- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

The most provocative American movie of 1967 was “Bonnie & Clyde.” A Warner Bros. release, it evoked a genre — the Depression-haunted crime thriller — that had become a trademark of the studio when Edward G. Robinson achieved stardom in 1930 with “Little Caesar” and James Cagney emerged a year later as a menacing sensation in “The Public Enemy.”

There was no shortage of time-capsule material when director Arthur Penn needed a Warners clip to establish the historical backdrop for “Bonnie & Clyde.” He chose the opening number from “Gold Diggers of 1933”: Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money” while dressed in an outrageous costume predicated on giant coins.

“Warner Bros. in the Early 1930s,” an 18-film retrospective that will be shown weekends in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Art’s East Building during August, includes at least half a dozen titles that remain definitive classics of the period: “Little Caesar,” “The Public Enemy,” “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” “42nd Street,” “Gold Diggers of 1933” and “Footlight Parade.”

Conveniently, the lineup splits into three crime melodramas and three musicals. The latter, all highlighted by flamboyant production numbers from the feverish, sometimes salacious imagination of choreographer Busby Berkeley, rejuvenated an entire genre in 1933. Hugely popular during the transition to sound in the late 1920s, musicals had been in a slump since 1930 or so, when movie companies began struggling to ride out the Great Depression.

The phenomenal success of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927 had elevated Warner Bros. to the top echelon of Hollywood studios. Having caught many rivals asleep during the transition to talkies in 1928-29, Warners used its resulting profits to acquire a theater chain and property that would become the sprawling Warners lot in Burbank during the next decade. Profits had dwindled by 1930, and losses became an annual burden until 1935.

Nevertheless, Warners adapted to the hard times with wide-awake, cost-cutting realism. While it elicited some derision for its penny pinching in the areas of salary, carpentry and electrical power, it also won respect for the signature narrative and pictorial economies that distinguished it from the luxurious stylization that persisted at Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Double bills began to proliferate during the Depression, and there are several in the National Gallery series, programmed in collaboration with the Library of Congress. All the programs are free, and the double bills commence today with a pair of Edward G. Robinson features, “Five Star Final” and “Two Seconds.”

A hard-nosed impression of yellow journalism, “Five Star Final” was one of the Academy Award finalists for best movie in the competition won by “All Quiet on the Western Front.” It exemplifies the superior but underrated titles in the series. This batch also includes the Robinson vehicle scheduled for Aug. 9: “Tiger Shark,” a Howard Hawks movie set within a vivid, bygone ethnic work environment, the Portuguese-American tuna fishing fleet once based in Monterey, Calif.

The Cagney comedy “Hard to Handle,” which shares the bill with “Public Enemy” a week from today, will also reward discovery. He’s cast as a fast-talking, slippery press agent, one of the character types that absolutely needed sound for optimum realization.

The virtuoso fast talker of the period was probably Lee Tracy, who had a peerless press agent’s role opposite Jean Harlow in “Bombshell” at MGM in 1933. A year earlier, he was at Warners, and this series revives his best vehicle, “Blessed Event.” Mr. Tracy plays a newspaper columnist modeled after Walter Winchell. His pet peeve is a cherubic radio crooner, perfectly embodied by Dick Powell, also a fixture of the Busby Berkeley musicals, in which he was the resident “juvenile” lead and sweetheart for Ruby Keeler.

The series also includes some neglected staples: comedies with Joe E. Brown, Westerns with the young John Wayne, prestige biographical melodramas with George Arliss. Seven of the movies in the series were directed by Mervyn LeRoy, arguably the most resourceful and incisive director on the lot during the era. He brought in “Three on a Match” at 63 minutes, for example, although the plot needs to keep tabs on the separate fates of characters played by Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak and Bette Davis, still a year or two away from becoming the histrionic queen of the Warner lot.

