama as a production strategy was eclipsed by problems of greater concern during the 1940s as America entered World War II.
Bergman, Andrew. We’re In the Money. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
O’Connor, John, ed. I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Roddick, Nick. A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930. London: BFI, 1983.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Variety Film Reviews. New York: Garland, 1983.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Bros. Golden Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.
Introduction - The Musical
Although the musical film had its roots in vaudeville, the musical theater, and other popular art forms of the nineteenth century, the genre was not launched until Warner Brothers innovated sound in 1926. Warner’s strategy in experimenting with sound motion pictures was to strengthen its position in the exhibition market. Motion picture palaces typically presented a program of mixed entertainment consisting of live stage acts as a prologue followed by the main feature accompanied either by an organ or full-sized pit orchestra. Warner decided to introduce programs of comparable quality but in sound by producing shorts of popular vaudeville acts with synchronized musical accompaniment. In this way, Warner hoped to guarantee exhibition outlets for its pictures. Accordingly in April, 1926, the studio formed the Vitaphone Corporation in association with AT & T’s Western Electric laboratory to make sound motion pictures and to market sound reproduction equipment.
Beginning with the theatrical season of 1926-27, Warner presented the first of several full-length Vitaphone programs. Warner’s headliner on its third Vitaphone program, The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland and starring Al Jolson, became Hollywood’s first musical. Premiering on October 6, 1927 at the Warner’s Theatre in New York, the movie played in many large cities breaking records everywhere and signaled the general acceptance of sound motion pictures. The Jazz Singer was conceived as a "singing" rather than "talking" motion picture. In terms of style, it was a silent picture with a synchronized orchestral score, some Jewish cantorial music, and seven popular songs sung by Al Jolson. The attraction of The Jazz Singer lay in Jolson. A vaudeville star since 1912, Jolson had toured the country several times, breaking house records. The movie-going audience was eager to see and hear him.
Warner attempted to duplicate the success of The Jazz Singer by having Al Jolson "bellow a brace of specially tailored songs in such musicals as The Singing Fool (1928) ... and Mammy (1930)," said Sennett. Mammy boasted a number of good songs by Irving Berlin and contained a minstrel show background. Concerning the minstrelsy, Variety said, "As stage ensemble, minstrelsy has about died out: it may be a circus to the kiddies to let them see what their folks have seen; the minstrel show. Here it is on the stage and on the street, the parade, the blacking up in the dressing room, and the semi-circle with its white face interlocutor, songs by the quartet, jokes by the end men, and dancing." Singing in cork, which was his trademark, Jolson played one of the end men.
A type of musical that enjoyed a brief run during the early talkies was the revue. An uninterrupted series of musical numbers that brought together a studio’s leading contract players in song and dance, the revue was "produced at a time when the studios were trying to decide who and what was musical material," said Mordden. Of Warner’s revue, Shows of Shows (1929), Mordden said, "This was the most stage-bound of them all, literally performed on one, curtain and all."
Another type of early musical was the filmed version of a stage operetta. Warner’s The Desert Song (1929), photographed partially in two-color Technicolor, marked the beginning of the long history of adaptations of Broadway musicals. Because many of these early adaptations were leaden versions of the originals, the musical nearly became moribund.
Warner revived the genre in 1933 by producing two classics; 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. "They have the dynamism and power, lively dialogue and inspired direction by Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley to raise them far above other efforts in the genre," said Roth. The musical form is essentially ritualistic, said Roth: "It is meant to reaffirm faith, not to illuminate conditions or states of being." Produced during the depths of the Depression, this type of musical had a backstage plot that revolved around the production of a show-within-a-show. According to Roth, "In the Warner’s musicals ... each person is shown to be part of an interdependent group: the overall impression emphasizes the importance of social cohesion and harmony, symbolized most clearly in the dances."
The idea behind 42nd Street probably came from the MGM hit, Broadway Melody (1929), the first "100% All Talking, 100% All Singing" musical which interwove musical numbers with a backstage subplot. Darryl F. Zanuck, Warner’s head of production had a hunch that "something with a more everyday flavor than the musical had yet tasted might revive the genre," said Mordden, who added, Zanuck decided to pull off another backstager, this one with a "New York pulse to it."
42nd Street contained the archetypical plot of Warner’s backstage musicals: "A number of people with diverse stories work together to put on a show; at the last minute the star is knocked ‘hors de combat’and an unknown goes on for her with terrific success," in Mordden’s words. The screenplay, based on a novel by Bradford Ropes, was written by Rian James and James Seymour. Warner Baxter played the director, Bebe Daniels, the star, and Ruby Keeler, in her film debut, the novice who goes on for Daniels. Dick Powell played the juvenile and Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel, chorus girls. Lloyd Bacon directed and Busby Berkeley, a veteran of film musicals staged and directed the musical sequences.
42nd Street, like Columbia’s screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (1934), was a surprise smash hit, a big moneymaker. According to Schatz, "Berkeley’s musical direction and unusual camerawork during the musical sequences are the distinguishing elements in this film. His most significant innovation was to liberate the camera from a static position in front of the stage ... . The fluid, dynamic camera became standard in later musical numbers and was perhaps the single most significant formal development in Hollywood ‘30s musicals."
42nd Street, naturally enough, spawned a series of backstage musicals. Within months Warner brought out a followup; Gold Diggers of 1933. Scripted by Erwin Gelsey and James Seymour, it was the studio’s third version of Avery Hopwood’s play of 1919, The Gold Diggers. Gold Diggers of 1933 was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and contained many 42nd Street players. Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler returned to play the young romantic leads. Busby Berkeley again staged and directed the musical numbers. A good example of Berkeley’s inventiveness in this film is the "Shadow Waltz" sequence, sung by Dick Powell. As described by Ted Sennett, "The ladies of the chorus, all platinum blonde and coyly smiling, swirl about the stage in outlandish hoopshirts, ‘playing’ white violins. The violins are illuminated with neon tubing and eventually come together to form one enormous illuminated violin." But beneath the film’s whimsical tone lurked an awareness of the Depression. The climax of the film is the "Remember My Forgotten Man" number, a bitter song rendered by Joan Blondell.
The last and in some ways the best of the Warner musicals in 1933 was Footlight Parade, scripted by James Seymour and Manuel Seff. Lloyd Bacon directed, Busby Berkeley staged and directed the numbers, and 42nd Street veterans once again filled the cast. Jimmy Cagney, a newcomer to the Warner musical, gave the picture distinction playing "a Broadway showman thrown out of work by talkies who recovers by producing short stage shows to accompany the films," said Mordden. The most memorable number in Footlight Parade is "Shanghai Lil," the concluding piece. Describing the sequence, Roth said, "Shot from above, we see hundreds of chorus boys and girls dressed as American sailors form an American flag, superimpose a picture of Roosevelt over it, and then form an NRA eagle and fire their guns in salute. This patriotic display is the quintessence of the musical spirit."
After three hit backstage musicals in a row, Warner had a successful series in the making. Using the talents of Busby Berkeley, Warner produced nearly a dozen such pictures of varying quality from 1934 to the end of the decade. Capitalizing on the appeal of its two new musical stars, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, Warner teamed the pair in Gold Diggers of 1934 and Dames (1934). In both pictures Powell played an "ambitious songwriter who has just written a sure-fire musical comedy hit that’s only begging for a backer," while Miss Keeler provided "the sympathetic and romantic inspiration," said Variety. Capitalizing on Busby Berkeley’s ingenuity, Warner elevated him to sole director for several musicals beginning with Gold Diggers of 1935. This picture contained Berkeley’s most famous production number, "The Lullaby of Broadway" and marked the apex of Warner’s backstage series. The plot of the picture had problems, however. As Variety put it, without the spectacle the story was "laborious and dull."
To prevent a certain sameness from creeping into the series, Warner changed the locales from Broadway to Paris (Wonder Bar (1934), Fashions of 1934, (1934) Gold Diggers in Paris (1938), to Aqua Caliente, Mexico (In Caliente (1935)), and to Hollywood (Hollywood Hotel (1937)). Warner also dropped the backstage plots. Wonder Bar, for example, was modelled after MGM’s Grand Hotel and Hollywood Hotel, after a popular radio program. In the former, Al Jolson attempted a comeback playing a maitre d’ in a Parisian nightclub. One of his production numbers, "Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule," contained an "incredibly tasteless parade of condescending ‘blackface’ cliches," said Sennett and was one of Berkeley’s most embarrassing mistakes. In the latter picture, said Variety, "The Films have taken one of the better known radio programs and have reversed the picture preview idea by filming the ‘Hollywood Hotel’ air hour." Hollywood Hotel was a farce that poked fun "at both the picture making business and the radio industry."
From 1936 until the close of the decade, Warner’s musicals "never recovered the elan, the pace, or the skill that had characterized the earlier entries," said Sennett. The honors now belonged to RKO with its Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, such as Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1935), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance? (1937). At Warner, the musical had sunk so low that the studio allowed Busby Berkeley, Dick Powell, and songwriter Harry Warren to walk off the lot when their contracts expired in 1939. In 1940, Warner produced no musicals for the first time since the coming of sound.
During the war, Warner turned to new musical sources, "the past and the patriotic-minded war driven present," said Sennett. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Warner’s most important World War II musical, contained a blend of both. Directed by Michael Curtiz and based on an original screenplay by Robert Buchner and Edmund Joseph, Yankee Doodle Dandy was a biopic of George M. Cohan. "Cohan’s life was a natural subject for the movies and one that was well timed in its flag-waving appeal with the threat of global war on the horizon in 1941," said McGilligan. The author of some 35 to 40 plays, the star or financial backer of some 125 other attractions, Cohan dominated the American musical theater in the early twentieth century. Some of the stirring Cohan numbers in Yankee Doodle Dandy were "You’re a Grand old Flag," and "Over There," in addition to the title song. Jimmy Cagney played the role of George M. Cohan. "In George, Cagney had found the role he would want to be remembered for," said McGilligan, who added that "With White Heat (two movies that bookended Cagney’s career in the forties could not have been more unalike), it is one of his two most sublime and captivating performances."
Hollywood Canteen (1944) was a more typical wartime entry. Warner followed the trend of producing musicals that paraded the talents of numerous contract stars in vehicles with a strong patriotic content. Directed and written by Delmar Daves, it depicted canteens on the West and East coasts that were run by Hollywood and Broadway stars.
After the war, Warner resurrected the biopic by producing musicals based on subjects more contemporary and considerably more sophisticated than George M. Cohan. Rhapsody in Blue (1945), directed by Irving Rapper, was based on the life of George Gershwin, and Night and Day (1946), directed by Michael Curtiz, on Cole Porter. The former starred Robert Alda and the latter, Cary Grant. Each contained "a slender plot, vaguely based on the life of a composer, with a gaudily packaged selection of his best-known songs," said Woll. Rhapsody had a rags-to-riches plot and featured Al Jolson singing "Swanee" in blackface, Oscar Levant playing "Concerto in F," and Paul Whiteman’s orchestra playing the title song. Night and Day had a rather static plot, since Porter was "born to millions and stays in a ‘rut’ for the rest of his career by making more money," said Variety. The singers performing the Porter numbers included Ginny Sims, Mary Martin, and Carlos Ramirez. Shot in Technicolor, Night and Day was produced in connection with Warner’s publicity campaign to celebrate the 20th anniversary of sound.
During the post-war period, Warner, like other Hollywood studios, found nostalgia profitable. "For their memory trips," said Sennett, "Warners turned most often to actor-singer Dennis Morgan who had a thin, but pleasant tenor voice." My Wild Irish Rosh (1947), directed by David Butler, depicted Chauncey Olcott’s rise to fame via minstrel shows and musical comedies. One Sunday Afternoon, a remake of the comedy Strawberry Blonde directed by Raoul Walsh, dealt "with young love and shenanigans in New York at the turn of the century," in Variety’s words. Romance on the High Seas (1948), directed by Michael Curtiz, starred Jack Carson and brought back Busby Berkeley to stage the dance numbers. The picture also featured Doris Day in a supporting role that had five tunes. "It’s gay, slightly giddy, loaded with tunes, laughs and nonsense," said Variety. During this period MGM, with such stars as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and the Arthur Freed production unit on the lot set the standard for the musical just as Warner Brothers did during the Depression.
Tito Balio, General Editor
Carringer, Robert L. The Jazz Singer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Fumento, Rocco, ed. 42nd Street. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
McGilligan, Patrick, ed. Yankee Doodle Dandy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981.
Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Musical. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981.
Roth, Mark. "Some Warners Musicals and the Spirit of the New Deal," The Velvet Light Trap, No. 1 (1971): 20-25.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York: Random House, 1981.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Variety Film Reviews. New York: Garland, 1983.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Bros. Golden Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.
Woll, Allen L. The Hollywood Musical Goes to War. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983.
Introduction - Crime Films
A variation of the gangster genre, "Crime films provided a potentially perfect formula for fulfilling (Warner’s) early talkie policy of realistic and at the same time popular entertainment," said Roddick. Realism in Warner’s pictures ranged from the depiction of yellow journalism to archaic penology, racial bigotry, mob violence, and labor unrest, among other social issues. Whereas gangster pictures focused on organized crime, crime films contained action-based narratives in which crime was the milieu.
Not surprisingly, Warner used the same stars for its crime pictures as it did for the gangster films. Although Jimmy Cagney first made it big as the hoodlum Jimmy Powers in The Public Enemy (1931), he made his debut in Sinner’s Holiday (1930) playing a mama’s boy who drifts into bootlegging and murder. He got the part after Warner observed him playing the same role on Broadway in Penny Arcade. Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft kept the crime cycle alive throughout much of the thirties, followed by John Garfield. "More sensitive and brooding" than Bogart, Cagney, and Robinson," said Sennett, Garfield "was an exceptionally good actor and the studio’s best representative of the alienated, socialist-minded young man who stumbled into a life of crime." Making his Warner screen debut in Four Daughters (1938), a woman’s picture, Garfield received star billing the next time out, in They Made Me a Criminal (1939), playing a carousing prizefighter who falsely believes he killed a reporter. His other crime films include Dust Be My Destiny (1939), Castle on the Hudson (1940), and Out of the Fog (1941).
From the start, the crime film possessed fast-talking realistic, and often socially-outspoken elements. Warner kept one eye on the tabloids and another on Broadway to grasp what was timely and to offer it to the paying customer. Star Witness (1931), for example, was suggested by a Harlem gang shooting in which several children were the victims. "With the press rampant on the subject, plus the cops being unable to get the witnesses to talk," said Variety, "Warners tore the blinders off Star Witness and rushed into the Winter Garden." It depicted "a normal family who became the witnesses to a rival mob street affray and are then terrorized into perjuring themselves when followers of the captured gang leader learn that their evidence is sufficient to send the boss to the chair," added Variety. Chic Sale, who plays the grandfather of the family, is the "star witness" and delivers a speech complaining that foreigners in organized crime are running the country. Although Warner did not produce a "follow-up film advocating deportation of all alien gangsters," as Variety predicted, the studio made several pictures in which ordinary citizens are caught between hoodlums and the law; Taxi! (1932), St. Louis Kid (1934), and Marked Woman (1937). (These films are included in the social drama series).
Warner borrowed another idea for its plots from MGM’s Grand Hotel which brought together a cross section of people and involved them in miscellaneous adventures. In Union Depot (1931), for example, the action takes place in a large metropolitan railroad terminal; the characters include an enterprising thief (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), a chorine (Joan Blondell), a phoney baron (Alan Hale) with a fortune concealed in a violin case, a genial drunk (Frank McHugh), and many others. Larceny, Inc. (1942), based on the Laura and S.J. Perelman farce Night Before Christmas, applied the plot formula to a crime comedy.
Prison pictures were the most popular crime films. "No studio could match Warners for prison melodramas that were raw, stinging and vivid in their depiction of life behind bars," said Sennett. Most of these pictures were set in Sing Sing federal prison in upstate New York, Alcatraz federal prison in San Francisco, or San Quentin state penitentiary in California.
The first group of prison pictures were produced during the Depression and included Numbered Men (1930), Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing (1933), and The Mayor of Hell (1933). Numbered Men portrayed penal life about as accurately as "the average theme dealing with colleges," said Variety; the convicts are "either playing cards, listening to the radio or eating cookies at a nearby farmhouse." Sing Sing, the first of several screen adaptations of Warden Lewis E. Lawes’ book of the same name, dramatized the warden’s controversial theories of rehabilitation involving an honor system that permitted prisoners to take leaves of absence to visit family and friends. The picture had a more authentic look, for as Variety reported, Warden Lawes "extended Warner Brothers every cooperation in the filming and permitted cameras within the prison for actual scenes, including that of prisoners in the mob scenes."
The Mayor of Hell, a variation of the prisoner picture, dealt with life in a reformatory. Utilizing a cast of more than 2150 boys, it told the story of a killer (Jimmy Cagney) reforming a reformatory. In an attempt to explain the cause of juvenile delinquency, the picture showed how children are products of their environment. However, the plot had problems. As Variety pointed out, "The big item which customers have to swallow is that while reforming kids, Cagney sticks to his trade as a gang leader."
During the Depression, Warner also produced a number of crime pictures that appealed to the female audience. Women had been typically used to add love interest to the stories and some of Warner’s best actresses fulfilled this function; Joan Blondell, Ann Sheridan, Margaret Lindsay, Ida Lupino, Ann Dvorak, and Priscilla and Rosemary Lane. Three on a Match (1932), featuring Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and Joan Blondell, was among the first Warner crime films to focus exclusively on a female protagonist. A variation of The Public Enemy (1931) and having the same director (William Wellman) and same screenwriters (Kubec Glasmon and John Bright), Three on a Match traced the lives of three women from high school to maturity. The socialite in the group (Ann Dvorak), gets involved with a gangster and after becoming addicted to dope, slides into the gutter.
Fog Over Frisco (1934), another picture with a female protagonist, starred Bette Davis, fresh from her loanout to RKO where she won an Academy Award for Of Human Bondage. In Fog Over Frisco, she plays the step daughter of a banker "who becomes involved in an immensely complicated, indeed largely indecipherable, securities scandal, apparently connected with an unfortunate love affair. She ends up dead in the rumble seat of her roadster two-thirds of the way through the film," said Roddick.
Journal of a Crime (1934), a picture with higher cultural aspirations, was adapted from a play by Jacques Deval. It starred Ruth Chatterton who kills her husband’s mistress.
The focus of the crime film, like that of the gangster, changed after 1934. "In the first place, the Hays Office’s new Production Code explicitly forbade the glorification of criminal figures. In the second place, the nation’s financial position, along with that of the studio, was improving," explained Roddick. Afterwards, gangster and crime films played up the efforts of law enforcement agencies. The milieu of crime also changed: "Crime is no longer the prerogative of lone individuals but of organized syndicates with all the external respectability of legitimate business operations," said Roddick. In Special Agent (1935), for example, Alexander Carston (Ricardo Cortez) "operates with relative impunity from a plush office with accountants and telephones, protected by a battery of lawyers and a public image which stresses his ‘anonymous’ funding of an orphanage," said Roddick.
Warner produced a second group of prison films beginning in 1936 under the aegis of Bryan Foy, head of the studio’s "B" production unit. Hollywood adopted a two-tier production program during the Depression as a result of the double feature policy introduced to the exhibition field. Class A films were big-budget items based on important properties and produced with ranking stars, name directors, and top writers. They were the important constituents of the studio’s corporate image and received most of the publicity. Class B films, on the other hand, were low-budget items around sixty minutes in length designed to fill the bottom berth of a double bill. Based mostly on original stories, to conserve money, and using the talents of unknowns, these pictures were grist for the mill.
Known familiarly in the industry as the "Keeper of the B’s," Foy had his fingers on the pulse of the movie-going public and churned out a string of exploitation crime pictures that kept fans calling for more; Jailbreak (1936), Road Gang (1936), Alcatraz Island (1937), Midnight Court (1937), Crime School (1938), Girls on Probation (1938), Blackwell’s Island (1939), Devil’s Island (1939), Hell’s Kitchen (1939) and Tear Gas Squad (1940).
Alcatraz Island, for example, is a good, tough movie, complete with violent action, headline montages, and lurid captions like the one that introduces us to the Rock: "America’s penal fortress, grim and mysterious as its name, where cold steel and rushing tides protect civilization from its enemies." Road Gang, a rewrite of I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, dealt with penology as practiced in Dixie, complete with sadistic guards and scenes of brutality. Midnight Court was written by Don Ryan, a Los Angeles reporter specializing in night court, and described "a stolen car racket as handled by a large and powerful gang," said Variety.
Crime School introduced the Dead End Kids to the Warner lot. The Dead End Kids had originally appeared in Sam Goldwyn’s class A production, Dead End (1937), based on Sidney Kingsley’s play about a group of boys standing on the waterfront waiting for the day when their gang leader would get out of prison and tell them all about it. Humphrey Bogart had a lead role playing a killer. Crime School, written by Crane Wilbur, placed the "Dead Enders" in reform school. Bogart played a crusading deputy commissioner of correction who introduces humane methods of dealing with the young inmates.
Blackwell’s Island (1939), a John Garfield vehicle based on an adaptation by Crane Wilbur, closely followed a newspaper exposé of conditions found on Blackwell’s Island by the New York Commissioner of Corrections in 1934. As Variety described it, "Then it was discovered that the prison was under the virtual command of a ruthless criminal who ran it to enrich his own pockets by exacting tribute from its inmates. Of the 1,700 prisoners on the ‘Island’ only those who were able to pay for it were decently fed or housed, while the kingpin and his henchmen lived sumptuously and even ran an organized gambling joint."
Concerning the remainder of Warner’s prisoner melodramas, the studio’s favorite plot contained "the crusader reporter framed into prison by the mob." The plot was used in Each Dawn I Die (1939), with James Cagney and George Raft; Strange Alibi (1941) with Arthur Kennedy; and I was Framed (1942) with Regis Twomey.
By the forties, the crime film had just about run its course. You Can’t Get Away With Murder (1939), said Variety, was "an obvious and uninteresting melodrama behind the walls of Sing Sing. It’s ponderous and slow moving." Castle on the Hudson, said Variety, was "a routine prison melodrama (produced) along familiar lines of former ‘big house’ pictures turned out by Warners during the past several years." Although Devil’s Island (1940) created a stir, set in France’s tropical prison equivalent to U.S.’s Alcatraz, the picture brought a protest from the French government and forced Warner to temporarily withdraw it from circulation throughout the world: the social climate had changed. As Ted Sennett put it, "During the war years, the Warner gangster replaced by international gangsters of far greater impact, faded into oblivion."
Roddick, Nick. A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930s. London: BFI, 1983.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Variety Film Reviews. New York: Garland, 1983.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Bros. Golden Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.
Introduction - Horror/Detective/Murder Melodrama
The horror, detective and murder melodrama were three related genres that with few exceptions during the thirties served to fill out studio rosters. Since these pictures were designed primarily as "B" products, they found their venues mostly in independent theaters. Arthur Mayer, an exhibitor who operated New York City’s Rialto had this to say about their appeal: "Because of the Rialto’s independent status, the only Hollywood products offered to it by the distributors were the "B" pictures rejected by the circuit-controlled Broadway houses. Many of these dealt with mystery, murder, and horror. We transformed our liability into an asset by booking movies only of this nature. Thus we attracted to the theater a faithful clientele who knew just what they could expect from a Rialto show. They were, needless to say, primarily male."
The phonomenal success of Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein, both produced in 1931, launched the horror genre in the era of sound. "The company subsequently unleashed mummies (starting with The Mummy, 1932) and werewolves (starting with The Werewolf of London, 1935) to join Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster and terrify willing audiences, and made Bella Lugosi and Boris Karloff if not the first horror stars then the first actors for whom horror would be both the backbone and the limiting factor of their careers," said Phil Hardy.
The other studios jumped on the bandwagon to produce their own special varieties of the genre: Paramount exploited pseudoscience in Island of the Lost Souls; Fox conjured the magical powers of Chandler, the Magician; MGM produced the realism of carnival exhibits in Freaks; and RKO created the nightmarish fantasy of King Kong.
Warner’s first entries consisted of two John Barrymore vehicles - Svengali and The Mad Genius, both produced in 1931. Svengali, directed by Archie Mayo, was based on the novel Trilby by George Du Maurier. John Barrymore played the villainous hypnotist who forces Trilby (Marian Marsh) into running away with him and also into a career as a concert star. The Mad Genius, directed by Michael Curtiz, was based on the play The Idol by Martin Brown. In this picture Barrymore played "the crippled son of a famous ballerina of the Russian theater, deserted by his light minded mother and burning as he says, ‘with a flaming desire to dance’. Balked by the deformity of his crippled legs, he adopts a Russian waif and, through the boy, seeks to achieve his ambition by proxy," said Variety.
With Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Warner hit its stride. "Only at Warners could such films have been produced, for only there was the strain of newspaper realism powerful enough to yield no quarter in a struggle with the surreal requirements of the horror film," said Richard Koszarski. Both pictures contained an inquisitive reporter and thus modified the horror genre by introducing strains of whodunit. Both pictures were directed by Michael Curtiz and paired Lionel Atwill with Fay Wray.
Based on a play of the same name by Howard W. Comstock and Allen C. Miller, "Doctor X is a grand chiller of the old school, replete with clutching hands, a wired laboratory, a hooded killer, gas jets, secrets panels, [and] a wonderful group of suspects," said William Everson. Atwill played "a clubfooted doctor whose laboratory assistant (Preston Foster) strangles victims on nights when the moon is full, his body smeared with a paste of ‘synthetic flesh.’" Lee Tracy played the inquisitive reporter who during the course of the film is shut in a closet with dangling skeletons and skulls, hidden on a slab in the morgue under a sheet and subjected to noxious fumes," said Sennett.
Mystery of the Wax Museum, a sequel, was based on the play, The Wax Works, by Charles S. Belden. Atwill played the maniacal custodian of the London wax museum; Glenda Farrell, the reporter who unearths the weird yarn. According to Everson, Mystery of the Wax Museum was "the first really ‘modern’ horror film: that is to say, one set against the bustling reality of a thirties milieu: New York, Broadway, busy newspaper offices ... . Other current horror films had certainly been contemporary in period, but they had removed most of their action to traditional Old House backdrops."
Like Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum was shot in two-color Technicolor. Said Everson, "The soft hues of the old two-color Technicolor were also a tremendous asset ... especially in the scenes of the museum fire where the flames dissolve the wax models, and the smiling, serene figures of Voltaire, Marie Antoinette, and others disappear in rivulets of molten wax, the eyes appearing to grow wilder and bigger with astonishment as the faces disintegrate around them."
Warner produced one other horror film of note during the thirties, The Walking Dead (1936), which starred Boris Karloff in his first studio picture for the studio. Directed by Curtiz, The Walking Dead was based on an original story about an ex-convict brought back to life by a scientist after his execution for a murder he did not commit. He pursues a gang of monsters who framed him and "causes each of them one by one, to bring about their own deaths ... he finally dies again himself, his last words describing the death that he had known and returned from as ‘peace’," said Wright.
Warner produced just one horror film during the forties, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), an experimental film directed by Robert Florey. Based on a short by W.F. Harvey, the picture contained a disembodied hand of a dead pianist that apparently had returned from the grave to commit murder. "Best and more gruesome parts of the picture," said Variety, "are when [Peter] Lorre is alone with his vivid imagination. He chases a goulish hand around the library several times, catching it finally and hammering it down in a blood curdling scene reminiscent in mood of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Still it pursues him escaping at last from the burning coals into which he has thrown it to strangle him also." Warner decided that straight horror was passé, however, and added comic relief. At the conclusion of the picture, J. Carrol Naish winks at the camera and says "it could happen". Florey disowned the film, as a result of the coda. The Beast with Five fingers was the last important horror feature of the era; the genre was put on hold until the fifties.
B. Detective Films
Detective pictures did yeoman service for the studios during the thirties, serving mostly as "filler" material for double features. As Sennett put it, "The same sets - tawdry hotel rooms, ‘society’ living rooms, police stations could be used many times, as could new contract players and unseasoned young directors." Universal had its Sherlock Holmes series; MGM its Thin Man series; Paramount its Bulldog Drummond series; and Monogram, its Charlie Chan series, to name only a few.
The Sherlock Holmes series became the prototype. According to Mary Beth Haralovich the films were "structured around the detective in his search for the solution to a puzzle." Holmes "reasons deductively from seemingly insignificant details to be more competent at detection than ... the police." He was "inevitably successful at outwitting the criminal and had an abundance of idiosyncratic personal characteristics."
Warner’s productions of this type consisted of a pair of Philo Vance detective pictures and the Perry Mason series. The Philo Vance pictures were based on the detective stories of S.S. Van Dine, pseudonym for Willard Huntingdon Wright (1888-1939). According to Murch, Van Dine "brought to American fiction a new type of amateur detective, Philo Vance, an elegant scholarly hero with tremendous flair for the significant under-current of the so-called trivia of life’, and a tiresome habit of holding up the action by long digressions on extraneous subjects." One element introduced by Van Dine was "the technique of creating a group of obvious suspects who are then eliminated one by one as they fall victim to the unidentified killer, the suspense mounting as the circle narrows."
When Warner took a turn with the Philo Vance mysteries, it produced a genre classic. Michael Curtiz’s The Kennel Murder Case (1933) "the fifth film to be based on the S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance novels, is one of the very best films of its genre and William Powell, flawlessly cast as Vance, was by far the most satisfactory of the ten players who took on the role between 1929 and 1947," said Everson.
William Powell moved to MGM after The Kennel Murder Case to play Nick Charles opposite Myrna Loy in The Thin Man series, based on Daeshiell Hammett’s detective novel of the twenties. To succeed Powell, Warner selected Warren William for its second Vance thriller, The Dragon Murder Case (1934), directed by F. Bruce Humberstone. Said Variety, "William does not catch the spirit of the smooth detective. His is a colorless performance." Of the picture, Variety said, "It’s a poorly placed yarn with several incredible sequences. Too many loose edges."
Warren William redeemed himself in Warner’s Perry Mason series. Everson said that William in this series came close to duplicating William Powell’s urbane detection. The Perry Mason series was based on the detective stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, the most prolific and successful of twentieth-century American mystery writers. Gardner published his first Perry Mason story, The Case of the Velvet Claws in 1933. Afterwards, Mason was featured in hundreds of novels, many films, and countless television programs. "The feature distinguishing him from other criminal-fiction heroes is that he is neither an official nor a private detective, but a lawyer. He solves his cases through his skills as a lawyer working in court," said Benvenuti.
Warner produced four Perry Mason pictures starring Warren William between 1934 and 1936, three of which are represented in this screenplay series: Alan Crosland’s The Case of the Howling Dog (1934), Michael Curtiz’s The Case of the Curious Bridge (1935), and Archie Mayo’s The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935). These movies "all represented exercises in neat mystery writing, in intelligent legal discussion, in gimmicks and in plot surprises. There was never menace, little or no physical action, few thrills. The excitement came from the surprises in the stories themselves, and perhaps in a way they didn’t altogether play fair with the audience since the solutions invariably evolved from information known only to Mason," said Everson.
Warner also produced two detective series aimed primarily at juvenile audiences - the Torchy Blane and Nancy Drew pictures. Both were produced by Byran Foy’s "B" unit at the end of the thirties. The nine Torchy Blane films starring Glenda Farrell were predictable little programmers in which Torchy, a girl reporter, aided by irate police lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton MacLand) managed to nab the villain. Smart Blonde (1937), directed by Frank Macdonald, launched the series. As Variety described her, Torchy "plays the kind of sob sister who does all that newspaper girls never do." Her act is to prove how useless cops are and she succeeds. Variety provided a further insight into these pictures in its review of Adventurous Blonde (1937): "As the fictional representative of the fourth estate, Torchy does about everything a fictional reporter should do, tying up the coppers in knots before solving the mystery single-handed and scooping everyone as usual."
The Nancy Drew series, starring Bonita Granville were adapted from the popular novels of Carolyn Keene that featured a teenaged detective heroine. All four pictures in the series used the same writer (Kenneth Gamet) and the same director (William Clemens). In its review of Nancy Drew - Detective (1938), the first of the series, Variety described the Nancy Drew character as follows: "She’s the sparkplug that keeps the story rolling. As alert, curious and fearless as a Scottie pup, she’s always on the jump, always poking her nose into hornets’ nests and (since it would not do to kill her off) always thwarting the devious plans of the rogues she uncovers."
