During the early 1930s, Zanuck orchestrated the development of the film narratives, genres, and production trends that would define Warner Bros. for the next two decades, featuring contemporary stories "torn from today's headlines" distinguished by a cynicism and hard-bitten realism in style, tone, and technique. Zanuck also cultivated stables of contract talent who were the key creators of the Warner's style, notably a new crop of stars like Edward G. Robinson (1893–1973), James Cagney (1899–1986), Paul Muni (1895–1967), Dick Powell (1904–1963), and Ruby Keeler (1909–1993), and a cadre of high-speed, no-nonsense directors including Mervyn LeRoy (1900–1987), Roy Del Ruth (1893–1961), Michael Curtiz (1886–1962), Archie Mayo (1891–1968), and William Dieterle (1893–1972). Warner's trademark genres in the early Depression era were the gangster film and backstage musical, spurred by the 1931 gangster classics Little Caesar (starring Robinson) and The Public Enemy (starring Cagney), the prison dramas I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, with Muni) and 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932, with Spencer Tracy), and the backstage musicals 42nd Street (1933, with Powell and Bebe Daniels) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, with Powell, Keeler, Joan Blondell [1906–1979], and Ginger Rogers [1911–1995]). The latter were vigorous urban dramas with the same cynical edge as the gangster films' but were interspersed with lavish musical numbers directed, designed, and choreographed (often with kaleidoscopic routines shot from
Warner Bros.' consummate house director during the classical era, Michael Curtiz was an expert technician who worked in a variety of genres and with a wide range of top studio stars, and like all of Warner's long-term contract directors, he was amazingly prolific. Curtiz directed nearly one hundred features over some twenty-seven years at Warner (1926–1953), including over fifty films during the manic 1930s. Most were routine studio fare, although he occasionally directed prestige productions like the Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland vehicles. As Warner's output slowed and its ambitions increased during the 1940s, Curtiz handled many of the studio's top pictures, including back-to-back hits in 1942, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca , two of Warner's signature wartime releases.
Born and raised in Budapest, where he began his film career (as Mihaly Kertesz), Curtiz was directing films in Germany when Warner signed him in 1926. During his first decade at Warner Bros., Curtiz proved eminently adaptable to the studio machinery and the Hollywood idiom, although he was overshadowed by other Warner directors like Mervyn LeRoy, Roy del Ruth, and Lloyd Bacon. His breakthrough came in 1935 on Captain Blood , the first of the studio's romantic swashbucklers co-starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. The film was a hit, and from that point the careers of the frantic, disciplined Curtiz and the dashing, irrepressible Flynn were inexorably entwined—despite the fact that the two men detested one another. From a sword-wielding Brit in Captain Blood , The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940) to a gun-toting westerner in Dodge City (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and Virginia City (1940), Curtiz and Flynn fashioned a new breed of Warners hero—more athletic, romantic, and gallant than those portrayed by James Cagney, Paul Muni, or Humphrey Bogart and a mythic figure who only made sense in costume or in uniform.
Curtiz eventually severed the alliance with Flynn, whose career and caretaking were handed off to Raoul Walsh. Meanwhile, Curtiz handled projects that signaled his stature at Warners as well as his remarkable range: wartime thrillers like Casablanca , Mission to Moscow (1943), and Passage to Marseille (1944); dark melodramas like Mildred Pierce (1945), The Unsuspected (1947), and Flamingo Road (1949); period comedies like Roughly Speaking (1945) and Life With Father (1947); and musicals like Yankee Doodle Dandy , Night and Day (1946), Romance on the High Seas (1948), My Dream Is Yours (1949), and Young Man with a Horn (1950).
By the early 1950s, however, the studio system was collapsing and Curtiz was losing his edge—scarcely surprising, considering how much the Warner system and Curtiz, the house director, were attuned to one another—and he finally left Warner Bros. in 1953. His next two projects, The Egyptian (1954) and White Christmas (1954), were lavish star vehicles that well indicated his lofty industry stature, but Curtiz was lost once he left the Warners lot and his career was effectively over.
20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), Captain Blood (1935), Kid Galahad (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), This Is the Army (1943), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), Life with Father (1947), Young Man with a Horn (1950), White Christmas (1954)
Behlmer, Rudy H. Inside Warner Bros. (1935–1951) . New York: Viking, 1985.
Robertson, James C. The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz . New York: Routledge, 1993.
overhead) by the inimitable Busby Berkeley (1895–1976). Another important early cycle included historical costume dramas and biographies ("biopics") like Disraeli (1929), Alexander Hamilton (1931), and Voltaire (1933), starring George Arliss (1868–1946) and directed by Alfred Green (1889–1960), which were among the studio's more costly and prestigious productions. In terms of sheer efficiency and directing talent, the studio's top filmmaker was Mervyn LeRoy, who was versatile enough to handle Little Caesar , I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang , and Gold Diggers of 1933 , and efficient enough to direct twenty-three films from 1930 to 1933.
