HomeNewsy BitsTCM Classic Film Festival Spotlight: Warner Bros Fascinating Musical History

TCM Classic Film Festival Spotlight: Warner Bros Fascinating Musical History

Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Classic Film Festival, recently held over four days in the heart of Hollywood, celebrates the rich legacy of film. This year’s festival put a special spotlight on the legacy of Warner Brothers to mark the studio’s 100th anniversary.

The history of Warner Brothers and music is one of the most fascinating stories in Hollywood. The studio essentially invented the sound film with the release of the first cinematic musical, 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Al Jolson’s dulcet tones belting out on film for the first time triggered an evolution of the art form.

In the years that followed, WB would continue to make a mark in the musical genre, primarily with the productions of legendary director and choreographer Busby Berkley. Indeed, some of Berkley’s best work was on display at this year’s festival. Beautiful restorations of 1933’s Footlight Parade and 42nd Street in particular were met with cheers from festival guests.

It wasn’t until 1957 though, that WB would make music a significant part of its empire. Film star Tab Hunter, who was under contract to the studio, would strike gold with the hit song “Young Love.” The record was released by Dot Records, which was a division of WB’s rival Paramount Pictures.

Eager to capitalize on the recording successes of its stars, WB subsequently formed Warner Brothers Records, which quickly became a powerhouse label. WB would look to create a synergy between its film and music divisions by promoting stars that could easily cross over to both.

As if to illustrate this concept, TCM invited former WB archivist and staff historian Steven Bingen to take festival guests on an “ultimate backlot tour” through the sets and sound stages where some of the studio’s most beloved scenes were filmed. On the tour, Bingen presented an image that surprised some people – the album cover for Prince’s Purple Rain.

“Notice the stairway in the background of the shot?” Bingen asked the crowd. “That picture was taken on the same stage that’s been in operation since the early 1930s.”

A Warner Music artist, Prince is perhaps the finest example of WB’s crossover concept of film and music. Purple Rain was a tremendous success both on screen and on the music charts. Prince would later also play a key role in making WB’s 1989 film Batman into a global phenomenon. [Read the story of Prince’s Batman soundtrack here.]

Then one of the most disastrous mergers in business history would almost destroy WB’s music legacy. In 2000, Time Warner, Warner Brothers corporate owner at the time, merged with internet pioneer America Online (AOL). The deal, valued in excess of $50 billion, was hailed as the future of business and media. AOL/Time Warner envisioned flawlessly incorporating its films, television, and music with online services to dramatically change the company’s fortunes.

The merger certainly did change the company’s fortunes, with billions of dollars in losses quickly piling up as AOL lost popularity with American households. The failure saddled Time Warner with heavy debt and led to the sale of Warner’s music division in 2004 to a group of investors for $2.6 billion. Following several changes of corporate ownership, Warner Music Group would eventually emerge as its own publicly-traded company. Today, Warner Music Group has a market cap of $16 billion and many years generates more profit than the film studio that created it.

But the TCM Festival rightfully celebrated the studio’s successes rather than its failures. A highlight was Warner Night at the Movies, in which Warner Brothers Discovery library historian George Feltenstein presented 1941’s The Strawberry Blonde, starring James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland, and featuring Rita Hayworth.

“We’re able to preserve our past and make it available to new generations,” Feltenstein said, as he and the audience marveled at the studio’s incredible restoration efforts.

As the crowd sang along with the film’s featured song, “The Band Played On,” I couldn’t help but think of Warner Brothers as a studio and a musical label, and how corporate meddling almost rolled the credits on WB’s tremendous legacy.

You may also enjoy

TCM Film Festival Spotlight: Ben Model and the Sound of Silent Film


Learn more about what we're up to at 360°Sound.