The longest movie in the series is “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Mr. LeRoy was permitted a generous 96 minutes to accommodate Berkeley’s brainstorms, including the “Forgotten Man” finale that echoes the subject matter of “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” also directed by Mr. LeRoy. Not many directors could be caught rambling and woolgathering during the early ‘30s.

Darryl F. Zanuck, a young workhorse who had first proved his value to the studio by producing and writing Rin Tin Tin chase thrillers in the 1920s, was the production chief at Warner Bros. until April 1933. He resigned in a dispute with Harry Warner, who ran corporate affairs out of New York, and Jack L. Warner, who bossed the studio operation in Hollywood and became the brother most visibly identified with the company’s product. Mr. Zanuck soon justified a major production-distribution company of his own, 20th Century-Fox. Warners flourished for another decade with Hal B. Wallis as the production boss.

The retrospective also will retrieve some of the Vitaphone musical shorts that anticipated the transition from silent movies. Warner Bros. hastened the change by entrusting the charismatic Al Jolson with singing and ad-libbing interludes in “The Jazz Singer.” The breakthrough itself had been engineered by the most farsighted and ill-fated of the brothers, Sam, who originally induced the family into film exhibition by becoming fascinated with projectors.

In 1967, Jack L. Warner sold his interest in the company and became the last Warner of Warner Bros. His older brother Albert, the company treasurer for decades, died that year. Jack was the youngest of 12 children born to a Jewish family that began a migration from Poland in 1887. The father, Benjamin, was employed as a cobbler in his first stop, Baltimore. There were nomadic diversions to London, Ontario (Jack’s birthplace) and Youngstown, Ohio, among other ports of call. The Warners owned a butcher shop, an ice cream shop and a bike shop before the movies promised a livelihood.

Mechanically curious and adept, Sam Warner reconditioned a used Edison Kinetoscope machine that transformed the family into traveling exhibitors in 1903. They took their machine to fairs and carnivals before settling into a storefront nickelodeon in New Castle, Pa. The later family division of labor was already pretty much prefigured at this early locale: Harry and Albert looked after the nickels, Sam ran the projector, and Jack, a boy soprano, warbled between shows. His interludes also were intended to clear the house for a fresh batch of customers.

Always the technical innovator, Sam devoted himself to synchronized sound after the Warners acquired the old Vitagraph studio in New York in 1925. It became the headquarters for experiments with musical shorts, using a sound-on-disc system called Vitaphone, engineered in collaboration with Western Electric. Though ultimately supplanted by optical sound technology in the 1930s, Vitaphone was the process that doomed silent movies by allowing Al Jolson to astonish audiences in “The Jazz Singer.” The movie’s debut in New York on Oct. 6, 1927, was haunted by the sort of tragedy usually associated with tear-jerking melodrama: Sam Warner died at the age of 39 on the day before that historic premiere.

EVENT: Movie retrospective series “Warner Bros. in the Early ‘30s”

WHERE: East Building auditorium of the National Gallery of Art

WHEN: Weekends in August, starting today and concluding Aug. 31

ADDRESS: Constitution Avenue and Fourth Street NW

TICKETS: Free, but an early arrival is advisable

PHONE: 202/737-4215


TODAY: “Five Star Final” and “Two Seconds,” 2:30 p.m.

Tomorrow: “42nd Street,” 4 p.m.

Aug. 9: “Tiger Shark,” 12:30 p.m.; “The Public Enemy” and “Hard To Handle,” 2 p.m.

Aug. 10: “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain” and “Little Caesar,” 4 p.m.

Aug. 16: “Wild Boys of the Road” and “Heroes For Sale,” 2 p.m.

Aug. 17: “Blessed Event” and “Employee’s Entrance,” 4 p.m.

Aug. 23: “Union Depot” and “Gold Diggers of 1933,” 2 p.m.

Aug. 24: “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” 4 p.m.

Aug. 30: “Night Nurse” and “Three on a Match,” 2 p.m.

Aug. 31: “Footlight Parade,” 4 p.m.

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