March 1933 marked a crucial moment for the industry and for Warner Bros. The new president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945), declared a "bank holiday" and National Recovery campaign, mandating salary cuts throughout US industry. Whereas the studio owners, including the Warners, readily complied, Zanuck insisted that, despite massive losses in 1931 and 1932, Warner Bros. had weathered the Depression and thus the salary cuts were unnecessary. When the Warners stood firm, Zanuck resigned; with Joseph Schenck (1878–1961), he created 20th Century Pictures, an independent production company that would merge with Fox two years later. Zanuck was succeeded by Hal Wallis, a capable administrator who lacked the vision, drive, and creative instincts of his predecessor, but who worked effectively with Jack Warner to further refine the studio's distinctive style. During the Wallis era, Warner sustained its trademark gangster and musical cycles, replaced George Arliss (who left for 20th Century with Zanuck) with Paul Muni as its resident biopic star, and launched several crucial new star-genre formulas as well—notably women's films with Bette Davis (1908–1989) and swashbuckling romances with Errol Flynn (1909–1959) and Olivia de Havilland (b. 1916).
All of these cycles were maintained by production units under the purview of supervisors like Henry Blanke (1901–1981), Sam Bischoff (1890–1975), and Robert Lord (1900–1976), who in 1937 finally began getting screen credit as "associate producers" after years of resistance from the Warners. The key figures in these units generally were a staff director and a contract star, as with the Flynn-de Havilland romances directed by Michael Curtiz and the Cagney crime dramas directed by Lloyd Bacon (1889–1955). The studio's most efficient and accomplished team was the biopic unit featuring Paul Muni, director William Dieterle, and cinematographer Tony Gaudio (1883–1951); under the producer Henry Blanke, this team turned out some of Warner's most acclaimed films of the decade, including The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). The Davis melodramas relied less on any one director (or producer) than on screenwriter Casey Robinson, composer Max Steiner, and costume designer Orry-Kelly, who collaborated on Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), Now, Voyager (1942), and other Davis vehicles. Meanwhile, producer Bryan Foy oversaw Warner's B-picture operation, which cranked out twenty-five to thirty high-speed, low-cost productions per year, most of them urban crime films and melodramas and none of which featured top talent on either side of the camera.
Warner Bros. had a strong penchant for typecasting during the 1930s, which some stars like Errol Flynn preferred while others like Davis, Cagney, and Robinson openly resisted, battling Wallis and Jack Warner for better and more varied roles. Whereas the top stars eventually won greater authority over their films, contract players with less "marquee value" had little recourse besides "suspension"—that is, an unpaid leave with suspended time added to the term of their contract. Warner's suspension policy was challenged in the courts by de Havilland, which cost her two years of her career in the early 1940s but resulted in a historic ruling that ended the studios' entrenched, industry wide suspension system.
Warner Bros.' economic fortunes surged during the war era, when its production operations, market strategy, and house style underwent significant change. The studio phased out B-movie production altogether in the early 1940s, cutting its output in half to focus on A-class pictures for the overheated first-run market. (Warner's output plummeted from forty-eight films in 1941 to only twenty-one in 1943, and averaged twenty per year for the next five years.) Another war-related change involved an emphasis on the domestic market, which brought a shift in narrative and thematic focus from Europe to the United States, especially in its costume dramas and biopics. British-themed Flynn–de Havilland swashbucklers like Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940), for instance, gave way to westerns and American biopics like Virginia City (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), and Gentleman Jim (1942). Meanwhile, other major changes
Bette Davis's eighteen-year stint with Warner Bros. (1931–1949) was remarkable for several reasons. As the only top female star at a studio with a predominantly male ethos, she effectively countered the films of James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Errol Flynn, and Humphrey Bogart in a steady output of quality "woman's pictures." Davis lacked the physical beauty and sexual allure that were deemed essential for Hollywood stardom, relying instead on her acting skills and her work ethic (she appeared in some fifty films while at the studio).
Early on, Warner Bros. had no idea what to do with the headstrong, gifted Davis, whose screen persona was crucially shaped in projects that she engineered. In 1934, after two unhappy years with Warner, Davis convinced the studio to loan her to RKO to co-star in Of Human Bondage (1934), in which she delivered a powerful performance in a role that was at once captivating and utterly unsympathetic. Its success improved her status back at the studio, and she won an Oscar ® a year later for her role in Dangerous (1935), an altogether routine Warner crime drama that underscored the studio's perception of her as a "female Jimmy Cagney." Subsequent battles with Jack Warner gave Davis a new contract and increased creative control over her pictures, leading to an agreement to bring in William Wyler (then under contract to Sam Goldwyn) to direct Jezebel (1938), another career-defining role.
