As the feeding frenzy for independent film continues unabated, it's becoming harder to remember that the term "major studio" hasn't always been considered an insult. Arriving in Orlando this weekend as part of a national tour, the Warner Brothers 75th Anniversary Festival of Classics demonstrates that an impressive body of work is nearly as likely to emanate from a profit-minded entertainment conglomerate as from a budget-strapped, ad hoc partnership with a third-floor mailing address.
Here is 75 years' of celluloid achievement writ large, available for its intended big-screen perusal by a generation that knows its motion-picture canon only as a fuzzy, scaled-down image processed through the motor of a well-worn VCR. Arranged according to a smart, "decade-a-day" schedule, fresh prints of 33 cinematic hallmarks wipe clean the lens of history, bringing the studio's legacy into clearer focus and demanding a radical reassessment of an outfit now better recognized as a logo on licensed apparel and coffee mugs than as a serious artistic concern.
The quest for credibility has been rough going from the start. While competitor United Artists staked its reputation on its formation by some of Hollywood's top actors and directors, brothers Albert, Sam, Harry and Jack Warner relied on their experiences as traveling projectionists -- more acquainted with the mechanics than the artistry of the film business. Still, enough storytelling savvy has emanated from the Warner soundstages and boardrooms to ensure decades of relevance.
For example, the 1931 James Cagney vehicle, "The Public Enemy," details a hood's rise and fall in broad, episodic strokes, bookended by opening and closing credits that warn of the very real threat to society posed by real-life gangsters. Crafted six decades later, Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990) tells the same story, nearly beat for beat. This tale is grounded in nonfiction, and warnings are omitted. An audience weaned on the shocking images of the studio's "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) doesn't need to be reminded that violence is a problem.
The Warner stance hasn't always been so uncompromising. Anyone who saw "The Race to Save 100 Years" at the recent Florida Film Festival learned how Elia Kazan's 1951 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" fell victim to the ever-ready axe of 1950s censors. Close-up shots of Kim Hunter's lustful stare were excised from the film's famous "Stella!" sequence, until her presence in the scene was reduced to little more than a distant cameo. This version is one of a number of director's cuts whose inclusion in the Festival of Classics places artistic vision on an equal plane with print clarity.
Even Warner successes born in the midst of cold-war conservatism benefit from a well-informed timeliness, one that holds up well compared to the vaunted trailblazing of such modern works as "Kids." The 1955 teens-in-trouble drama "Rebel Without a Cause" is no less effective in 1998, overcoming the potential camp factor of its switchblade-laden narrative with a script full of no-nonsense dialogue and a revered performance by James Dean. Junior viewers raised on a diet of Depp and DiCaprio now have the chance to discover for themselves just why their parents have always considered Dean's death such a tragedy.
The knowledge that many of these films are or have been available on video does little to dull the festival's vitality. To the true cineast, the 3-x-5 aspect ratio of the cinema screen is the only suitable format in which to appreciate their richer subtleties. Even 1989's "Batman" loses so much of its grand-guignol effect in a home-viewing context that those who missed its theatrical run will gain a new appreciation of its tasteful nods to film noir.
Ultimately, though, a sense of community may be the greatest reward of regular festival attendance. Film, after all, is meant to be a shared experience, and joining other disciples for a refresher course in one studio's ongoing oeuvre provides a rare opportunity to put our pasts in a mutual perspective. At the very least, it will make us think twice about how much we can ask of Hollywood, never again settling for mere "mass entertainment" when we've been led to expect so much more.;;;For more, check the official Warner Bros. website.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.