C. Murder Melodrama
Warner’s assembly-line detective pictures were rendered obsolete when it produced John Huston’s classic The Maltese Falcon in 1941. This was Warner’s third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 novel - the first in 1931 was directed by Roy Del Ruth and had Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade; the second in 1936, entitled Satan Met a Lady was directed by William Dieterle and featured Warren William and Bette Davis. Both versions were unremarkable.
But John Huston’s film starring Humphrey Bogart with Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet became a classic that initiated a new film genre - the hard-boiled detective. "The most significant product of American expressionist cinema," the hard-boiled detective film was "distinct from the classic gangster film, which focused on the criminal and his underworld milieu, and from the urban crime film, which traced the peacekeeping efforts of law-and-order agencies;" instead, "the hard-boiled detective film assumed the viewpoint of the isolated, self-reliant private eye," said Schatz.
Stylistically, archetypal hard-boiled detective pictures such as Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, Edward Dimytryk’s Murder, My Sweet, and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, in addition to The Maltese Falcon, fall into the category of film noir. The pictures also share a similar narrative form: "All the pictures are arranged as a sequence of interviews between the private eye and witnesses and potential suspects which lead, after a string of false clues and the investigator’s mistaken judgments, to a final, surprising revelation. The stories are deliberately hard to follow; we are supposed to be as baffled as the inquirer," said Hirsch.
Warner produced only one other hard-boiled detective picture in the forties - Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). An adaptation of Raymond chandler’s novel and another film noir classic the picture starred Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as the femme noire (Unfortunately, both The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are not included in this screenplay series because the publication rights are unavailable).
In addition to hard-boiled detective pictures, The Maltese Falcon spun off a number of murder melodramas and mysteries built around members of its cast. Bogart played a criminal in Conflict (1945) and a victim in Dark Passage (1947). In Conflict, directed by Curtiz Bernhardt, Bogart kills his wife (Rose Hobart) out of passion for her younger sister (Alexis Smith), but is trapped by a clever analyst (Sydney Greenstreet). "A series of incidents, all aimed at making Bogart believe his wife is alive, slowly drive him to desperation and eventually he returns to the scene of his crime to convince himself that she is really dead. He finds Greenstreet and the police waiting and goes off to jail," reported Variety.
In Dark Passage, directed by Delmer Daves, Bogart played opposite Lauren Bacall as an escaped convict desperately trying to prove his innocence of his wife’s murder. The picture is remembered mainly for its use of the subjective camera in the early scenes. As described by Schatz, "This subjective point-of-view strategy is sustained through the hero’s coincidental meeting with and befriending of the heroine (Bacall) and culminates in a bizarre rendezvous with an unlicensed plastic surgeon who miraculously transforms the escaped convict into Humphrey Bogart."
Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre paired up opposite Geraldine Fitzgerald in Jean Nagulesco’s Three Strangers (1946), a mystery about three oddly matched people who strike a pact to share the winnings of a sweepstake ticket on the eve of the Chinese New Year. Greenstreet and Lorre paired up again in Don Siegel’s The Verdict (1946), a "melodrama set in London in 1892 concerning a police superintendent (Greenstreet), disgraced when he sends an innocent man to the gallows, who plots and commits the perfect crime to show up his successor," said Sennett.
In 1948, Greenstreet played "the villainous, leering Count Fosco" opposite Eleanor Parker and Alexis Smith in the film version of Wilkie Collins’ Gothic novel, The Woman in White, directed by Peter Godfrey. "A fustian and hard-breathing melodrama, it benefited from an excellent cobweb-and-doom-laden setting and from Greenstreet’s enjoyable hammy performance as the count plotting to kill twin sisters and take over their fortune," said Sennett.
The remaining murder melodrama of interest is Michael Curtiz’s The Unsuspected (1947). Claude Rains played Victor Grandison, an elegant narrator of murder mysteries over the radio who’s not above making his stories actually true. "An apparently suave kindly soul, he’s unsuspected in the death of his secretary, niece and the latter’s husband. He meets his downfall though, when he attempts to kill another niece and her boyfriend," said Variety.
Benvenuti, Stefano and Rizzoni, Gianni. The Whodunit. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
Cawetti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.
Everson, William K. Classics of the Horror Film. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974.
Haralovich, Mary Beth. "Sherlock Holmes: Genre and Industrial Practice," Journal of the University Film Association. 31 (Spring 1979): 33-57.
Hardy, Phil, ed. The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
Murch, A.E. The Development of the Detective Novel. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1968.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Tuska, Jon. Dark Cinema: American Film Noir in Cultural Perspective. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Variety Reviews. New York: Garland Press, 1983.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Bros. Golden Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.
Wright, Gene. Horror Shows. New York: Facts on File, 1986.
Introduction - War Films
"From Birth of a Nation (1915) through Patton (1970), Hollywood films created an image of the American fighting man as brave, determined, and successful ... . Virtually all American films about war followed the pattern established from the earliest days of the industry, showing only the glamorous side of combat--the excitement, the adventure, the camaraderie. Battle was not always shown as pleasant, but the films made it clear that pain was necessary for ultimate victory," said Lawrence Suit. Explaining the enduring popularity of the genre, Suid added, "like the Western, war movies offer escapist entertainment that appeals to the viewers most basic, most primitive instincts ... . Probably the only significant different between Westerns and war films is that the victory is more compelling in the latter, because the future of the nation is at stake rather than a mere wagon train, stagecoach, or town. So at least until the early 1960's Hollywood combat pictures always ended in an American victory with the American fighting man running faster than his enemy--whether German, or Italian or Japanese. These screen victories reinforced the image of the American military as all-conquering, all powerful, always right."
Only a handful of films--most notably King Vidor’s The Big Parade (1925) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)--depicted the horrors and madness of war. "Not until the growing disenchantment with the Vietnam conflict did Americans begin to explore their long-standing love of the martial spirit and their previously unquestioned respect for the military establishment," said Suid.
Following World War I, the war film entered a period of relative quiescence until the outbreak of hostilities in Europe during the thirties. Describing the first cycle of war films produced during World War I, Lewis Jacobs said, "Films of these years present a vivid and lively picture of American opinion changing from tolerance to intolerance, from progressivism to reaction, from pacificism to militarism. Not only did they reflect the rising war spirit, but they were used to intensify it, to ‘sell’ the public on participation in the war conflict." This assessment works fairly well for the second cycle of war films produced during World War II.
During the interval, Warner produced several films about the Great War "that glowed with patriotic fervor and with unstinting admiration for servicemen under fire," said Sennett.
The first and best of these was Howard Hawks’ Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess. Scripted by Hawks, Dan Totheroh, and Seton I. Miller, Dawn Patrol presented the studio’s most romanticised view of war. Sennett described the picture as "a spirited melodrama concerning a group of beleaguered British pilots compelled to fight air battles against the Germans with no regard for their lack of experience under fire." Commenting on the formular nature of the plot, Variety said, "Here again the spectator finds a well-bred English gentleman running up against the grim realities of war and always remaining true to the best Oxford traditions."
Warner remade the picture as a vehicle for Errol Flynn in 1938 after hostilities in Europe broke out again. Directed by Edmund Goulding, the picture made a pacifist statement. "It comes along as a timely, gripping preachment against the futility of war" said Variety.
As hostilities spread, Warner produced several groups of anti-Nazi pictures. The first, consisting of Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and Espionage Agent (1939), warned of the spy menace in this country. A semi-documentary written by Milton Krims and John Wexley, Anatole Litvak’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy adapted the experiences of Leon G. Turrou, a former FBI agent who cracked a Nazi spy ring hidden within the ranks of the German-American Bund. "Its thesis," said Variety, "is that espionage directed from Berlin is tied up with the German-American Bunds, their rallies and summer camps and general parading around in uniforms. The German goal is destruction of democracy."
The picture aroused intense hostility. Jack and Harry Warner both received telephone threats. A movie theater in the German-populated section of Milwaukee showing the film was burned to the ground by an outraged band of Nazi sympathizers. Hans Thomsen, the German Charge d’Affairs denounced the film to Cordell Hull, the U.S. Secretary of State. As Colin Shindler said, "Confessions of a Nazy Spy proved to be the most explicitly anti-Nazi film made in Hollywood before America officially joined the war against Hitler. The film ... remains a notable landmark."
Espionage Agent (1939), directed by Lloyd Bacon, was a hasty sequel of Nazi Spy, but much less controversial. The plot concerned "a career man in the State Department suddenly discovering his much-loved bride is or has been a German-employed spy," said Variety, which assessed the picture as "just another hokey-pokey mittel-Europa express train melodrama."
A second group of pictures focused on Americans who volunteered to help the Allies. International Squadron (1941), a "B" feature directed by Lewis Seiler, depicted "the adventures of an American pilot, product of daredevil air circuses, who ferries a bomber to England and remains to join the air force," said Variety. Captains of the Clouds (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Jimmy Cagney, dramatized the adventures of free-lance bush flyers who became instructors in Royal Canadian Air Force training schools."
A third group of pictures advocated military preparedness. Warner and other Hollywood studios showed the American people "how the Navy and Army Air Corps trained for their anticipated missions," said Suid, who added, "from the film industry’s point of view, these pseudo-documentary movies enabled the studios to put popular actors into military settings where the film-makers could combine usually exciting flying sequences with the obligatory romantic interludes." A typical Warner entry of this type was Lloyd Bacon’s Wings of the Navy (1939). Set in the extensive Pensacola and San Diego naval air stations, the picture demonstrated how the U.S. Navy trained its flyers for service. "Wings of the Navy is a convincer to mould public opinion and support in favor of current Government plans for wide expansion of American air defense forces," said Variety.
Sergeant York (1941), released only months before Pearl Harbor advocated American involvement in the war. Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper, the picture was a biography of Sergeant Alvin York, a naïve Tennessee farm boy with deep religious and pacifist convictions who during World War I, changed his attitude under fire and single-handedly killed twenty Germans and compelled the surrender of 132 in the Argonne. Hollywood had tried to film York’s story for more than twenty years. Jesse L. Lasky, independent producer, finally persuaded York to permit an authorized motion picture of his life. Warner Brothers furthered the project by financing and distributing the film. Scripted by a platoon of four writers - Abem Finkel, Harry Chandlee, Howard Koch, and John Huston, the picture "is as timely as a White House fireside chat, a moving and effective presentation in thrilling entertainment terms of what is meant by the American way of life, understood and lived by people on American soil," said Variety.
"Pearl Harbor rendered the debate over American participation in the war moot and opened the floodgates for the production of movies about the American experience in World War II," said Suid. Warner’s initial strategy in producing films about World War II entailed the spotlighting of the various branches of the armed forces. Lloyd Bacon’s Action in the North Atlantic (1943) was a testimonial to the men and officers of the Merchant Marine. Delmer Daves’ Destination Tokyo (1943) described a heroic mission of a U.S. Navy submarine. Howard Hawks’ Air Force (1943), a story of a Flying Fortess--"The Mary Ann"--was the best of the lot. Scripted by Dudley Nichols, with technical assistance from Captain Samuel Triffy, Air Force was similar to another World War II classic, Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve, a saga of a British Battleship.