Davis's bravura performance in Jezebel as a spoiled, headstrong Southern belle eventually redeemed through suffering won Davis another Oscar ® ; even more important, it solidified Warner's commitment to quality women's pictures with suitable roles for Davis. The result was an extraordinary run of pictures over the next four years, including The Sisters (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), All This, and Heaven Too (1940), The Letter (1940), The Great Lie (1941), The Little Foxes (1941), and Now, Voyager (1942). Many were scripted by Casey Robinson, who became Davis's chief collaborator at Warner Bros., and each role was a variation on the contradictory heroine in Jezebel , with Davis cast either as an emasculating shrew or an engaging innocent.
Davis tried lighter fare, including an occasional comedy, but women's pictures remained her métier. Few of her subsequent films matched that extraordinary prewar run, however, and after a succession of lavish postwar disappointments, she left Warner Bros. Davis immediately enjoyed a "comeback" at Fox with All About Eve (1950), but in fact her career as a top star was winding down. In the 1960s she experienced an odd resurgence in a cycle of thrillers and gothic horror films, including two for Warner Bros., What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Dead Ringer (1964), both of which were shrill send-ups of her earlier work for the studio.
Of Human Bondage (1934), Jezebel (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), Now, Voyager (1942), Deception (1946), All About Eve (1950), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
Chandler, Charlotte. The Girl Who Walked Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.
Higham, Charles. Bette: The Life of Bette Davis . New York: Dell, 1982.
Leaming, Barbara. Bette Davis: A Biography . New York: Summit Books, 1992.
in studio style had little or nothing to do with the war, as with the transition in Warner's trademark crime films from gangster sagas to "hardboiled" thrillers and film noir. That transition was spurred by the emergence of Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957) as a top star in two 1941 films, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon ; he secured his status as Warner's most important wartime star a year later in Casablanca . Bogart's value to the studio was underscored by the departure of both Cagney and Robinson in 1942, although the rise of John Garfield (1913–1952) in war films like Air Force (1943), Destination Tokyo (1943), and Pride of the Marines (1945) also helped offset those losses.
The acute reduction of Warner Bros.' wartime output coincided with a radical change in production management, as the studio relied increasingly on independent producers. This trend began in 1940 with deals involving Jesse Lasky (1880–1958) for Sergeant York (1941) and Frank Capra (1897–1991) for Meet John Doe (1941) and Arsenic and Old Lace (completed in early 1942 but not released until 1944). It accelerated in early 1942 when Warner Bros. signed independent deals with Wallis, Howard Hawks (1896–1977), and Mark Hellinger (1903–1947). The Wallis deal, which committed him to four pictures per year for the next four years, signaled Warner's shift away from a "central producer" system; it was especially significant because Wallis's first independent project was Casablanca , a huge hit that gave Warner Bros. the Oscar ® for best picture but generated a clash with Jack Warner that led to Wallis's departure in 1944. By then Warner had moved completely to a unit-producer system, with top contract producers like Henry Blanke and Jerry Wald (1911–1962) as well as quasi-independent producer-directors like Hawks and John Huston (1906–1987) enjoying unprecedented control over their pictures.
Like all of the studios, Warner Bros. saw its profits surge immediately after the war, although in Warner's case revenues peaked in 1947 (versus 1946 for the other studios) before starting a steep decline. Moreover, Warner's late-1940s fade was not as severe because it was producing fewer pictures and unloading its contract talent and other resources at a rapid rate. Warner Bros. produced very few top hits during the postwar era, although it did sustain its trademark noir thrillers, dark dramas, and women's pictures. Bogart's star continued to ascend with the Hawks-directed film noir masterwork The Big Sleep (1946), and two consummate Huston films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Key Largo (1948). Davis's star was rapidly falling, but former MGM diva Joan Crawford (1904–1977) came out of retirement to star in several Warner Bros. hits, including Mildred Pierce (1945) and Humoresque (1946). Two especially telling postwar star vehicles were Key Largo , which teamed Bogart and Lauren Bacall (b. 1924) with Edward G. Robinson, and White Heat (1949), a low-budget crime thriller starring James Cagney. More than any of Warner Bros.' other postwar films, these two signaled the end of its classical-era star-genre cycles, as Robinson and Cagney each portrayed a gangster throw-back whose requisite demise at film's end comes in truly spectacular fashion.