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Warners: Play It Again and Again

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 1998

  Style Showcase


This is a puff piece about Warner Bros. Why? Because the studio is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Because its vast lot in Burbank, Calif., is still largely intact and devoted to the making of movies and TV shows. Because Bette Davis and James Cagney made most of their films there. Because of all the Hollywood studios, Warner Bros. has always seemed the brashest and the gutsiest.

Naturally, the studio, now part of the frighteningly vast Time Warner empire, is celebrating its anniversary in as many ways as possible: A touring collection of some of Warners' vintage features is making its way around the country; Warner Home Video is re-releasing many of the studio's blockbusters; and the TNT cable network will air the second of four specials, "The Warner Bros. Story: No Guts, No Glory," next Sunday at 8 p.m.

A Warner Bros. spokeswoman points out that of the "100 Greatest American Movies" recently selected in a poll conducted by the American Film Institute, fully a third are in the Warner Bros. library. That doesn't mean they were all made there. When Ted Turner became part of Time Warner, he brought along the huge MGM library he owned, so "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" are now in the Warner domain.

A splendid centerpiece of the whole shebang is the recent release of a spectacularly entertaining four-CD commemorative album, "Warner Bros.: 75 Years of Entertaining the World." The set, which retails for about $60 and has been given the deluxe velvety slipcase treatment, hip-hops through Warner Bros. film music from Al Jolson and the dawn of sound in 1927 to such recent releases as "Batman Forever" and "L.A. Confidential."

The variety is dazzling: Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs doing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" as heard in "Bonnie and Clyde"; Dooley Wilson singing "As Time Goes By" as he did, legendarily, in "Casablanca"; Alex North's snazzy jazzy score for "A Streetcar Named Desire"; Doris Day performing one of her greatest hit ballads, "Secret Love," from "Calamity Jane"; and Bugs Bunny ravaging Rossini in a snippet from "The Rabbit of Seville."

Since Jack L. Warner and his brothers Sam, Albert and Harry were the first to mate soundtracks with movies, and since the Warner Bros. sound and music departments have always maintained admirable and lofty standards, the CD set makes as fitting a commemorative for the anniversary as anything could, even if the oldest recording in the collection is a mere 71 (Warners was founded in 1923 M.O.S., which in Hollywoodese means "mit out sound").

The CD set actually isn't as lavish or all-encompassing as the LP sets that Warners released for its 50th anniversary in 1973. One three-LP set included dialogue highlights from Warner movies and the other, like the CD set, was devoted to music from the films. There was no home video business to speak of in 1973 so sound recordings from the films had to suffice. Now, of course, you can own or rent many of the films themselves.

Many highlights of the LP sets are missing from the new collection, among them Dimitri Tiomkin's thunderous theme for "The High and the Mighty," a John Wayne film whose rights have reverted to the Wayne estate. Missing too are such gems as Max Steiner's score for "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," a score that may sound better separated from the film than when joined to it. Critic Pauline Kael has suggested that it tends to overpower the action on the screen.

"Sierra Madre" was made during the golden age of symphonic scoring, an age that is severely underrepresented on the CD set even though the Warners music department was fabulously prominent during the era. As Rudy Behlmer points out in his program notes for the set, MGM's musical scores tended to be subdued and even recorded at a lower level, whereas at Warners, the music was much more prominent behind the dialogue and in the forefront of action sequences.

We get little of the highly regarded Erich Wolfgang Korngold ("Robin Hood," "Kings Row"), Steiner's "Casablanca" (with its heavy reliance on "As Time Goes By," which Steiner did not write) and "Now, Voyager," but then we're out of the '30s in a flash and into such contemporary and less listenable themes as those from "Dirty Harry," "THX 1138" (a sci-fi flop George Lucas made well before creating "Star Wars") and the main title from Clint Eastwood's overrated "Unforgiven."

The set even includes a Paul McCartney tune, "The World Tonight," written for "Father's Day," last year's humiliating Billy Crystal-Robin Williams flop that's referred to in the CD-set booklet as an "endearing comedy." Endearing to whom? Every other studio in town that watched it bomb?

Of course one expects a certain amount of hooey and blather in an undertaking such as this. And some of the novelties included, available for the first time on CD, are intriguing, like Bette Davis joining child co-star Debbie Burton in a twist tune inspired by Robert Aldrich's Gothic kitscheroo "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" The song was never heard in the film, but the record got played on radio stations. The film, of course, is the one where Davis gets to serve arch enemy Joan Crawford, playing her invalid sister, a dead rat for breakfast.

