In retrospect, there's no studio era more fondly recalled than Warner Brothers in the 1930s. At the time, it was considered a cheap outfit with cut-rate actors and cheap sets, unlike the swanky productions of MGM and Columbia. Refugees from the Polish pogroms, Jack and Harry Warner wanted their films to have a measure of social realism, to provide some relevance and empowering rhetoric to a nation stricken with economic catastrophe.
Although the Warners produced a little of everything, their shoestring ethos and emphasis on crime dramas and low-rent living would be turned into the grimy, light and shadows aesthetic that we now call film noir. The tough, not always conventionally attractive actors who worked for them would become immortal embodiments of the Warner Brothers moment: Bogart, Davis, Muni, Robinson, Crawford, Lupino, Garfield, Greenstreet, Astor, Cook, Raft and Lorre. And, as Aljean Harmetz persuasively demonstrated in her excellent Round Up the Usual Suspects, the decade of Warners politics, gritty dialogue and shadowy lighting would culminate in 1941 with Hollywood's greatest studio achievement: Casablanca.
Starting this Thursday, N.C. State's film department will be presenting a four-week series called "Hard Knocks and Tough Luck." Kicking things off is that indispensable combination of Broadway musical and Art Deco excess: Gold Diggers of 1933. Director Busby Berkeley's They Made Me a Criminal shows the following week. The final two weeks feature two of Warners' toughest offerings, They Drive by Night and High Sierra. Both of these are tales from the wrong side of the tracks, starring a not quite A-list Bogart.
But pay attention to Bogart's co-star in each: Ida Lupino (pictured above), a wonderfully modern actress who supplies a possible answer to those who have wondered what kind of energy Lili Taylor or Samantha Morton would have brought to classic Hollywood. After years of settling for Bette Davis' leftovers at Warners, Lupino became a pioneering director of indie social issue-crime films.
The NCSU Film Studies Series runs every Thursday in February at 7 p.m. at the Campus Cinema in Witherspoon Student Center in Raleigh. All movies are free. For details, visit www.ncsu.edu/cinema.