"A classic action-adventure-combat movie," Air Force depicted a crew that contained "an ethnic and geographical cross section of the nation, except for a black," said Suid. "The pilot, Captain Michael Quincannon (John Ridgely), is happily married with a wife who will be waiting for him. The co-pilot, Lieutenant Bill Williams (Gig Young), has a girl waiting for him to arrive in Hawaii. The girl is the sister of the bombardier, Lieutenant Tommy McMarten (Arthur Kennedy). The navigator, Lieutenant Mark Hauser (Charles Drake), tries to hide the fact that his father was a famous World War I pilot. The assistant crew chief, Corporal B.B. Weinberg (George Tobias), is a Jew from Brooklyn. The new aerial gunner, Sergeant Joe Winocki (John Garfield) is an embittered, washed out pilot about to leave the service," said Suid. In an attempt to generalize the significance of the plot, Variety said, "The affection of the members of the crew of the ‘Mary Ann’ is genuine, manly and sentimental. It points to a type of team-work which may well be construed as a pattern for all Americans in the manner in which our teamwork, on the home-front and the battle-fronts, will achieve the ultimate victory."
In 1945, Warner released Raoul Walsh’s Objective Burma, a controversial picture that highlighted a paratroop contingent dropped behind the Japanese lines in Burma to destroy a radar station. Because the picture suggested that American forces reclaimed Burma single-handedly, it created a furor in Great Britain that had the country’s Lord Chancellor banning its release and had the British Press seething with rage," said Sennett.
Another type of war film that Warner (and every other studio) produced was "the melodrama depicting the courageous resistance and defiance of many Europeans under the heel of the Nazis," said Sennett. Warner produced over twelve such films. Lewis Milestone’s Edge of Darkness (1943), adapted by Robert Rossen from William Woods’ novel, depicted "the occupied Norwegian town of Trollness and the bloody struggle of the towns people to raid and destroy their oppressors", said Sennett. Herman Shumlin’s Watch on the Rhine (1943), adapted by Dashiell Hammett from Lillian Hellman’s hit Broadway play of 1940-41, depicted a heroic German (Paul Lukas) living in Washington who returns to Germany to fight fascism. Michael Curtiz’s Passage to Marseilles (1944), adapted by Casey Robinson and Jack Moffitt from a novel by Nordhoff and Hall, described the activities of the free French, some of whom were escaped prisoners from Devil’s Island.
The most memorable of these resistance films were Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) and Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944). The former, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, "has become a legend, a cult, and perhaps the single Warners movie most cherished by film-goers," said Sennett. (Unfortunately, the screenplay to this picture cannot be included in this screenplay series because the publication rights are not available). The latter picture, which also starred Humphrey Bogart, has become an "unpretentious masterpiece," said Kawin. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s best-selling novel published in 1937, To Have and Have Not was a collaboration of three fine writers--Howard Hawks, Jules Furtham, and William Faulkner. The screenwriters changed the setting of the story from Cuba to the Caribbean island of French Martinique and re-wrote the action to focus on the conflict between the Free French and Vichy government. To Have and Have Not introduced Lauren Bacall to the screen and shared many similarities with Casablanca.
Warner produced resistance films until the very end of the war. The last entry, Peter Godfrey’s Hotel Berlin (1945), adapted by Jo Pagano and Alvah Bessie from Vicki Baum’s novel, took the action to Nazi headquarters in Berlin. "The war’s already lost--or, at least, there’s that defeatist aura about Hotel Berlin--and the Nazi higher-ups are packing their loot for a South American getaway already plotting World War III, with a plan ‘to be more skillful next time when we attempt to create unrest in North America’," said Variety.
Warner’s most controversial war film and the only one of its kind made by the studio was Michael Curtiz’s Mission to Moscow (1943), a pro-Soviet picture. The impetus to produce the picture was the result of U.S. policy. As David Culbert put it, "Widespread distrust of the Soviet Union in the face of a wartime alliance explains why Washington was so receptive to Hollywood films with pro-Soviet themes, such as Sam Goldwyn’s North Star (1943), MGM’s Song of Russia (1943), and the official Battle of Russia (1943), which was part of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series made for the United States Army." The Government did not tell Warner to make a pro-Soviet film, but as Culbert put it, circumstances suggest "that those who made the film did so because they believed it was at the special request of the president."
Mission to Moscow purported to be a factual account of Ambassador Joseph E. Davies’ service in the Soviet Union from 1936 to 1938. Davies’ book, which was ghost written, appeared late in 1941, sold over seven hundred thousand copies in English and was translated into thirteen languages. In acquiring the motion-picture rights to this property, Warner had to grant Davies absolute control over the production. Stylistically, the picture looked like a documentary--"Hollywood’s initial effort at living history," as Variety described it. For example, the picture used look-a-likes for Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and Davies, and recreated historical events, such as Stalin’s purge trials of 1937.
The film, as might be expected, generated an enormous amount of controversy. For example, John Dewey, the noted philosopher stated that Mission to Moscow "is the first instance in our country of totalitarian propaganda for mass consumption--a propaganda which falsifies history through distortion, omission or pure invention of facts." Looking back at the picture, Culbert said Mission to Moscow rewrote internal Soviet history: "The film justified acts of aggression; it created a consistent foreign policy where none existed; and most important, it explained Stalin’s liquidation of all conceivable internal opposition through a series of purge trials in the 1930’s as necessary to weed out Nazi fifth columnists." The film’s "wholesale rewriting of history," Culbert concludes, "its use of visual innuendo, and its explicit appeal to facts known to be incorrect make it a significant document of World War II America."
As the war in Europe ended and as the Japanese defeat appeared inevitable, Hollywood believed the days of the war film were numbered. To sustain the genre, studios dealt with the transition of servicemen from war to peace. The best example of this type was William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), produced by independent producer Sam Goldwyn. Warner’s Pride of the Marines (1945) was an early version of the type. Directed by Delmer Daves and scripted by Albert Maltz, the picture depicted a blind veteran--an actual hero named Al Schmid--who won the Navy Cross for defending a machine gun post on Guadalcanal.
When peace finally came, "film-makers faced the question of how soon the public would again be ready to spend money to see World War II fought on the screen," said Suid. Warner attempted to rekindle interest by producing Task Force in 1949. Directed and written by Delmer Daves, "the film … contains a strong implicit Navy message that aircraft carriers won the war in the Pacific and can protect the nation against any further aggression," said Suid. Task Force, Suid added, "became the first major film made with large-scale military assistance to bring World War II to American theaters. Using extensive Navy combat footage, the movie portrayed the reality of war in ways no special effects men could ever hope to." Task Force and other Hollywood pictures such as Republic’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Twentieth Century-Fox’s Twelve O’Clock High (1949) recreated the market for war movies that lasted until the sixties.
Culbert, David, ed. Mission to Moscow. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
Jacobs, Lewis. The Rise of the American Film. New York: Teachers College Press, 1939.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Shindler, Colin. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
Suid, Lawrence, H., ed. Air Force. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
__________. Guts and Gory. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978.
Variety Film Reviews. New York: Garland, 1983.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Brothers Gold Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.
Introduction - Westerns
"The Western is without question the richest and most enduring genre of Hollywood’s repertoire. Its concise heroic story and elemental visual appeal render it the most flexible of narrative formulas, and its life span has been as long and varied as Hollywood’s own," said Thomas Schatz. During the silent film era, Westerns peaked in popularity around 1926-27. When talkies took over, the genre suffered "a resounding setback." "The genre seemed somehow ‘symbolic’ of the silent era, and therefore something to be shunned; Westerns seemed to offer little opportunity for the full exploitation of the new medium," said Fenin and Everson. Technology also played a part in the decline. Early sound equipment was cumbersome and expensive, ruling out rugged location shooting. As a result, the rich Western genre of the tens and twenties, which had spawned William S. Hart, Tom Mix, and Ken Maynard, was relegated to a minor role in the studio system.
During the transition to sound, Hollywood produced only a handful of important large-scale Westerns: King Vidor’s Billy the Kid (MGM, 1930), Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (Fox, 1930), and Wesley Ruggles’ Cimarron (RKO, 1931). Although this cycle of "A" Westerns was short-lived, they demonstrated the endurance of the genre and paved the way for the boom period of the "B" Western from 1932 to 1942.
Following the practices of the majors, Warner confined itself mainly to low-budget programmers (the name given to "B" films) throughout most of the thirties. The few exceptions to this policy consisted of Reginald Barker’s The Great Divide (1930), Frank Lloyd’s The Lash (1930), and Michael Curtiz’s River’s End (1931). The Great Divide was based on the venerable stage play by William Vaughn Moody. The production did not transcend its theatrical origins: "Mediocre photography, stilted direction, colorless acting and the use of cheap, unnatural settings, many of them miniatures, contributed to the entertainment weakness," said Variety. The Lash, based on the novel Adios! by Lanier and Virginia Stivers, was a vehicle for Richard Barthelmess who played a Spanish Robin Hood during the American conquest of lower California in 1848. River’s End, taken from the novel by James Oliver Curwood, depicted a Canadian Northwest mountie played by Charles Bickford.
The "B" Western was mass produced by all the major studios--save MGM--and a host of Poverty Row companies such as Monogram, Republic, Resolute, and Puritan. A favorite of juvenile audiences, this type of picture drew large crowds at neighborhood and rural theaters. When the cycle of "B" Westerns peaked in 1939, "more Western stars than at any other period in movie history were all working simultaneously … . No less than thirty Western stars … were grinding out groups of eight Westerns a year each, making a total of 240 "B" Westerns in a given year," said Fenin and Everson.
Warner entered the "B" Western market in 1932 by producing a series of John Wayne pictures. A newcomer to the movies, Wayne had received favorable notices in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail. After working briefly for Columbia, Wayne signed with Warner to work under Leon Schlessinger, the cartoon-maker, who took on the assignment of producing a series of Westerns. Many of these pictures recalled the adventurous spirit of the silent Fred Thomas films; all were given fairly decent production values, good casts, and directors to establish Wayne as a young and likable sagebrush hero. Haunted Gold (1932), the first and best of the series, became the prototype. This quickie was shot in a week combining new footage with action shots from Ken Maynard features of the twenties and had a running time of a brisk fifty-seven minutes.
Most of the "B" Westerns in the early thirties were simple, action-filled affairs. Later in the decade, the musical Western became popular. Republic Pictures initiated the cycle by producing a series of Gene Autry pictures beginning in 1935. Billed as "The Singing Cowboy," Autry achieved tremendous popularity and put Republic on the map. "Naturally, the immediate success of Republic’s musical Westerns prompted copies from other studios. Usually imitations cannot help but be inferior to the original, but in this case there was an exception to the rule," said Fenin and Everson.
