One of Neal Gabler's arguments in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood is that the films that came out of Warner Bros Pictures in the mid-20th century are steeped in Jack and Harry Warner's acute awareness of their "status as outsiders."
"Out of this mix of energy, suspicion, gloom, iconoclasm, and liberalism," Gabler writes, "came not only a distinctive kind of film, but also a distinctive vision of America. It was an environment cruel and indifferent, one almost cosmologically adversarial, where a host of forces prevented one from easily attaining virtue. It was a world that daunted and dared — a world where one's only hope and only meaning lay not in higher morals, not in love, not in family, not in sacrifice, but in action leavened by a vague sense of honor. Warners' stars, more than those of any other studio, were defined by kinesis. They move, and through movement they invent themselves. In fact, one could almost say that in Warners' pictures — and in Cagney, Robinson, Bogart, Raft, Garfield, Flynn, Muni, Davis, and the others who populated them — heroism is action, at least when the action is informed by an understanding that it is all we have. Hence the speed."
Hence, too, the street-smart alecks, the anti-Mickey Mouses, who populated Warner Bros Cartoons, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Saul Austerlitz, who has a new book out, Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (reviewed by Michael Joshua Rowin for the LA Weekly and James Sullivan for the Boston Globe), writes in the Los Angeles Times, "Some cinematic rules are iron-clad: The man in the white hat wins the shootout, brunets are smarter than blonds, and Bugs Bunny always, always emerges triumphant. No matter the circumstances, no matter the opponent, Bugs is unruffled, chomping on his ever-present carrot like a cigar, another bon mot at the ready. As Chuck Jones observed of his most famous creation, 'We are all of us Daffy, Elmer and Wile E Coyote. We just wish we were Bugs.'... Warner Bros, which has been disappointingly slow in converting its magnificent trove of animated shorts to DVD, has at least been diligent in paying homage to its greatest creation. Bugs is an amalgam of classic Hollywood's most notable stars. Borrowing Charlie Chaplin's physical grace, Humphrey Bogart's swagger (Bugs's catchphrase, 'What's up, doc?,' feels like something Bogey might have uttered in some forgotten 1940s crime picture) and James Cagney's Brooklyn accent, Bugs was a cartoon animal elevated to heroic proportions."
Reviewing The Essential Bugs Bunny Collection for the New York Times, Dan Barry notes that the "two-disc DVD set purports to include 20 'classic' cartoons that mark 'essential milestones' in Mr Bunny's career. As Daffy Duck might advise Elmer Fudd: Don't fall for this old gag." The first disc includes "cartoons that are crucial to understanding Mr Bunny's work, if not to navigating our world. Here is The Old Grey Hare, from 1944, which explores the depressing notion that once the pursuit of Mr Bunny ends, there is no meaning to Mr Fudd's life.... Here as well are two classic cartoons so feverishly imaginative that each warrants a semester of postgraduate study. Of course both are directed by Chuck Jones and written by Michael Maltese. The first is Rabbit of Seville, from 1950, a spoof that somehow elevates Rossini's comic opera by introducing axes, guns, cannons and a fair amount of cross-dressing, most notably by a blushing Mr Fudd in a wedding gown. The second is What's Opera, Doc?, from 1957, which runs the familiar hunter-chases-wabbit plot through a Wagnerian blender to create a singular lampoon that all but convinced a generation of animators to surrender their pens. Really: once you've seen Mr Bunny as a blond Brünnhilde, lounging upon a fatted white horse, what is left to be said? The collection's second disc, however, should be used only to slice a few carrots and then thrown away."
Also for the NYT, Dave Kehr reviews Warners' Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (see, too, last week's DVD roundup). Here he is at his own site: "Strange but true: many of the stars most frequently accused of 'just playing themselves' — John Wayne, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart among them — were those who took years developing and polishing their screen personas. Bogart is a particularly fascinating example of a late bloomer — a performer who found that the style he'd developed for Broadway didn't work at all in the movies, thanks to a camera that read him, not has a handsome Park Avenue ingenue, but as a shifty, glowering malcontent. By the time 'Bogie' appeared in his more or less mature state in Raoul Walsh's 1941 High Sierra, Humphrey Bogart had been in movies for thirteen years, playing the kind of roles that Ralf Harolde or Barton MacLane might have turned down. But something was there that even Bogart didn't seem to know about, and once it emerged it took on a life of its own."
On to another Warner Bros picture — and a completely other decade...
1971. The Exorcist breaks box office records. Now, William Friedkin's "extended director's cut of the film has just hit stores on Blu-ray in a lavish new package from Warner Bros that celebrates the horror film as a masterpiece for the ages — and, in hindsight, it may well deserve that treatment," writes Geoff Boucher in a terrific piece in the LAT for which he's interviewed the director and several members of the cast and crew. "The film, routinely cited as 'the scariest movie ever made,' was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture and best director, and won four Golden Globes, among them the trophies for best picture, best director and best actress for the precocious [Linda] Blair. On-screen, the film smothered any trace of showbiz artifice or Hollywood haunted-house clichés, and Friedkin is quick to correct people who call it a horror film — he prefers 'theological thriller.'"
Fast forward nearly three decades. "David O Russell's Three Kings, which makes its Blu-ray DVD debut this week, was a heralded member of the cinematic class of 1999, the pre-millennial groundswell that appeared to usher in a new golden age of American filmmaking," writes Dennis Lim in the LAT. "Many of that year's most striking movies — among them Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, David Fincher's Fight Club, Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich and Alexander Payne's Election — were risk-taking works from youngish directors operating within the confines of the Hollywood or Indiewood systems.... Of late, Russell has made the news mainly for reports and leaked videos of on-set flare-ups and for his involvement in troubled productions.... Russell is a tricky filmmaker to peg also because he lacks the obvious signatures of an auteur, though his movies are clearly personal, even eccentric. Instead of nurturing themes and obsessions, he thrives on reinvention. To the extent that there is a connective thread running through his work, it may be that he seeks out comedy in unlikely places, where most others fear to venture or never think to look." Three Kings "benefits from an offhand complexity and irreverence that has largely eluded even the best of the current Iraq-themed movies. More than relevant, it's one of the defining antiwar films of our time, a scathing and sobering chronicle of US misadventures in the Middle East."
One more note on Warner Bros, one that'll bring us up to the present. At FirstShowing, Alex Billington looks into the studio's welcome decision not to release Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 next month in a retrofitted 3D version.
DVD roundups. In the Brooklyn Rail, David N Meyer considers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the light of Criterion's releases of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes and I Know Where I'm Going. Also: Paul Matwychuk and Heather Noel, Noel Murray (LAT), Stephen Saito (IFC), Slant and Michael Tully (Hammer to Nail).