With The Dark Knight becoming the second-highest-grossing film of all time, and closing in on Titanic’s No. 1 spot, it’s not a bad time to take a look at the 85-year history of the studio that made the film. Written, produced and directed by film critic Richard Schickel and narrated by Clint Eastwood, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story airs next week over three nights (Tuesday through Thursday at 9 p.m.) as part of PBS’s American Masters series, and it entertainingly runs through the studio’s prominence as a talkie pioneer, a well-oiled purveyor of gangster pics and lurid melodrama, a champion of working-class hopes and fears before leaning right after World War II, a haven for iconoclast visions in the ’70s, and currently a tent-pole factory where art-strivers Eastwood and George Clooney are allowed to — as they categorize it — do one for the studio, then one for themselves.
Focusing more on the films than on Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack — for details on the Warner clan, American Masters has a separate doc called The Brothers Warner airing September 25 — the series has fun revisiting the iconic resonance of Busby Berkeley’s strange, geometric flesh-and-fabric fantasias; Jimmy Cagney’s slashing charm; Humphrey Bogart’s haunted compactness and Stanley Kubrick’s pictorial gravity. But underlying it all is a strong sense that the longevity of the emblem was built on game-changing depictions of physical and emotional violence, from that grapefruit in the face in Public Enemy and Bette Davis unloading that gun in The Letter to Brando’s entire performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, and on through the bloodletting in Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch, Martin Scorsese’s explosive brutality and Eastwood’s path from gun-toting avenger to clear-eyed chronicler of the abyss that violence opens up.
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It’s a shame, though, that the recent stratospheric success of The Dark Knight doesn’t warrant more than a quick mention of its box-office prowess in the final hour. Because after watching Schickel’s history, and considering Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel — an independent-minded director’s behemoth full of gangsters and social conscience, anchored by a timeless portrayal of exhilarating menace in Heath Ledger, pushing the boundaries of onscreen violence for a PG-13 film, unafraid of depicting sadism and its aftermath — The Dark Knight seems like the ultimate Warner Bros. film.