This exception was the Dick Foran singing cowboy series made by Warner’s B-unit producer, Bryan Foy. In Fenin and Everson’s opinion, Foran "was not only vastly superior to Autry as a singer, but he was a much better actor." Foran’s pictures such as Moonlight on the Prairie (1936), Cherokee Strip (1937), and Land Beyond the Law (1937), "were exceptionally fine low-budget Westerns, well written and refreshingly free from low comedy," they added.
The Class "A" Western came back into vogue in 1939, the result of a cluster of hits that included John Ford’s Stagecoach (United Artists), Henry King’s Jesse James (20th-Fox) and Cecil B. De Mille’s Union Pacific (Paramount). Unlike previous "A" Westerns, the new ones glamorized the outlaw. As Fenin and Everson point out, "Outlaws had been presented on the screen before in at least a partially sympathetic light, but now the tendency was almost apologetic, and sought to prove that virtually all of the West's most notorious badmen had been forced into a life of crime by a combination of unfortunate circumstances, not the least of which were the activities of crooked law enforcement officers."
Warner’s "whitewashed bandit" pictures included Lloyd Bacon’s The Oklahoma Kid (1939) and Ray Enright’s Badmen of Missouri (1941). In both pictures Warner used the gambit of taking stars out of their usual element and placing them in new surroundings for the sake of novelty. In The Oklahoma Kid, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart were transferred from the milieu of the streets to the dusty trails of the old West. Cagney played the title role of a tough, independent-minded, but basically honest gunman who became involved in the race to open up the Oklahoma Territory to settlers.
In Badmen of Missouri, Warner glorified the exploits of the Younger Brothers, a daring band of desperadoes operating in Missouri during the post-Civil War years. Dennis Morgan, best known for his light comedy roles, played one of the brothers. "It’s strictly a shoot-‘em-up action melee with plenty of excitement injected along the way, making for a programme that will find tough riding," said Variety.
On the heels of The Oklahoma Kid, Warner released Michael Curtiz’s Technicolor extravaganza Dodge City, the first of eight big-budget Westerns starring Errol Flynn. All explored "19th century Americana for historical themes around which to hang screen yarns," said Variety. An Australian by birth, Flynn had catapulted to stardom in a series of adventure and romance roles that included Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Despite his British mannerisms, Flynn made an ideal Western film hero.
Dodge City (which is not included in this series because the rights are unavailable) contained the classic plot of the genre: "the struggle between fighting cattlemen who want their share of the land and the corrupt ‘boss’ of Dodge City … who controls the town and the territory around it and is determined to wipe out the cattlemen," said Sennett.
The success of this picture stimulated Warner to produce a series of "towntaming" vehicles for Flynn in quick succession. Michael Curtiz’s Virginia City (1940) was a sequel in every sense and even used several still-standing sets from the earlier picture. The film was based on an actual incident that had Flynn playing Kerry Bradford, a Union soldier who escapes from a Confederate prison and is sent West to stop the shipment of $5 million in gold from Virginia City to the South.
In Santa Fe Trail (1940), also directed by Curtiz, Flynn played Jeb Stuart, who later became one of the Confederate’s greatest generals. A total fabrication as history, the picture did not contain the usual villains, such as Indians on the warpath, cattle rustlers, or corrupt politicians. Instead, it made the Abolitionist John Brown the bad guy. Played by Raymond Massey, Brown was depicted as "a well-meaning but fiery, dangerous fanatic who had to be hanged as a last desperate gesture to keep the Union from splitting in two," said Sennett.
In Raoul Walsh’s They Died with Their Boots On (1942), Flynn depicted General George Armstrong Custer. The time span covered the Civil War, the subsequent opening of the West, and the Indian Wars. Like Santa Fe Trail, the picture played loose with history. "Custer was depicted as a brilliant soldier, sympathetic to the Indians, whose command was ruthlessly massacred in a battle brought on by political chicanery," said Fenin and Everson. The Indians in this picture "were shown as neither ‘noble savages,’ gentle and all-knowing, nor shrieking maniacs. Instead, they were portrayed as a people who turned vindictive and murderous only when their treaty was violated by white scoundrels. This hardly constituted progress for the screen’s attitude toward Indians, but it was at least a step away from the denigrating cliché of old," said Sennett. After Boots Flynn’s vehicles became increasingly routine. Director Raoul Walsh and star Errol Flynn worked together for the last time on Silver River (1948)--"a rather tedious effort with a mundane script and rather limpid performances," said Variety.
After 1945, the Western experienced "an astonishing array of new trends, cycles, and changes of format," said Fenin and Everson. The psychological Western prevailed in the immediate post-war period. Warner’s entries included a masterpiece, Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), written and directed by John Huston, and two interesting entries, Pursued (1947) and Colorado Territory (1949), both directed by Raoul Walsh.
Based on B. Travern’s novel published in this country in 1935, Treasure depicted three down-and-out Americans, played by Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, and Tim Holt, who set out to prospect for gold in the Mexican mountains. This was Huston’s second directing assignment for the studio. Starting out as a screenwriter at Warner, earning credits on such pictures as Jezebel, Juarez, Sergeant York, and High Sierra, Huston made his directorial debut when Jack Warner allowed him to direct his own adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). "That film, made at virtually the same time as Citizen Kane, gave him a debut almost as impressive as Orson Welles’," said James Naremore. Naremore went on to say that "By choosing Treasure [Huston] was returning to the same themes he had explored in The Maltese Falcon. Once again he was adapting a tough, ‘masculine’ novel about a group of characters in search of a treasure; once again the search ends in ironic failure … once again the quest for riches enables the director to depict a paradoxical blend of human greed, ingenuity, and resilience; and once again the behavior of a small, eccentric group at the margin of ordinary society becomes the vehicle for a satire of the whole culture."
Huston won two Academy Awards for Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for best direction and best screenplay. His father, Walter Huston, won the Oscar for best supporting actor. The New York Film Critics voted the picture best film of the year and gave the best director award to Huston.
Although not a Western in the conventional sense, Treasure greatly influenced the later development of the genre. The psychological interest in Treasure resides in Dobbs, the Humphrey Bogart character, a pathetic obsessive man who "betrays the group out of selfishness, fear, and neurosis," said Naremore. In Pursued, Robert Mitchum played a similar neurotic character described as a "strangely badgered hero" gnawed by a "dark and desperate apprehension," said the New York Times. Based on an original script by Niven Busch, Pursued takes place in New Mexico Territory at the turn of the century. As the action begins, the hero is waiting to be hanged. Then in flashback he relates that a mysterious stranger has been tracking him over the years for a crime committed by his father. At the end, a recollection comes to him like a bolt and clears up the mystery.
Colorado Territory was a reworking of High Sierra, the Humphrey Bogart-Ida Lupino gangster picture that Walsh directed for Warner in 1941. As described by Parish and Pitts, Joel McCrea in the later version plays "a bandit sprung from jail by his gang. He soon meets a nice girl and decides to plan one last job, a train robbery in order to insure their future. He discovers, however, that the girl has betrayed him and the train is full of lawmen. He and his faithful half-breed companion, Virginia Mayo, head for the hills where he dies on a high ledge of a canyon wall." Fenin and Everson describe the psychological angle of the picture this way: "Hero and heroine seemed pursued throughout by an inevitable and malevolent destiny: circumstances were always against them, and despite their innate goodness and a determination to ‘go straight,’ it was just not to be." Describing the gloomy ending, they said, "cornered by the sheriff’s posse, the heroine shoots at the pursuers, deliberately draws the posse’s fire, and she and the hero Joel McCrea die in a bullet-ridden embrace."
Warner’s other Westerns after the war were decidedly mediocre. The studio attempted to sustain the genre by tailoring properties to Joel McCrea and even to Dennis Morgan, but the efforts failed to repeat the excitement and appeal of the Errol Flynn pictures. The fault did not reside exclusively with Warner. Audience tastes were changing, but precisely how, Hollywood had yet to figure out.
Fenin, George N. and Everson, William K. The Western: From Silents to the Seventies. New York: Grossman, 1973.
Nachbar, Jack, ed. Focus on the Western. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Naremore, James, ed. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Parish, James Robert and Pitts, Michael R. The Great Western Pictures. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1976.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Variety Film Reviews. New York: Garland Press, 1983 -.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Bros. Golden Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.
Introduction - Comedy
Warner’s reputation during the thirties and forties rested mainly on gangster pictures, social consciousness films, and weepy melodramas. For comedies, one would have to look to Paramount, which had on its roster such gifted comedians as W.C. Fields, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers, to Columbia, which produced the screwball comedies of Frank Capra, and to RKO, which fabricated the sophisticated comedies of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, among others. Nonetheless, Warner managed to turn out a brand of film comedy uniquely its own.
During the Depression, the studio turned for inspiration to the common man by producing a series of "low-life" comedies. As Sennett described it, "Keeping their overworked stock company on a treadmill, Warners produced a block of "low-life" comedies in the first part of the thirties. Brief (very few of them ran much over an hour), sassy, and often abrasive, they were enjoyable to watch … . Viewed against the background of their time, these movies are surprisingly effective; taut, sardonic, trimly turned-out little films about venal, grasping, often disreputable people."
Several of these pictures played off Jimmy Cagney’s popularity as a gangster. In Roy Del Ruth’s Blonde Crazy (1931), Cagney is a con artist who meets his match in a sharp-tongued blonde (Joan Blondell). Released on the heels of Public Enemy, the gangster picture that made Cagney a star, Blonde Crazy was written by the same team of screenwriters--Kubec Glasmon and John Bright. Audiences must have expected Cagney to treat women in this picture as harshly as he did Mae Clark in Public Enemy but as Variety said, "he doesn’t push a grapefruit in the girl friend’s face, although they expect it at any time. The bulk of the slapping is on the reverse end this trip, the girl delivering. She slaps Cagney’s face a dozen times or so. After a while the smacks are used in place of tag lines on most of the gags". In Mervyn LeRoy’s Hard to Handle (1933), Cagney is a press agent who promotes a dance marathon, among other come ons. And in Lloyd Bacon’s Picture Snatcher (1933), Cagney is a tabloid photographer caught up in a series of mishaps.
Capitalizing on the success of its gold digger musicals, Warner paired Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell in Ray Enright’s Havana Widows (1933). As Variety described it, "Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell are out on the loose as gold diggers again in the spicy surroundings of Havana undergoing an invincible sequence of circumstances."
During the Depression, Warner also produced a series of slapstick comedies tailored for Joe E. Brown. "With his beady eyes, cavernous mouth, and air of amiable idiocy, Brown appeared in twenty-three films at the studio, from his debut in On With the Show (1929) to Polo Joe (1936). Heavily laced with slapstick, these low-budget entries were dismissed by the critics, but they were liked by most audiences," said Sennett.