Davis, never known for her singing voice, appears in another number on the CD set not previously available except on a bootleg LP: "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," from Warners' all-star wartime revue "Thank Your Lucky Stars." Davis's performance of this song is impeccable dramatically and comically, and somehow even musically. Only one track away, from the same film, is the riotous "Ice Cold Katie," an all-black production number starring the great Hattie McDaniel and a mercifully subdued Willie Best.

Frank Loesser, the genius who later did "The Most Happy Fella" and "Guys and Dolls" for Broadway, wrote the songs for "Thank Your Lucky Stars" and a complete soundtrack album would be an easily realized blessing for Warners to bestow. Other numbers include Dinah Shore singing the title song and a lilting love song, "How Sweet You Are"; Ann Sheridan doing the surprisingly risque, at least for its time, "Love Isn't Born, It's Made"; Errol Flynn appearing to have a great time with the farcical "That's What You Jolly-Well Get"; and many, many more.

Album producers George Feltenstein and Julie D'Angelo certainly are no geniuses. Nor do they have anything approaching impeccable taste. With all the superb numbers to include from "Rhapsody in Blue," the Warner Bros. biography of George Gershwin, what do they dredge up but Al Jolson singing "Swanee," one of Gershwin's earliest songs and one of the few whose lyrics were not written by brother Ira (the producers also include Jolson's inescapably offensive "My Mammy" to represent "The Jazz Singer" when there were other numbers to choose from). "Swanee" must have been featured in 20 or 30 other record compilations by now. Instead the producers could have chosen "Blue Monday," a condensed version of a rarely performed Gershwin piece that was a warm-up for "Porgy and Bess."

Or Paul Whiteman and his band doing part of the title piece, which they were first to perform, with Gershwin as the piano soloist, in 1924.

Two numbers are happily included, however, from "Night and Day," a musical biography of Cole Porter that was even more fanciful and naive than the fictionalized life of Gershwin. Cary Grant played Porter, however, and pretty darn delightfully, with Alexis Smith playing his wife after having played Gershwin's girlfriend in "Rhapsody in Blue." I remember seeing the two films on a double bill at Washington's late lamented Circle Theater and the audience roaring with laughter when Smith turned up as the love interest in both. She came across like the '40s equivalent of a groupie.

Anyway, on the CD set we get to hear Grant and Ginny Simms, a terrific singer of her day, do "You're the Top," plus Mary Martin, who played herself, reprising for film her Broadway breakthrough number "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."

Through all these tracks and many more – including a very poorly edited medley of numbers from the immortal Warners cartoon unit – there is one shimmering constant, the Warner Bros. orchestra, usually conducted by Ray Heindorf, who took over the music department after the death of its founding father, Leo Forbstein. What a sound that orchestra had – so brash and brassy and full of punch, a distinctly shiny urban sound as opposed to the comparatively mushy tone of the MGM orchestra over the Hollywood hills in Culver City.

It's been astutely observed that, especially during the pivotal '30s, when both studios were at their peaks, Warners was a Democratic studio and MGM was the house of Republicans. Louis B. Mayer at MGM liked presenting the nation with idealized and homogenized images of itself – Andy Hardy and all that. Over at Warners, gangsters' guns were blazing, films dealt with the hardships of the Great Depression and other grim social issues, and even many of the musicals seemed to have a hard, tough edge to them.

Few numbers from the Depression-era Busby Berkeley musicals are included on the CD set, and the title song from "42nd Street" was obviously recorded off the soundtrack of the finished film, not from original source material of any kind; thus we hear screams, car horns, gunshots and other sound effects drowning out Ruby Keeler and the song. The sound quality is depressingly poor on this and other vintage numbers, suggesting that Warner Bros., like 20th Century-Fox and other studios, simply threw away original studio recordings made for the films of that era.

On the other hand, the set does include an extended version of "Hooray for Hollywood," that sardonic anthem to Tinseltown, not exactly as heard in the finished film "Hollywood Hotel." In the added chorus, the voice of Benny Goodman is heard making a reference to "Papa Dionne," father of the famous quintuplets. Johnny Mercer's lyrics were ebullient brilliant spoofery of a city founded on frivolity, hype and manufactured illusion:

"Hooray for Hollywood, where you're 'terrific' if you're even good; where any office boy or young mechanic, can be a panic, with just a good-looking pan; and any shopgirl can be a top girl, if she pleases the tired businessman. . . ."

That's the spirit that informs the celebratory CD set and, really, the whole observance of Warners' 75th anniversary. It's a time to remember the studio system and its virtues and a studio whose system epitomized many of them, in addition to representing all the follies and foibles and phoniness that the name "Hollywood" conjures. The film music collection is a highly imperfect but agreeably hip "hooray" in itself, filled with priceless artifacts of American pop culture that evoke, more than any other quality, sheer if sometimes ridiculous joy.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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