24 January 2011

First in the Talkies

The four Warner brothers (Bette Davis not pictured).
The more films I watch from the early sound era, the more it seems that Warner Bros. had the superior track record in comparison to MGM. Metro may have had the prestige, the star power and the production values, but Warners' comparably modest pictures seem to have aged much better. Much of this, I suspect, has to do with the material the two studios chose to adapt to the screen.

In its glory days, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer gave every indication that it thought of itself as a purveyor of high-minded and respectable material. This approach, if nothing else, was certainly profitable -- it played quite well to the American social mores of the day. To be sure, MGM did make quite a few good films at the onset of the talkies, but as the years have gone by many MGM productions of the time have begun to feel stodgy and antiquated. Many Metro pictures of the day were society dramas, adapted from the stage -- at their core, episodes in the lives of attractive, well-to-do Anglo-Americans with problems,  typically of the marital variety. There are several such films that remain quite watchable to this day, but most feel a bit highfalutin and tedious.

Although Warner Bros. did try its hand at several such pictures, that studio demonstrated a much greater willingness to probe uncharted territories (indeed, it was Warner Bros. who began the talking pictures revolution with The Jazz Singer in 1927). Where MGM stuck with glamor, Warners' took a decidedly grittier angle -- the studio came to be specialize in pictures seemingly torn from the real world of the depression, in the process virtually inventing the gangster film as we know it today. The studio also imported from the theater the right kind of talent for these pictures -- James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell and Paul Muni, to name just a few (a bit later, the studio brought in a guy named Humphrey Bogart; you might have heard of him).

The pre-code crime drama was not the only area where Warner Bros. proved willing to blaze a trail. In 1932, the studio gambled on revitalizing the then-stagnant genre of the musical, beginning production of 42nd Street. The picture was a major success when it premiered in February of the next year, and  Warner Bros. followed up with a series of successful musical pictures.

In both categories, MGM had to play catch-up. Although Metro had cornered the market on musicals by the 1950s, it never did achieve what Warner Bros. in the field of the crime drama. Fortunately for them, Metro's prestige pictures remained wildly popular, and in flux of new talent -- both on-screen and behind the scenes -- allowed the studio to be the only consistently profitable studio throughout the depression. Yet even if its pictures were not as immediately lucrative, the willingness of Warner Bros. to push the envelope has given many of its films a far more lasting appeal.

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