Longtime documentarian and Time film critic Richard Schickel brings both privileged access and humble cinephilia into Warner Bros.’ vaults for five-hour “You Must Remember This,” the first 116 minutes of which were shown at Cannes in advance of full version’s three-part PBS broadcast — and tie-in book’s release — in September. Celebrating the studio’s 85th anniversary , docu — judging from the footage shown at Cannes, spanning WB’s first quarter-century — is clip-heavy almost to a fault. But Schickel’s unsurprisingly smart assemblage of talking heads gives it a valuable measure of critical and scholarly sensibility. Docu’s shelf-life, like that of “Casablanca” itself, would seem eternal. Still, Warners might consider one-off theatrical presentations in those few genuine rep houses still reeling in the States; the brothers, who always played big, would want that.
Schickel rounds up the usual suspects in Part I, from “The Jazz Singer” to “42nd Street” and “White Heat.” But some relatively unusual suspects are brought in for questioning, too. Clips from 1928’s proto-noir “Lights of New York,” 1937’s “Black Legion” and 1945’s “Objective, Burma!” appear particularly strong, the last of these even looking and sounding in current context like a post-9/11 revenger, dramatizing the lurid call for blood by any means necessary.
Narrated in serious, respectful tones by Warner mainstay Clint Eastwood, and taking a utilitarian and primarily chronological approach to film history , “Remember This” isn’t much as a work of studio-as-auteur theory.Of course there’s knowledgable discourse and clips of the studio’s stars, and there’s also plenty of vintage footage of filmmakers — from Mervyn LeRoy to Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks, as well as production exec Hal Wallis — some of it shot by Schickel himself.
Hawks, filmed by the documentarian in the ’70s, explains his diverse oeuvre as amounting to “love stories between men”; perhaps not incidentally, Hawks fondly remembers his friend William Faulkner heroically stepping in to write the tearjerking deathbed scene in “Air Force.” William Wellman recalls Darryl Zanuck once shoving Michael Curtiz’s cigar down his throat, enraged that the future director of “Casablanca” would side with the Warner brother who wanted to rub out the violent end of “The Public Enemy.”
Compared to these leading lights, the brothers are paid scant attention, though the film does establish Harry Warner as the leader, Albert as the money man, Sam as the tech guy and Jack as the producer. Sons of Jewish immigrants from Poland, the brothers came to discover that under the restrictive Production Code they couldn’t directly address anti-Semitism or express anti-fascism, though these determined envelope-pushers did buck the code’s Joe Breen by pushing Anatole Litvak’s landmark “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” through the system in 1939.
And, as Schickel reveals in a terrific passage, the studio developed a shrewd habit of disguising contemporary issues under cover of the period bio-pic; thus Claude Rains’s Napoleon appeared as close to a Nazi as would be permissible at the time, when Breen was concerned with maintaining the rewards of European distribution.
The film doesn’t shy from acknowledging the shameful period in which the brothers went from being the “New Deal studio” to a Red-baiting one during the HUAC meetings — this despite or perhaps because of having made “Mission to Moscow” in ’43.
Alas, this portion leads to Eastwood’s last-reel voiceover about the post-1945 dismantling of “the good feelings of the Depression and the war years,” which rings hollow if not altogether false.
Part I aptly climaxes with 1949’s “White Heat,” which Schickel, via Eastwood, reads as signaling the end of a movie era and an American era, both going out with Jimmy Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in a “mushroom-cloud” bang.
As for the tech credits of this first installment, even the oldest film clips look razor-sharp, as befits the studio’s well-deserved status among videophiles as the most scrupulous of digitizers. Thus “You Must Remember This” does command the stern order of its title. Or, as a vintage Warners tough guy would say: You’re gonna remember this, see? Now play it!