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Studio With a View

[whitespace] Little Caesar
Scott Del Amo

Bullets in a China Shop: Edward G. Robinson gets plugged in 'Little Caesar,' one of the classic Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s.

The Warner Bros. logo shielded 75 years of film

By Richard von Busack

THE SHIELD floating in the blue heavens is one of the most easily recognized of all trademarks. But the range of the 32 films in the Warner Bros. 75th Anniversary Festival of Classics demonstrates the uncertain identity of the studio. What does Dog Day Afternoon have in common with The Color Purple? Good as it is to see most of these movies again, hauling these classics out from under the old logo suggests--wrongly--that there has been a presiding Warner Bros. spirit that links the small studio of a few first-generation immigrants to today's Time-Warner-Turner. Studying the 75-year history of Warner Bros., you learn that they spent some very rocky moments, including a short period at the end of the 1960s during which the studio was the leisure service of Kinney National, a parking-lot company.

Today, the Warner Bros. shield is known even by the very young, thanks to a small empire of cartoons that were all but ignored by management at the time they were made. Those with long enough memories can remember the days when Warner Bros. had an identity as well as a logo: the days when Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Errol Flynn were the names that followed the shield, the days when Warner Bros. was the studio that made not just sharp, immediate films about crime and war but also the most urban musicals ever seen in America--raunchy and witty and full of sass.

The revivals during the one-week festival are arranged in minimarathons by decades. Scarcely forgotten hits like Batman, The Fugitive, GoodFellas, and JFK are programmed, but the older Warner Bros. films are more representative of the studio's tough-minded view of the world. The '30s selection (playing April 20) is one of the most recommended. The film reputed to be the first all-talking picture, The Jazz Singer, is almost never revived, and it may be worth rewatching just to expose yourself to the horror that was Al Jolson. But the rest of the program shines. The wise-guy musical 42nd Street is a delight. And have you been desperate to find something you can take your children to see? Few kids (and fewer adults) can resist The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. Later that night, The Public Enemy with James Cagney proves that it was the original gangster movie, one of the first pictures in which the right side of the law looked so much less sweet than its opposite.

April 22 includes on one day three of the key performances of the 1950s: Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and John Wayne in The Searchers. In this trilogy of unrelated stories about bullheaded but confused heroes, we see the seeds of a new cinema sprout out of the shell of the old. In the 1970s, studio entertainment yielded for a short time to complex, personal drama. It may be that the impersonality of today's mainstream films will be similarly overcome--with luck, we won't have to wait another 75 years to find out.

The Warner Bros. Festival runs April 17-23 at the Park Theater in Menlo Park.

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From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of Metro.

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