Warner Bros -The Making Of An American Movie Studio

David Thomson

Yale, University Press £16.99

Review by Allan Hunter

NOBODY writes about the movies with quite the same blend of fond affection, heart-racing excitement and razor sharp insight as David Thomson. The author of The Biographical Dictionary Of Film always has a fresh perspective on even the most familiar of titles. He is a dedicated worshipper at the altar of cinema, celebrating its power as a source of personal pleasure and its significance as an undisputed force in the shaping of individuals and societies.

Published as part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, Warner Bros-The Making Of An American Movie Studio is a slender volume with a title that promises rather more than it delivers. Thomson does provide some chapter and verse on the history of the Jewish emigre brothers who established one of the most successful studios in the history of Hollywood. He seems much more engaged by revisiting classic Warner Brothers titles from The Jazz Singer (1927) to White Heat, (1949), offering thumbnail sketches of the studio’s most enduring stars from Bette Davis to James Cagney and proposing a theory that the rascally scoundrel Jack Warner was the true author of the studio’s films as opposed to any particular director, actor or screenwriter.

Acknowledging a debt to Neil Gabler’s An Empire Of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood (1988), Thomson sees the Warner siblings as part of the vast wave of European emigres who came to America and, consciously or not, used the entertainment industry to shape a sense of the country’s identity and to define the American Dream. He has a way of teasing out the personal significance of Warner Brothers films, seeing their production of East Of Eden (1955) as a reflection of bitter sibling rivalry and viewing the call to patriotism and urge towards reinvention in Casablanca (1942) as a reflection of the brothers' own story.

Thomson does provide us with a sense of each brother’s personality, claiming an early photo of four siblings is reminiscent of a tableau from The Godfather. Oldest brother Harry is honest, decent and dutiful. Albert is the sleeping partner. Sam may have been the one who first glimpsed the potential of the movie business with his purchase of a primitive projector. It is youngest brother Jack who enthrals with his ebullient, large than life personality that makes him seem more like a character from a movie. He is the ruthless businessman, movie maker and swashbuckling showman; a “ charming pirate” riding roughshod over family loyalty and moral qualms. Late in the history of the studio, Jack persuades his brothers to join him in selling their stock and settling down to a well-earned, comfortable retirement. He secretly arranged to buy back the stock, ousting his brother Harry and installing himself as President of the company. Thomson drily notes: “ Brothers cannot escape the need for battle”.

Thomson rarely seems to come at his subject head on; he approaches sideways, fuelled by curiosity and happy to follow interesting diversions and distractions. He is expert at making connections that only seem obvious once he identifies them. He points out that the family gathering to watch The First Great Train Robbery (1903) has later echoes in The Letter (1940) and The Wild Bunch (1969), that it is impossible to see Barbara Streisand in Yentl (1983) without feeling the heritage of Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927), widely credited as the first talking picture.

Warner Brothers' reputation rests on the raw energy of its fast-paced gangster films, Depression-era musicals with kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley routines and socially conscious dramas that reflected the mood of the period. “ No other studio did hard times with such panache, “ he notes. He provides an expert reading of the classic I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), the personalities of Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and a Bette Davis who thrived on conflict and knew exactly what her loyal fans demanded. “ Show Bette a happy ending and she could really get nasty.” He identifies Humphrey Bogart as “ close to the heart of the Warner Brothers dream in which an outlaw might become a sultry paragon”.

Thomson also pays tribute to half forgotten figures like Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and Kay Francis and finds a brief few lines to salute Rin Tin Tin, Bugs Bunny and the studio’s non-human stars. The book is repetitive in places, revisits material familiar from earlier Thomson writings and yet you also sense it could easily have been twice the length. A treasure trove of facts, speculation and provocative theories with delightful curlicues of gossip and anecdote, Warner Bros is a vividly written, immensely readable little volume.