The studio built by the brothers Warner

March 27, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Movie trivia time:

Who was the first big box office star for Warner Bros.?

The huge Hollywood powerhouse, of course, would eventually encompass such giants as John Barrymore, Al Jolson, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Ruby Keeler and on and on to modern draws such as Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson.

But this particular star did more than a dozen commercially successful films in the 1920s and, much later, would also become a radio and television series performer.

It was Rin Tin Tin, the heroic German shepherd.

Movie buffs will find that nugget of celluloid lore among the fascinating features of "Here's Looking At You Warner Bros.," a new, clip-rich cable documentary film about the influential studio premiering at 8 tonight on the TNT service. (It also repeats at 4 p.m. tomorrow.)

Mr. Eastwood, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Steven Spielberg and Chevy Chase serve as narrators, telling the quintessential Hollywood story. Four brothers from a poor, Polish immigrant family -- Jack, Harry, Sam and Albert -- found fame and fortune by helping found the movie industry.

In 1904, their father pawned a gold watch and a horse to finance the purchase of a projector and a print of the 11-minute movie "The Great Train Robbery." The film was one of the earliest to tell a story, and drew viewers to the Warner brothers' tiny nickelodeon theater in Youngstown, Ohio.

In tonight's documentary, we see the youngest brother, Jack, relating how he was "the chaser" in those days, singing badly between showings to shoo people out of the theater.

And Mr. Eastwood, whose forte is definitely not narrating films, repeats the legend that Sam Warner saw no future in the new technology that spliced sound recording to film. "Nobody wants to hear actors talk," he reputedly said.

Yet Warner Bros. made the first successful "talkie," the famed 1927 "The Jazz Singer." And Ms. Streisand notes the studio soon went on to become the premiere musical movie maker, with such stars as singer/dancer Ruby Keeler and choreographer Busby Berkeley ("42nd Street," "Footlight Parade," etc.).

Ironically, Sam Warner died on the eve of "The Jazz Singer's" premiere, from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of just 39.

Such gangster films as "Little Caesar" and "Public Enemy" helped solidify Warner Bros.' success in the early '30s, says Ms. Hawn, and Bette Davis came along at the same time, with "The Man Who Played God."

Ms. Hawn also takes us into another technology that Warner Bros. exploited perhaps better than any other production studio: animation. Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and the rest became big stars and were less temperamental than most.

Mr. Spielberg uses "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" to illustrate pioneering efforts in location shooting, and Mr. Chase surveys the studio's most recent successful films, including "Risky Business" and the 1991 Oscar winner, "Driving Miss Daisy."

*

LIVE, FROM WASHINGTON -- Comedian and former talk show host Dennis Miller, whose two previous cable specials taped in Washington were heavy on the political satire, returns to George Washington University in the nation's capital for a live hour of topical comedy. The show can be seen at 9:30 p.m. on the HBO premium cable network.

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