Oh, Brothers

Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio (Jewish Lives) BY David Thomson. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 232 pages. $25.

The cover of Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio (Jewish Lives)

Hollywood has always been a place of invention and reinvention, a world where outsiders could fashion themselves as architects of American mythology, and where the outsize success stories of dogged scoundrels are celebrated with enthusiasm. Perhaps no studio, and no family, better represents this spirit than Warner Bros., established in the first decades of the twentieth century by the Polish-born Wonskolasor siblings Harry (né Moses), Albert (né Aaron), and Sam (né Szmul), along with their brash little brother Jack (né Jacob), who was born in Canada after the family fled to the New World. Their spectacular achievements in the motion-picture business, writes film scholar David Thomson in his chronicle of the studio, the latest installment of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series, “left us believing that their stories were our fables and dreams, and not just their money and their made-up name.”

Their lives are so deeply ingrained in film history, their dreams so much a part of the American dream, that they could almost be the lead characters in a sweeping Hollywood epic: Harry, who assumed the moral voice, was honorable if a tad too earnest; Albert remained the silent partner; Sam, once a powerful presence within the family, died the day before the premiere of The Jazz Singer in 1927; and Jack, the most American of them, was the kind of guy who, as Jack Benny once quipped, “would rather make a bad joke than a good picture.” Thomson suggests that the recurrent scenes of sibling rivalry conjured upon the studio’s soundstages and back lots in Burbank, California (from the filming of The Public Enemy, in the early 1930s, to that of East of Eden, in the mid-’50s), mirrored some of the brothers’ offscreen battles. Particularly at odds were Harry, the notoriously dull, Old Worldcompany president, and Jack, the slick, mustachioed, pugnacious head of production; they bickered over pretty much everything, from money and morality to the question of where to live.

Thomson likens the lifelong competition between Harry and Jack to the fictional struggle between the Karamazov brothers. But a more striking family resemblance can be found in The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), I. J. Singer’s Yiddish bildungsroman set in turn-of-the-century Poland, in which a ruthless industrialist named Max Ashkenazi (né Simha Meir) disavows his origins and severs ties with his comparatively decent, morally minded twin brother, Jacob. In his famously tactless, dog-eat-dog approach to business, as well as his vindictive streak and penchant for taking calls while on the crapper, Jack Warner not only shared certain affinities with Max Ashkenazi but, in Thomson’s cheeky estimation, is “maybe the biggest scumbag ever to get into a Jewish Lives series.”

Despite the brothers’ chronic disagreements—or perhaps on some level because of them—the quality of Warner Bros.’ output remained remarkably high from the ’30s into the mid-’60s. Thomson gives due attention to the studio’s celebrated actors, writers, directors, composers, editors, and costume designers. Pre-Code bombshellJoan Blondell gets her own chapter—her singing of the Busby Berkeley–inspired number “Remember My Forgotten Man” in Gold Diggers of 1933 ranks for Thomson as “one of the finest moments in Warners history”—as does Bette Davis, whose bold performances in Marked Woman (1937), The Letter (1940), and Now, Voyager (1942) helped define her illustrious career at the studio. Wildly successful canine star Rin Tin Tin—Jack called him “the mortgage lifter”—rates a chapter, too, for the buckets of fan mail he elicited (he would sign his responses with a paw print).

Thomson also examines movies like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933), both Depression-era dramas about dejected veterans returning from the Great War, which, he writes, earned Warner Bros. a “reputation as the most socially conscious or leftist studio outside the Soviet Union.” By the end of the decade, in a complete break with the hands-off approach taken by other major studios, Warner Bros. was addressing the threats of native-born racism (Black Legion, 1937) and fascism (Confessions of a Nazi Spy, 1939). Even Groucho Marx, who otherwise loved to ridicule Hollywood moguls, hailed Warner Bros. as “the only studio with any guts.”

It’d be hard to write a book about Warner Bros. without highlighting the studio’s extraordinarily charmed wartime drama of 1942. “It’s no secret,” observes Thomson, that “Casablanca is the most celebrated movie made by Warners, and one of the most cherished ever created in Hollywood.” Forget, for the moment, that Jack Warner once asked, rather densely (and typically), “Who would want to kiss Humphrey Bogart?” The film is, as Thomson rightly points out, quintessential Warner Bros.: “liberal in its sentiments, brilliant and appealing in its screen decisiveness, wry, fond of sentiment yet hardboiled, as if to say we’re Americans, we can take it and dish it out.” It should perhaps come as no surprise that when Casablanca won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1943, Jack jumped onstage to snatch the golden statuette before producer Hal B. Wallis knew what had hit him.

After taking the reader on a lively tour of the Warners’ numerous triumphs in show business, Thomson doubles back to the studio’s most poignant drama: the family saga itself. During a studio visit by Albert Einstein in the early 1930s, Jack unveiled “his own theory of relativity,” one he grappled with for most of his life: “Never hire relatives.” By the time Harry succumbed to a stroke in July 1958, tensions between the brothers were so high that Jack opted to stay at his vacation home in Antibes rather than attend the funeral. “Harry didn’t die,” announced Harry’s wife, Rea, at the funeral. “Jack killed him.” He sold the studio in 1966, a year before Bonnie and Clyde ushered in the New Hollywood, and he took home a cool $32 million. Even in today’s dollars—roughly $240 million—that price tag doesn’t come close to the actual value of the studio’s place in motion-picture history, not to mention the character-defining battles it fought to get there.

Noah Isenberg’s latest book, We’ll Always Have Casablanca, was published by Norton in February.