Warner Bros: The Making Of An American Movie Studio
By David Thomson
Yale University Press
Esteemed film critic David Thomson examines the lives of the famed movie family, the Warner Brothers, who arrived in America as unschooled Jewish immigrants.
Warner Bros is part of Yale Uniersity Press’ Jewish Lives series, and it chronicles how Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack (Moses, Aaron, Szmul, and Jacob) founded a studio that became the smartest, toughest, and most radical in all of Hollywood.
It is a studio whose movies changed the way Americans thought about their country, about immigrants, and about themselves.
The Warner brothers’ journey is full of risky maneuvers and occasional brilliance, glamour, and disaster, shared success and enduring, and painful sibling rivalry.
Thomson chronicles the rise of their unpromising venture from its shaky beginnings in the early twentieth century through its ascent to the pinnacle of Hollywood influence and popularity.
The Warner brothers all had very different characteristics. Harry was a steady family man wedded to traditional Jewish morality. Sam envisioned the future of talking pictures in the face of skepticism and worked himself to death to make it reality. Jack was an adulterous, mercurial rascal who ran the studio and clashed with stars and collaborators.
Thomson writes about their impact and why their story fits into the Jewish Lives series, “I cannot tell you Jack was a hero, or that many who knew him made that claim on his behalf. But being less than Einstein, Proust, or even Barbra Streisand didn’t stop Jack and Warner Bros from having an impact on our culture and dreams, on us, that is alarming because it’s enormous. Warner Bros was one of the enterprises that helped us see there might be an American dream out there, a mix of patriotism and publicity, and it was open to Poles, Hispanics, the British and Chinese, whomever, as much as to the few Americans who had been here from the start. Even women might get it. That sense of a dream and immigrants – enormous, impersonal, climactic forces – is not easily worked out because we are still so attached to the hope that fine and talented people shape our history. Or very bad people? Don’t rule this out as simple heresy, but America might have been happier without the pursuit of happiness.
“Once upon a time, nearly everyone lived in his or her small, fixed place. You could not get away, so you hardly felt the need – you were contained in the power of heaven and hell, or some such script. Then transport shook us up. It began as railways, steamships, and automobiles, as well as money. It has gone on by way of the telephone and radio to our modern capacity or fantasy for being anywhere. But this transition has been a convulsion; it has driven people crazy and it means we lost godliness, as well as home.”
Thomson also provides interpretations of Warner Bros films, from the pioneering talkie The Jazz Singer, which marked its 90th anniversary in October 2017, through black-and-white musicals, gangster movies, and Casablanca and East of Eden.
There is also a look at the exploits of the studio’s larger-than-life stars, among them Al Jolson, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Bette Davis, and Bugs Bunny.
The book looks at the ways Warner films responded to the political climate, which at that time included the Depression, the Holocaust, the anticommunist campaign, wrestling with issues of Jewish, immigrant, and American identity throughout.
Thomson writes, “This book is called Warner Bros, but if anyone asks, you’re going to say you’re reading “Warner Brothers.” You don’t quite know how to say “Warner Bros.” That logo seems awkward or compacted in the mouth. This is not a trivial distinction between sound and print, family and business identity. They didn’t call themselves Paramount or Universal or Columbia, names from out of the clouds. No, they said theirs was a family show, just the brothers, one for all and all for one.
“They really were four Warner brothers, and if Albert was a sleeping or sleepy partner, Harry, Sam, and Jack are genuine characters. Sam takes an early hit for the team, and that makes him a beloved hero, but Harry and Jack carry the load of life-long rivalry, like Karamazov brothers, vectors to build a story arc on. They fall into unthinking opposition. Why do we have siblings? they wonder – So there’s someone close to us who is not us?
“Jack wins the fraternal struggle – you’ll guess that early on, so no suspense is spoiled. But so many of his victories feel like defeats, too, because of his suspect character. He’s known as a rascal now, while Harry seems upright and duty-bound. Harry could read and write in Hebrew, while Jack struggled with English. But it’s too late to take sides: Harry may have been more honest, but he was dull, too; and if Jack was shifty, that was why you shouldn’t take your eyes off him. The two of them seem always as odds, which leaves victorious Jack as maybe the biggest scumbag ever to get into a Jewish Lives series. I realize ‘scumbag’ is startling: it doesn’t sound judicious; and it may be disconcerting to have a Jewish Life that isn’t admirable, or couched in integrity. Einstein, Freud, Proust, Primo, Levi, Kafka, Emma Goldman…Jack Warner? But this subject is more important than respectability.
“I said ‘scumbag’ for a couple of reasons – Jack is something other than a nobleman; but ‘scumbag’ is a familiar term in the movie business, where it carries more affection than if it were being bandied about in insurance or undertaking. Hollywood, you see, is fond of its rascals, rather in the way we relish its villains or tough guys on screen when they are people we would be scared to meet. And that hints at the complicated influence the Warner Brothers had, and are still having, on us. Here’s a question to illustrate that: which means the most to the most people, or to you: the Special Theory of Relativity, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, or Jimmy Cagney pushing a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face?”
This book is a must-read for anyone that loves old Hollywood and how the movies became an important part of American life.