Two Joe E. Brown pictures are included in this screenplay series--Alibi Ike (1935) and Earthworm Tractors (1936), both directed by Ray Enright. Based on a Ring Lardner baseball story, Alibi Ike was typical of several Brown pictures in that it used a sports background with Joe as a bumbling fool who accidentally achieves a victory. Alibi Ike, said Sennett, "was a genial if ramshackle little comedy with a measure of enjoyment even for filmgoers who were not Joe E. Brown fans." Earthworm Tractors was based on the Alexander Botts character, super-tractor salesman, who had been providing "entertainment fodder" for the readers of the Saturday Evening Post for years, said Variety.
Comedy took a surprising turn in 1934, said Thomas Schatz, when Hollywood produced two of the most critically and commercially successful romantic comedies in its history, Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century (screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur) and Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (screenplay by Robert Riskin). Released within a few months of each other, the films marked the culmination of a type of screen comedy popularized during the early sound era--"fast paced, witty comedy of manners exploiting the foibles of America’s leisure class."
Since Warner’s stars lacked the urbane sophistication of Cary Grant or the deft comedy of Carole Lombard or Rosalind Russell, the studio did not excel in this type of comedy. However, it made several good attempts, such as Archie Mayo’s It’s Love I’m After (1937), starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis; Mervyn LeRoy’s Foot for Scandal (1938) starring Carole Lombard (whom Warner borrowed from MGM), and William Keighley’s The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), starring Bette Davis and James Cagney. A virtual reproduction of Capra’s It Happened One Night, Warner’s version depicted a crusty aristocrat (Eugene Pallette) who opposes his daughter’s betrothal to an obnoxious playboy (Jack Carson). This opposition initiates her flight/kidnapping by a streetwise working stiff whom she eventually marries with her father’s blessing", said Schatz. Bette Davis was cast against type. As Variety said, "In handing Miss Davis a comedy assignment, Warners go all out in also making her the victim of continual physical and mental violence. She’s dirtied up in a mine; acquires three doses of cacti needles in periodic falls; and even exposes her posterior as target for well-directed shots from Cagney’s improvised slingshot. Slapping around of one of film’s outstanding dramatic actresses accentuates audience reaction to the slapstick situations."
In June Bride (1948), one of her last films for Warner, Davis played a role more in keeping with her screen persona. In this romantic comedy, Davis is Linda Gilmen, glamorous, efficient editor of Home Life magazine "who does stereotyped articles on before-and-after houses and people. Playing opposite her, Robert Montgomery is a star reporter and former lover in this example of the "boss lady" school of romantic comedy.
Warner’s principal strategy after 1935 to meet the requirements for comedy on its roster was to produce adaptations of successful Broadway plays. As Sennett put it, "By the end of the decade and into the ‘forties, most of the leading comedies that had managed substantial runs in New York were brought up by Warners to become major films with (hopefully) built in audience interest and appeal. Eventually there was hardly any successful or even moderately successful Broadway comedy that was not also a Warners film."
Three Men on a Horse (1936), a classic of the popular American stage by George Abbott and John Cecil Holm started the cycle. Three Men on a Horse "was an amicable knockout farce about Erwin Trowbridge, a simple minded writer of greeting card verse who becomes entangled with racing gamblers because he can pick winners," said Sennett. As scripted by Laird Doyle and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, the play reached the screen practically unaltered.
Anatole Litvak’s Tovarich (1937), based on Robert E. Sherwood’s translation of the Jacques Deval play, came next. Scripted by Casey Robinson, the film starred Claudette Colbert and Charles Boyer who played one-time members of the Czarist imperial household forced to take jobs as servants in the home of a Parisian banker. Neither high comedy nor low, the film has been described as something in a pleasant middle ground.
Lloyd Bacon’s Boy Meets Girl (1938), a 1936 Broadway smash by Sam and Bella Spewack, teamed up James Cagney and Pat O’Brien to play a pair of screenwriters who, just for laughs, write a scene-stealing infant into the studio’s horse operas. Adapted for the screen by the Spewacks, the film was a big hit. As reported by David Pratt, "A number of New York papers carped about the film not being as biting as the stage play. Variety coined the term "joebreened" to describe the diluting the comedy underwent to get past the Hays Office’s chief censor. Several thought the cast was less than an ideal concession to the star system. None of this mattered, however, to the motion picture goers around the country who flocked to see Hollywood make fun of itself."
Following Boy Meets Girl, Warner assigned the screenwriting team of Julius and Philip Epstein the job of adapting Broadway comedies. Although the Epstein brothers are best known for their work on the Academy Award-winning script for Casablanca, they specialized in comedy throughout most of the forties.
The Epsteins’ first adaptation of a hit Broadway comedy was S.N. Behrman’s No Time for Comedy (1940). For the adaptation, Warner acquired James Stewart and Rosalind Russell on loanout. As directed by William Keighley, the picture presented these two great performers in their prime. "James Stewart is Gaylord Esterbrook, a budding playwright. By substituting duchesses, financiers, and Park Avenue for the rural characters and settings of his amateur community theater play, Esterbrook creates a Broadway hit. Rosalind Russell is Linda Page, the stage star who is charmed by his wholesome innocence (what else?) and who sticks by him through the tribulation that goes with sudden success," said Chisholm.
The same year as No Time for Comedy, the Epsteins adapted Maxwell Anderson’s play from the twenties, Saturday’s Children about "youthful romance and [a] young couple’s tour through financial straits and marital difficulties which send them to the separation," said Variety. Directed by Vincent Sherman, the picture featured John Garfield and Anne Shirley.
The Epsteins’ next effort, The Strawberry Blonde (1941), was set in the turn of the century, unlike Warner’s other Broadway adaptations. Based on the James Hagan play, One Sunday Afternoon, the adaptation was directed by Raoul Walsh and starred Jimmy Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, and Rita Hayworth. Strawberry Blonde "was a financial and critical success upon its initial release and is revived frequently on television. This success is no doubt due to the delightful performances of the fine cast and the assiduous detail in recreating a serio-comic look at New York City during the ‘Gay Nineties,’ which is the setting of the romantic comedy," said Sue Pearson. (Raoul Walsh directed a musical version of the Hagan play under its original title in 1948 that starred Dennis Morgan and Janice Page.)
With The Male Animal (1942), the Epsteins returned to the contemporary scene. Directed by Elliott Nugent from his own play (co-authored with James Thurber), The Male Animal "was an amusing and--from today’s vantage point--sweetly innocent tale of an English professor (Henry Fonda) who gets into serious trouble with the university authorities over the reading of a controversial letter by Vanzetti to his class," said Sennett.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the Epsteins’ next adaptation, had enjoyed a long run of 739 performances on Broadway and had toured the country with numerous companies. This famous play was a thinly disguised lampoon of Alexander Woolcott, the celebrated drama and culture critic. "A man of biting wit and self-confident erudition, it was he who started the famous Algonquin Table attended by Kaufman, Harpo Marx, Noel Coward, Ben Hecht, Robert E. Sherwood, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Parker and many more celebrities of the theater world and film industry," said Mathew Bernstein. Directed by William Keighley "substantially as hundreds of thousands of legit theatergoers saw it," said Variety, the picture starred Monty Woolley, who repeated his stage role as author Sheridan Whiteside. As Variety described the action, Whiteside "is inveigled to dinner at a home in a small Ohio town, where he slips on the front steps injuring his hip. He’s confined to a wheelchair there for three weeks and, his witty insults, domineering talk and meddling in the affairs of his secretary and of the unfortunate family with whom he is staying brings havoc upon all."
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) by Joseph Kesselring, the play that concluded Warner’s Broadway adaptations, enjoyed an incredible run of three and a half years. To bring the play to the screen in 1944, Warner signed Frank Capra to produce and direct and Cary Grant to star. Another classic of the popular American theater, Arsenic and Old Lace was an antic farce about two sweet, kindly old spinsters who poison old gentlemen looking for lodgings. In the movie, Josephine Hull repeated her stage role as Aunt Abbey and Jean Adair as her role as Aunt Martha. (Unfortunately, this screenplay cannot be included in this series because the publication rights are unavailable).
The comedies that Warner produced afterwards, "were sadly devoid of wit or style, or even the bracing nastiness of the ‘low-life’ comedies," said Sennett. Nonetheless, Warner’s output of comedies taken as a whole though hardly distinguished, enlivened the genre.
Durgnat, Raymond. The Crazy Mirror. New York: The Horizon Press, 1970.
Schatz, Thomas. Hollywood Genres. New York: Random House, 1981.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Variety Film Reviews. New York: Garland, 1983.
Velvet Light Trap. Program Notes, "Warner Brothers Comedies: 1935-1941" by Matthew Berstein, Brad Chisholm, Sue Pearson, and David Pratt.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Bros. Golden Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.
Introduction - Prestige Pictures: Adventure/Biography/Classics
Although Warner’s reputation during the thirties rested on contemporary subjects, the studio increasingly produced costume dramas and prestige productions of one kind or another throughout the decade. The pictures can be arranged for convenience into three types: adventure, biography (biopic), and classics. Although these pictures represented only a small fraction of Warner’s annual output, they were assigned a sizeable portion of the production budget and played a crucial role in enhancing the image of the studio.
Warner started producing prestige pictures early into the sound period but it was not until 1936, with The Story of Louis Pasteur, Anthony Adverse, and The Charge of the Light Brigade, that the studio seemed to get the formula right. "Thereafter the pattern was set for the rest of the decade," said Rodddick. "Energies were concentrated on one major prestige production per year, which almost invariably turned out to be Warner’s most successful movie--The Life of Emile Zola (three Oscars) in 1937, The Adventures of Robin Hood (three Oscars) in 1938, Juarez (one Oscar) in 1939".
Prestige pictures served as important vehicles for Warner’s stars. The early biographies starred George Arliss who, along with John Barrymore, was the studio’s major recruit from the legitimate stage during the transition to sound. The later biopics were vehicles for Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson. Similarly the rash of Merrie England pictures produced during the second half of the decade were tailored for Errol Flynn.
Warner initiated its strategy to reach a broader market in 1929 when it produced the first of three George Arliss pictures--Alfred Green’s Disraeli, based on the play by Louis N. Parker. A renowned actor of the British and American stage, Arliss, age sixty-one, had played the role in American and foreign theatrical productions and in a silent movie version. Disraeli was an enormous hit, and enjoyed long runs in New York and larger cities. The other two pictures, however, fared poorly.
Arnliss played title roles in Alexander Hamilton (1931)--based on a play by Arliss and Mary Hamlin that Arliss had performed fourteen years earlier--and in Voltaire (1933), based on a play by George Gibbs and E. Lawrence Dudley. Both pictures were directed by John Adolphi and both failed to "recapture the charm of Disraeli," said Variety. Arliss’ acting style had become outmoded. For example, Variety’s assessment of Alexander Hamilton stated: "Trouble is the whole thing is timed theatrical make believe, framed by an actor for audiences of a day when Little Lord Fauntleroy was a juvenille hero instead of comedy relief, and youngsters hissed heavies instead of cheering them."
