I am taking a vacation day today. Turner Classic Movies started its annual “31 Days of Oscar” festival today, emphasizing movies that won or were nominated for Academy Awards all month. This year, they’re grouping the movies by studio — starting with Warner Brothers. I love, and have mentioned here before, the book “The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies” by Ethan Mordden. I learned a lot about classic movies from this book, and I re-read it every few years, each time having seen more of the movies it references.
Each studio had its own unique style, and that’s what Mordden sets out to explore. The reasons that led to that style might include the mogul who ran the studio, the demographics in the neighborhoods where that studio happened to own theaters, and – of course – the unique creative talents who wound up at that studio. RKO, with most of its theaters in big cities in the Northeast, could be a little more daring in style and content than Universal, which had most of its theaters in small towns. Universal was the last studio to stop releasing silent movies because so many of its theaters couldn’t afford to install sound equipment.
MGM had a sexy, glamorous look in the early 1930s when Irving Thalberg was head of production and stars like Garbo and Gable were at the top of the roster, but shifted its emphasis to Andy Hardy-approved Americana and Freed Unit musicals after Thalberg died and Louis B. Mayer, who had given Thalberg a free hand, had more direct control over his successors. Paramount gave a certain amount of freedom to directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch and comedy talent like the Marx Brothers, Hope and Crosby, Mae West and W.C. Fields.
Warner Brothers tended to be more urban, with gangster movies (Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson were WB contractees) and backstage musicals like “42nd Street” (which I’m watching right now). It also tended to give writers more leeway, not out of respect but because the studio’s production schedule moved so quickly. Jack Warner’s famous quote was “I don’t want it good, I want it Tuesday.” That didn’t leave much time for producers and directors to rewrite the script. So WB movies sometimes had more of a political message – whether it was a swashbuckler like “Captain Blood” or a social-problem movie like “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang,” both of which will air in prime time tonight.
The Mordden book is, sadly, out of print, but worth looking for at your local library or used bookstore. I think it’s also on Audible.
Later today, one of my favorite Warner Brothers movies: “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn. My all-time favorite Warner Brothers movie airs tomorrow night, however. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine….