erik lundegaard

Tuesday July 04, 2023

Movie Review: 100 Years of Warner Bros. (2023)

The brothers Warner: Sam, Harry, Jack and Albert. Sam was the visionary, Harry the businessman. Jack was the shvontz.


At first, I was pleasantly surprised.

Yes, it’s a four-part documentary on Warner Bros., produced by Warner Bros., and so a little self-congratulatory. But they got Morgan Freeman to narrate; and in that first episode, which takes us from the studio’s creation in 1923 until the late 1960s, when the last Warner, Jack, finally stepped down, they don’t ignore the bad shit: the blackface of “The Jazz Singer”; Jack taking credit—and the Oscar—for “Casablanca”; the cravenness of Jack before HUAC; Jack wresting control of the company from his two remaining brothers, possibly leading to the death of Harry in 1958. OK, so the problem was mostly Jack. James Cagney used to call him the Shvontz, Yiddish for “prick,” and the doc doesn’t ignore or whitewash any of it. That’s kind of cool.

And then the deeper we get into the series, and the closer we get to the present, the ickier it becomes.

CEOs come and go
I guess the second episode (late ’60s to early ’80s) isn’t bad. Merged with 7 Arts, and floundering, Warner Bros. was purchased by a gregarious former car salesman named Steve Ross, whose main question was: Do we still make movies? Is that still viable?

Turns out: Yes! And he hired three guys, Ted Ashley as CEO, Frank Wells as vice chair and John Calley to head production; and they in turn hired popular filmmakers like Clint Eastwood and Mel Brooks, and true artists like Stanley Kubrick, and let them do what they do. Martin Scorsese talks about looking for a distributor for “Mean Streets,” and not only being turned down by Paramount but kind of insulted: “Please leave,” he was told. But the guys at Warners? They knew those streets, they knew those people, and Scorsese walked out of the Warners screening stunned that he had a distribution deal. 

“The thing about Warner Bros.,” Scorsese says, “they gave serious filmmakers a real home.”

So why didn’t he stay? “Taxi Driver” was Columbia, “Raging Bull” United Artists. The doc brags about Warners’ association with Terrence Malick and “Badlands,” so why was “Days of Heaven” done at Paramount? Why, after “THX 1138” at Warner Bros., did George Lucas go to Universal for “American Graffiti” and Fox for “Star Wars”? It looks like Warners got rooked there. They gave the kid his shot, then he made his box office hits, and remade the culture, elsewhere. 

Some of the narration is already beginning to feel off. Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, Morgan Freeman tells us, “played to America’s lifelong romance with law and order.” That’s one way of putting it. We’re also told that Warners “struck TV gold with a character from its comic division”—Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Don’t get me wrong, she made an impact; but in its three years on the air, per Nielsen, the show finished 45th, 66th and 59th. Not quite “TV gold.”

The emphasis on Carter is part of the doc’s revisionism, which keeps underlining the studio’s bonafides with women and people of color. Sometimes it’s deserved (“Roots”), but mostly it feels like pandering or ass-covering. At one point, Freeman intones, “Attentive to the mood on the streets, Warner Bros. made history when they signed multitalented artist Gordon Parks, the first Black director to helm a major studio-financed film.” The doc then spends more time on Parks and “The Learning Tree” (1969) than it does on James Cagney and his entire oeuvre. Yes, I’m biased in the matter, but c’mon, Cagney was synonymous with Warners for years and years. His battles with the studio—legendary—are also given short shrift; they make it seem it was just Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland when it was a triumvirate. Cagney was first but de Havilland did it best. He won his own freedom while she won everybody’s.

In the third episode (early ‘80s to late ’90s), Robert Daly and Terry Semel are now running things, and we get Steven Spielberg talking up his deal with Warners, and how it was a great place to work, blah blah, but again his best movies were elsewhere. With Warners he directed “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” “A.I.” and “Ready Player One.” Not exactly your Spielberg fest. Yes, Warners bankrolled Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” and, yes, they took chances with Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” fueling nutjobs around the world; but we’re now getting as much TV (“ER” and “Friends”) as movies; while the importance of Tim Burton’s “Batman,” per the narrative, isn’t that it demonstrated the box-office pop of superhero flicks; it’s that its box office allowed Warners to talk merger from a position of strength.

By the time you get to the final episode the corporate bullshit is thick. They brag about “unscripted television,” such as “The Bachelor” and “The Voice,” then give us short clips from the following:

  • “Little Big Shots”
  • “The Jennifer Hudson Show”
  • “Hogwarts Tournament of Houses”

These are shows? Or were shows? Yes, past tense. Just checked: two of them lasted only one season. But it’s women, people of color and Warners IP, so here ya go.

Do we need five minutes on “Two and a Half Men”? Do we need Morgan Freeman intoning lines like:

“From the ultimate superhero face-off to a motley crew of supervillains, DC was reshaping the comic book film landscape.”

That one actually made me laugh out loud. In the first part he’s referencing the idiotic “Batman v. Superman” (Rotten Tomatoes: 29%), and in the second it’s the idiotic “Suicide Squad” (26%). Reshaping is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.

And guess who isn’t mentioned at all? Zack Snyder. Obviously I’m not a fan, but it takes some impressive footwork to keep talking up Warners’ superhero universe in the 2010s without once mentioning the architect. They do this by promoting Patty Jenkins, director of Gal Gadot’s “Wonder Woman,” along with new CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who arrived in 2013 and “really wanted to expand the DC universe.” Sure he did. Because Marvel had already shown the way and Snyder was in the midst of doing it. Or fucking it up.

Talking of weekend b.o.
“100 Years” was directed by Leslie Iwerks, and if that names sounds familiar, yes, she’s the granddaughter of the beautifully named Ub Iwerks, who, in 1928, helped create Mickey Mouse with some schlub named Disney. One of the men got fabulously wealthy. So it was, so it always shall be.

Again, the doc has moments. I liked Clint Eastwood, frail now, deep into his 90s, talking about how he misses Steve Ross. That was sweet. And I could listen to Spielberg and Scorsese talk movies forever. Plus it’s valuable learning movies from the viewpoint of just one studio. I wouldn’t mind if other studios did this. While we still have other studios.

But business sucks up more and more of the story. Mergers come fast and furious (AOL, AT&T, Discovery), and those CEOs begin to come and go with a rapidity that makes your head spin. Tsujihara has a #MeToo moment in 2019, so he’s replaced by Ann Sarnoff, who lasts a year until she’s replaced by Hulu founder Jason Kilar, who is gone with the arrival of Discovery and David Zaslav in ’22. Just in time for the birthday party! Zaslav goes on and on about the importance of storytelling, and how he works from Jack Warner’s old office with one of the original Maltese Falcons on his desk to remind him of what matters: “The stuff that dreams are made of,” he says, quoting Sam Spade misquoting Shakespeare. That's here. In the real world, Zaslav rebrands HBO as “Max,“ lays off half the staff at Turner Classic Movies, and shelves completed movies such as ”Batgirl" for tax purposes. The Shvontz lives.

Posted at 09:22 AM on Tuesday July 04, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 2023  
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