Warner made its next bid for respectability in 1935 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a reaction of the lavish Shakespearian production staged by Max Reinhardt, the celebrated German metteur en scene, at the Hollywood Bowl during the summer of 1934. Warner’s motivation for transforming the play to the screen was in part a response to the adverse publicity the industry received in 1934 when religious groups called for the censorship of motion pictures. Warner hired Reinhardt to direct the movie and also signed two stars from the Hollywood Bowl production--Olivia de Havilland to play Hermia, and Mickey Rooney to play Puck. To ensure that the production ran smoothly, Warner assigned William Dieterle, Reinhardt’s former assistant, to co-direct. To ensure box office interest, the studio included in the cast many of its familiar contract players, such as James Cagney, Dick Powell, Victor Jory, and Joe E. Brown, among others.
Warner promoted the picture as an all-star spectacular and gave it a roadshow release. The picture opened "simultaneously in New York and London on October 9, 1935; a day later in Paris, Vienna, and Sydney, with a gala opening at the Warners Theatre in Beverly Hills the following week," reported Roddick. Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, congratulated Warner by saying "The production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an event of major importance not only to the motion picture industry but to all those who have cooperated and are now helping in the better picture movement in the United States."
In 1936, Warner produced another unusual picture--The Green Pastures, based on Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize winning play that depicted "the Harlem version of the Old Testament, as the pastor word-paints the mood of ‘De Lawd’ from Genesis to Exodus and beyond," said Variety. The play had enjoyed a five-year run on Broadway and on the road. "Connelly’s fable," said Cripps, "romanticized and memorialized the history of the rural black South that had been decimated by the northern black diaspora and in disarming style, brought it to a broad national white audience for whom black life had been exotic." To produce the movie version, which was basically a replica of the play, Warner hired Connelly to co-direct with William Keighley. Playing the principal roles were Rex Ingram as ‘De Lawd’, Oscar Polk as Gabriel, Eddie Anderson as Noah, and Frank Wilson as Moses. Warner promoted the picture as a long-running American classic in the tradition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Abie’s Irish Rose, and Rip Van Winkle. Although The Green Pastures received lavish praise from the nation’s white magazines, the picture did only moderate business.
Neither A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Green Pastures started new trends. Afterwards, Warner launched a second cycle of biopics and a cycle of costume adventure pictures. In addition, the studio occasionally produced screen adaptations of classic and respected novels and plays, such as Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf (1941), based on the novel by Jack London starring Edward G. Robinson and Irving Rapper’s The Corn is Green (1945) based on the Emlyn Williams play about a Welsh schoolmarm, Miss Moffat (Bette Davis), who discovers and nurtures a gifted young coal miner.
In reviving the biopic, Warner chose Paul Muni to replace George Arliss as the impersonator of historical figures. "Muni, possibly the most neglected (but also the most dated) major star of the 1930’s," said Roddick, "became ... a kind of thinking man’s Lon Chaney, impersonating the great men of history in a series of thoughtful and intense performances aided by extensive make-up jobs." Muni made three biopics: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and Juarez (1939). All were directed by William Dieterle and followed a single formula, said Variety: "As is usual with films using historical figures as protagonists, the menace is the impersonalized symbolism of ignorance and red tape ... . In each instance the farsighted and heroic central figure fought with narrow-minded and unimaginative defenders of things as they are and won a victory over the obstructive elements."
Pasteur, the prototype, "aimed to make the impact of the hero’s discoveries accessible to audiences who know little and care less about preventive medicine in particular and scientific discoveries in general," said Roddick. The Life of Emile Zola was "a vibrant, tense and emotional story about the man who fought a nation with his pen and successfully championed the case of the exiled French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus. Paul Muni in the title role ... takes up the fight to free Dreyfus and purge the French army general staff of deceit and conspiracy," said Variety. Zola won an Oscar for best picture. Screenwriters Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herezeg also won an Oscar for best screenplay. Juarez depicted the creation of Napoleon III’s puppet regime in Mexico headed by Maximilian von Hapsburg and the overthrow of the regime by Benito Pablo Juarez. More than a re-enactment of the Mexican Revolution, or a tribute to its beleagured hero, Juarez, produced during the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, was also "meant as a cautionary warning to tyrants and dictators who would destroy the ‘little people’," said Sennett.
In addition to the Paul Muni pictures, Warner produced big-budget biopics for another leading star, Edward G. Robinson. In William Dieterle’s Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, Robinson played Paul Ehrlich, the German doctor, who discovered salvarsan, a remedy for syphilis. The picture was in many respects a remake of Pasteur. Said Roddick, "Robinson’s Paul Ehrlich pursues scientific knowledge with the same missionary zeal as Muni’s Louis Pasteur, bent over a test tube in an unheated laboratory, coughing tubercularly and finally collapsing from overwork. He encounters the same ingrained professional conservatism."
In Dieterle’s A Dispatch from Reuters, Robinson played Julius Reuter, the German founder of the first wire news service which began by using carrier pigeons. By now, the biopic formula utilizing foreign personages had become stale. A Dispatch from Reuters was the swansong of this type of picture. But as Roddick said, "There can be no denying that, during the half-decade in which foreign biopics were Warner’s flagship, they provided an excellent example of how contemporary issues could be transmitted into a narrative formula. Pasteur, Zola, Juarez, and, in pale shadow, Ehrlich and Reuter were second generation New Dealers before their time."
Warner thereafter concentrated its biopic efforts on American biographies. Warner started out with Lloyd Bacon’s Knute Rockne - All American (1940), a tribute to Notre Dame’s famous football coach, starring Pat O’Brien. The studio then made Raoul Walsh’s Gentleman Jim (1942), based on the life of James J. Corbett starring Errol Flynn. Irving Rapper’s Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), which starred Fredric March, concluded the cycle.
Warner’s other biopics depicted David Garrick, the famous British actor [James Whale’s The Great Garrick (1937)], Mrs. Leslie Carter, the American actress, and her relationship with Broadway producer David Belasco [Curtis Bernhardt’s The Lady with Red Hair (1940)], and the Brontë sisters [Curtis Bernhardt's Devotion (1946)]. The final entry in this category is not a biopic in the strict sense. King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (1949), starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, was based on the Ayn Rand bestseller which used an architect (modelled on Frank Lloyd Wright) to represent Rand’s philosophy.
The second cycle of pictures Warner used to enhance its image in the mid-thirties was the swashbuckler, a type of adventure film that no other studio could match for pace, excitement, and professionalism. These pictures were a perfect escapist fare for an audience coming out of the Depression. Said Rudy Behlmer: "Swashbucklers dealt with the heroic virtues. Usually there was an idealized hero defending the honor of a lady in a chivalrous and charming manner. Evil incarnate villains were to be dispatched, but in a ‘romantically violent’ stylized series of action set-pieces that were usually rendered with less than graphic reality. Color, dash, romantic order, and excitement prevailed, and in the end, of course, there was the triumph of good over evil. Here was audience-wish fulfillment on a grand scale."
The new star Warner developed for this cycle was Errol Flynn. When Warner assigned Flynn to Captain Blood in 1935, the first of the studio’s swashbucklers, Flynn was a twenty-six year old contract player from Australia who had appeared in a few programmes for the studio. With only one exception--Anthony Adverse (1936)--Flynn starred in all the studio’s costume epics until 1940, after which his talents were used mostly in war movies.
The swashbuckling picture attained its first great popularity in the silent era when Douglas Fairbanks produced and starred in The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), and The Black Pirate (1926). Produced for United Artists, these pictures were "the prototypical and quintessential swashbucklers of the screen," said Behlmer. In the early years of the talkies, hits such as The Count of Monte Cristo (Reliance-United Artists) and Treasure Island (MGM), both produced in 1934, revived the formula.
Warner’s swashbuckler cycle lasted five years and contained six Flynn pictures. The films are clearly part of a single market strategy, said Roddick: "They all star Errol Flynn; and, in four of the six, Olivia de Havilland is his co-star … . Five of the films were directed by Michael Curtiz … . It is in theme, however, that the greatest similarities are to be found. In all six, Flynn plays … a man for whom moral and political decisions are unambiguous, and who is provided with the chance to put these decisions into practice through direct physical action."
In Captain Blood (1935), adapted from the Rafael Sabatini novel by Casey Robinson, Flynn plays a doctor turned pirate, leading his "Brotherhood of Buccaneers" to fight against England’s James II. In Charge of the Light Brigade, adapted from the Tennyson poem by Michael Jacoby and Rowland Leigh, Flynn plays Lt. Geoffrey Vickers who leads the British cavalry against the Russians during the Crimean War. In The Prince and the Pauper (1937), adapted from the Mark Twain novel by Laird Doyle, Flynn portrayed Miles Hendon, the soldier who helps to restore young Price Edward to his throne after an exchange of identities with a pauper boy.
Flynn’s next picture, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) "epitomized the studio’s supremacy in the production of rousing adventure films," said Sennett. The vigorous direction by Michael Curtiz, the outstanding original screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Norman Reilly Raine, the excellent casting and the Erich Korngold score received laudatory critical reviews. A classic of this type, Robin Hood "is virtually the studio’s only feature from the 1930’s to retain its power over a general as opposed to a specialized, modern audience," said Roddick. In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Flynn co-starred in a film designed for Bette Davis. The picture was based on the Maxwell Anderson play Elizabeth the Queen, produced by the Theatre Guild which starred Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt in the title roles. Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas MacKenzie’s screenplay toned down Maxwell Anderson’s poetic language but the film still retained a staginess of the original.
The Sea Hawk (1940), Flynn’s final swashbuckler, was based on another Sabatini novel. The plot of the picture was almost entirely formulaic. As Rudy Behlmer said, the picture "is an amalgamation of various elements from the preceding Warner-Flynn epics; a variation, albeit an exceptional one, on a theme (and a tested formula). Captain Blood is present and so is Robin Hood, working amidst the physical assets of Elizabeth and Essex." Errol Flynn, the noble pirate Francis Thorpe, "plunders the Spaniard for booty to help the English Crown" and is "instrumental in saving his country from the Armada." Roddick sees in the depiction of England "threatened by the treacherous might of Spain … a clear parallel to England threatened by the Third Reich, as Elizabeth’s closing speech--more to the camera than to the court--makes clear: When the ruthless determination of one man threatens to engulf the world, it is the duty of all free men…" After The Sea Hawk, the adventure film gave way to Westerns and--after December 1941--to the war films, which depicted a grimmer and more immediate form of heroics.
Behlmer, Rudy, ed. The Adventures of Robin Hood. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
__________. The Sea Hawk. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982.
Cripps, Thomas, ed. The Green Pastures. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979.
Roddick, Nick. A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930’s. London: BFI, 1983.
Sennett, Ted. Warner Brother Presents. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1971.
Variety Film Reviews. New York: Garland, 1983.
Wilson, Arthur, ed. The Warner Bros. Golden Anniversary Book. New York: Dell, 1973.