Now that we’ve got that out of the way, since Warner Brothers has ruled the domestic box office for two years straight while setting new records both at home and abroad, I thought it might be fun to take a look at movie moments which epitomize the Warner Brothers style when it was grittiest and most cost conscious of the major classic era film studios.
Few sequences encapsulate the WB style better than this scene from 1931’s “The Public Enemy,” directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, one of just a few films which set the pattern for the gangster movie for years to come. It’s all here, the crackling, cynical, fast-paced dialogue, the borderline fatalistic pessimism years before the “film noir” genre would be born, and a great star to deliver the goods in Jimmy Cagney.
And as a brief bonus, we have one of the most famous scenes of cozy marital relations every filmed featuring Cagney and Mae Clarke as the gangster’s unhappy wife. According to Wikipedia this scene — easily one of the most frequently excerpted moments ever made from any film — may have begun as a practical joke on the crew.
Yep, another story about a remake, this time it’s “A Star is Born” which, depending on how you reckon it, will either be the fourth or fifth version of the story of a woman who begins a relationship with an established star, only to eclipse him in the fame game as he gradually self-destructs. The confusion here is that, in 1934, George Cukor directed a film called “What Price Hollywood?” which was apparently close enough to William Wellman’s 1938 “A Star is Born” that RKO considered suing producer David O. Selznick. Just to make matters confusing, Selznick had offered the “Star is Born” gig to Cukor, who turned it down — but who eventually did direct the most famous version of the story in 1954, which I guess means that you could argue that he’s another example of a great director remaking an earlier hit.
Not that any of it matters. There’s a reason this one keeps getting pulled out of mothballs. Consider the clip below from that last version with Judy Garland and James Mason. Does the drunken behavior of Mason as declining superstar Norman Maine remind you of anyone in show business you’ve been hearing about lately around the water cooler? Several people? Everyone?
William Wellman’s 1939 hit is the second and best-known version of the frequently filmed adventure novel by Percival Christopher Wren. This 1939 action not-quite-classic features superstar Gary Cooper (“High Noon”) and then-rising stars Ray Miland (“The Lost Weekend”) and Robert Preston (“The Music Man”) as three English brothers and best pals who flee their ancestral home in the wake of the mysterious theft of an extremely valuable emerald. Joining the infamously torturous French Foreign Legion, the brothers Geste encounter the brutal, greedy, thoroughly villainous but entirely courageous Sgt. Markoff (Brian Donleavy), who quickly hears of the stolen jewel and becomes determined to re-steal it for himself between attacks by Arab groups who’d prefer Frenchie goes home.
Unlike other classic-era tales of imperialist derring-do, “Beau Geste” doesn’t go out of its way to glamorize or morally justify the work of the Legion. At the same time, the mystery of the stolen jewel takes the focus away from the setting and becomes a kind of odd distraction. Ironically made in the same year as two similar but superior adventures, George Stevens’ comedic “Gunga Din” and Zoltan Korda’s wondrous, propagandistic “Four Feathers,” “Beau Geste” has been beautifully restored to its black and white glory and is worth seeing for its lucid direction, a moving finale, ans the outstanding cast. Character actor Brian Donleavy’s evil-but-admirable Markoff pretty much walks away with the film. It’s a savagely honest portrait of pure selfish survival instinct that makes this tale of brotherly love and sacrifice work, more or less.