Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio
By David Thomson
Yale University Press, 2017
204 pages, $25
Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack. The Warner Brothers. Theirs was a family show, one for all and all for one. So begins their story, Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio by the esteemed film critic and historian David Thomson. Thomson takes us through the rise of the studio’s shaky beginnings to its ascent to the pinnacle of Hollywood popularity. He provides interesting interpretations of Warner Bros pictures, and he paints vivid pictures of the studio’s stars, including Al Jolson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, James Dean, Joan Crawford and Bugs Bunny.
Benjamin Wonsal and his family of four sons lived in a part of Russia near Poland where Benjamin felt he had to escape the oppression of Jews. He and his wife Pearl took their children out of Europe and sailed to Baltimore. Wanting to become American, Benjamin changed the family name to Warner. Moses became Harry, Aaron became Albert and Szmul became Sam. And Jacob Warner, who was born in Ontario on the first leg of the family’s journey, became Jack.
Theirs was a Jewish family, from out of the shadows of Russia. They had to learn and labor to find a place for themselves. They were resolved, if not desperate or anxious, to be respectable and law-abiding, a true part of the new country. They finally decided to enter the shoe business—because everyone needed shoes.
Theirs is also the story of immigrants feeling free but lost in a new country. “The movies were an attempt by early 20th century Jews to be American. Warner Bros movies were for all of us,” Thomson writes. “Yiddish theater might be for the Jews, but the movies were for everyone. You didn’t need to be Orthodox or saved to buy your tickets. And these brothers longed to transcend Jewishness, and the traditions they thought made them feel vulnerable.”
Thomson’s book reveals the brothers’ underlying reason for the movies they chose: their desire to leave behind the ways of the old country and become steeped in the American myth, transforming the way they and the rest of the country saw themselves.
It all started when Sam Warner purchased a movie projector and a kinetoscope of the movie The Great Train Robbery. The movie had a tremendous impact on the family, especially on Jack, viewing the magic shadows on the screen. Said Harry, “If this is what it does to my own brothers and sisters, and my parents, then think what it can do to others.” He imagined himself selling tickets to long lines of people waiting to see this new wonder on the wall come to life. This was the beginning of their gun play and devil-may-care outlaw movies.
The brothers’ first significant production was My Four Years in Germany, based on a sensationalist book, in 1918. It was the decisive start of Warner Brothers as a movie-making operation. Harry told the ambassador to Germany, “The movie I make can carry to the American people and the world, your stirring warning about the menace of the German military threat. The picture will help arouse the world at large why we must fight for civilization.” It was a silent film, but it was getting closer to the gangster films that Darryl Zanuck would launch. (Sam Warner was the brother who eventually brought sound into the movies—and it was sound that brought the Warners to the top of the business.)
The Jazz Singer, which came out in 1927, was the historic turning point for Warner Brothers. It was about one character’s struggle to be both Jewish and American—a cantor’s son and a vaudeville entertainer. Al Jolson, the star, personified Jewish storytelling for a universal audience. Sam Warner was the one who pushed for the movie to have sound, and Jack signed Jolson. “The Jazz Singer,” Thomson explains, “is so archaically sentimental that it seems to come from the 19th century yet sometimes so alive, naked and exhilarated. The Jazz Singer is a helpless admission of the existential distress felt by European Jewry trying to assimilate in America.”
But the Warners were anxious not to seem like a Jewish business; they wanted to be American. Casablanca, released in 1942, did not emphasize the Jewish experience. It is also the most celebrated movie the Warners ever made—and one of the most cherished in Hollywood. “Here was a movie about success and togetherness, those essential Hollywood conviction. That appealed to the brothers Warner, as it did to the immigrant generation that had founded the picture business and who assumed that their own social transformation was a principle that could be sold to millions,” Thomson writes, adding, “A big element in the charm of Casablanca is that underlying air of comradeship, and of an international cast coming together at a moment when everyone was appreciating how the war was turning strangers into allies. Bogart and Dooley Wilson were the only Americans with sizable roles.” Bergman was Swedish, Claude Rains and Sidney Greenstreet were English and Paul Heinreid was Austrian. Peter Lorre was from Hungary. And Michael Curtiz, a Jew from Budapest, was the director.
In 1948, studio identity began collapsing—along with the box office figures. So it was that Warners made A Streetcar Named Desire, with Elia Kazan directing and Vivien Leigh as Blanche. “The purpose was to shed poetry’s light on behavior that had been subject to official repression and widespread public ignorance.” Streetcar was nominated for 12 Oscars.
By this time, Jack Warner was running the studio. Sam, the brother they all loved, had been dead for years. Harry believed in the family and the old stories; he was president of the company and tried to keep the business sane. Albert was the most ordinary, enjoying a simple life in Florida. Jack ran more of the show, and people either endured or despised him.
Sibling rivalry was always present between the brothers, particularly Harry and Jack. So in 1955, they chose to make East of Eden. The film, starring the young James Dean, “may be the best Bible story Hollywood ever made, so conventional that it shrugs off any conventional attempt to be moral. It was the only film that understands the way one brother might vanquish another,” Thomson writes. In the Warner family, Harry was the conscious older brother, reasonable, good-natured and home-bodied. He was kind, honest, devout and devoted to family matters. Jack, on the other hand, wanted to draw attention. He was the showman in the family.
When Jack and his brothers decided to cash out of the business, Jack made a deal to sell 90 percent of the business to the banker Serge Semenenko. Once the brothers were out, he planned secretly to buy back his shares and declare himself president of Warners. Harry was devastated; he ultimately suffered a series of strokes and died in 1958. After a car crash, Jack handed most of the control of Warners to manager Steve Trilling (who was later fired, and committed suicide years later).
Jack Warner sold the studio in 1966 to Seven Arts. Albert Warner died in 1967, and Jack Warner died in 1978 at age 86. But even many years later, Warner Brothers’ effect on our culture endures. Thomson takes us behind the scenes of an American movie studio the likes of which we will never see again. We can thank him for allowing us to see a lost era of shining stars in all its brilliance. Warner Bros was a reflection of the American experience; it transcended Jewishness, but was intrinsically Jewish all the same.