Health & Family

A dog, not Bugs, put Warner Bros. on the map

You Must Remember This:

The Warner Bros. Story

Tonight and Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.; 9-10 p.m. Thursday, WUNG, WNSC

In the early 1920s, the four Warner brothers (Harry, Albert, Jack and Sam) embarked on the enterprise that became, over the next 85 years, a huge media empire. This history is the subject of a new “American Masters” series on PBS starting tonight.

The show quickly informs us – its writer-director, Richard Schickel, knows an audience grabber when he sees one – that the brothers had begun with only one bankable movie star. He was a war hero, four-legged variety, named Rin Tin Tin – an asset that paid off the mortgage, attracted 10,000 fan letters a week, and remained, for a decade, the studio's most distinguished performer.

Jack Warner famously described him as the best actor he had known, the best leading man – a star who never made a bad movie or unreasonable demands, and one whose family life was above reproach.

This first and purest in heart of Warner's illustrious heroes were followed soon by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn, among others.

What the series captures, in sharply pointed installments, is the brothers' response to the times and their belief in having a say about the important things. The feel of the Depression and the social upheaval in the air was everywhere evident in their films of the 1930s – not only in stories about injustice like the brutal and irremediably hopeless “I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” (1932), starring Paul Muni, but in those gangster films with Cagney and Robinson.

This was also the studio of Bette Davis and Bogart, not to mention Bugs Bunny. This chronicle makes its way deftly through the decades, abetted by streams of commentators – Martin Scorsese does an exceptionally compelling turn – with tales to tell about the brothers, their battles with the system and their stars.

Despite its occasional unwieldiness – its tonnage of facts and wonderful stories carry this small cost – the series lives up to its name, and nowhere more so than in its eloquent musings on the power of “Casablanca.” You must remember this.