25 Great Warner Bros. films on DVD/Blu-ray, 1926-1967

Cover of "The Adventures of Robin Hood [B...

Here are my picks for 25 must-own Warner Bros. films on DVD and Blu-ray, in chronological order. Films were eligible from 1923 to 1969, when Jack L. Warner stepped down from the studio to become an independent producer. Let the debate begin.

I’ve denoted cases in which I’ve reviewed the films mentioned here in earlier entries. Sometimes a film is listed without further comment; this is not meant to diminish them in any way. I will probably deal with them in more detail in future posts, or update this one.

All films are available separately or in boxed sets  from Warner Bros. Home Video or its Warner Archive unit unless otherwise noted.

1. “Don Juan” (1926)
Available at Warner Archive
John Barrymore stars as the titular lothario in this silent film, the first to have a synchronized music score and sound effects on disc, using Warner’s Vitaphone system. Possibly an ideal entry point for someone new to silent drama, with memorable characterizations by Barrymore, Estelle Taylor as Lucrezia Borgia, and a very young Mary Astor as Adriana della Varnese, the woman who finally captures Don Juan’s heart. Great sword fight at the end.

2. “Little Caesar” (1930)

3. “The Public Enemy” (1931)
See Part I and Part II of Reveal Shot‘s Warner Bros. Gangster series for analysis of these two films. They are available separately or as part of the Ultimate Gangster Collection: Classics on Blu-ray, along with “White Heat” (see below).

4. “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” (1932)
See Part III of the WB Gangster series.

5. “The Mystery Of The Wax Museum” (1933)
The 3-D remake of this film, ‘House Of Wax” (1953) would certainly be a big draw at the TCM festival after the popular screenings of 3-D classics “Hondo” and “Dial M For Murder” this year, but I prefer the original. Lionel Atwill stars as the wax museum sculptor disfigured in a fire who goes insane and begins to tomb living women in wax. Glenda Farrell is the archetypal wisecracking female reporter who uncovers the horrific facts.

6. “G-Men” (1935)
Warner Bros. does an effective reversal of its gangland dramas, showing one of the roughest of them from the side of law enforcement. Cagney plays a hood who goes straight, first as a lawyer, and then, when a friend is murdered, as an FBI agent. Features strong supporting work from Barton MacLane as the main bad guy, and Ann Dvorak as Cagney’s one-time girlfriend who can’t escape the criminal milieu. One of the most brutal movies of this period.

7. “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” (1936)
In Errol Flynn Signature Collection, Vol. 2. Also available separately.
I’m mysteriously drawn to tales of British colonial rule of India and other areas in that part of the world. No serious attempt was made to explain the rationale for the infamous charge at Balaclava; it’s set up here as the by-product of sibling rivalry, unrequited love and revenge. Max Steiner’s score plays an unusually big part in the film’s success, and the titular charge is very well done by director Michael Curtiz, despite the deaths of several horses and a stunt man.

8. “The Adventures Of Robin Hood” (1938)
2-Disc Special Edition
The definitive swashbuckler, just ahead of some of Twentieth Century-Fox’s Tyrone Power classics. Flynn vs. Basil Rathbone’s Sir Guy of Gisbourne can hardly be topped as a screen duel. An eye-opener to anyone you encounter who is skeptical about the glories of three-strip Technicolor  (though I guess that would have to be someone who hasn’t seen “The Wizard Of Oz” in a while).

9. “Angels With Dirty Faces” (1938)
See Part IV of the Warner Gangster series.

10. “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” (1938)
A stellar adaptation of a clever play, featuring Edward G. Robinson as a doctor who is fascinated by crime, and decides to join a group of thieves on a series of jewel robberies to test his theories. When there is mutual attraction between he and the female member of the gang (Claire Trevor), her erstwhile boyfriend (Humphrey Bogart) starts trouble. See this review at Pretty Clever Films.

11. “The Roaring Twenties” (1939)
See Part V of the Warner Gangster posts.

12. “The Sea Hawk” (1940)
The best of Flynn’s pirate movies. Here he’s Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, leader of “The Sea Hawks,” a group of English pirates who seize Spanish ships during a time when Queen Elizabeth is ostensibly trying to avoid war with Spain. Thorpe ends up having to fight the Spaniards and a traitor on the Queen’s court. If Rathbone had played the traitor, rather than Henry Daniell, the film would have been even better. As it is, only Fox’s “The Black Swan” ranks as a better pirate saga.

13. “The Letter” (1940)
You can’t have a list of great Warner classics without including Bette Davis. In “The Letter,” set on a British rubber plantation, Davis plays Leslie Crosbie, a married woman who shoots her lover to death. She claims self-defense, but that testimony is jeopardized by an incriminating letter she wrote to the dead man that same day, inviting him to her home. When that letter falls into the hands of the victim’s wife, Leslie must somehow get it back. The melodrama sometimes seems to be veering out of control, but director William Wyler manages to rein it in, abetted by James Stephenson as Leslie’s suspicious lawyer and Herbert Marshall as the cuckolded husband. Davis is fascinating, as usual.

14. “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)
See my entry on this hard-boiled detective story.

15. “Casablanca” (1942)
I can’t imagine the trouble I’d be in if I left out this one.  Rather than try to summarize its importance here, I defer to this essay from Bright Lights Film Journal.

16. “Mildred Pierce” (1945)
Ann Blyth, who appears here as the title character’s evil daughter Veda, was interviewed by Robert Osborne during the TCM Film Festival this year. Raquel Stecher at the Out Of The Past blog covered the event here.

17. “Key Largo” (1948)
18. “The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre” (1948)
19. “White Heat” (1949)
20. “Strangers On A Train” (1951)

21. “Giant” (1956)
I wrote up my review of this one after a screening at the TCM Film Festival, and spoke to Warner Home Video’s George Feltenstein about the film’s restoration.

22. “Rio Bravo” (1959)

23. “The Great Race” (1965)
One of my suggestions for next year’s TCM Film Fest.

24. “Up The Down Staircase” (1967)

Along with “The Blackboard Jungle,” one of the best movies about teaching. This adaptation of Bel Kaufman’s 1965 best-seller about the experiences of young Sylvia Barrett (Sandy Dennis), whose first teaching assignment out of grad school lands her at a tough New York City high school. There are lots of intriguing story threads: A fellow English teacher (Patrick Bedford) is brilliant but unable to connect emotionally with a shy girl who has a crush on him; Sylvia gets anonymous notes from an admirer in the class suggestion box; a black kid wants to drop out because he feels overwhelmed by racist attitudes; a gang member interprets Sylvia’s kindness to be some kind of sexual proposition. The location photography by the unheralded Joseph Coffey is very good, truly creating the sense of time and place that makes older films so fascinating for audiences decades later. Fred Karlin’s music score is contemporary and yet, in pointing to Sylvia’s idealism, takes on a baroque sensibility at times.

25. “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

— David B. Wilkerson


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