Eh, what’s up, Doc?
Few studios are as influential as Warner Bros. Over its long history it’s pioneered sound film, refused to tiptoe around the Nazis or any other pressing social issue, and has never shied away from presenting a grittier, more realistic view of life.
What’s amazing is that its history is largely unknown. Many people think the name, “Warner Bros.” stands for a brand, and if they don’t, Jack Warner is usually the first and only name which comes to mind.
The reason for this has been a Warner family skeleton for decades. The 2007 documentary, The Brothers Warner, which was produced, written, hosted, and narrated by Cass Warner Sperling, not only sets the record straight, but is a loving look at a quintessential American story.
Sperling is Harry Warner’s granddaughter. She remembers riding a tractor at her grandpa’s ranch and doing all the regular kid stuff, but she also remembers hanging around the Warner Bros. lot. She says that if the red light was off, she could go in any soundstage and watch the magic happen. Harry passed away when Sperling was ten, and as she stayed by his bedside, Sperling felt she was making her grandpa a promise. Later she realized he was charging her with preserving the family history.
The Warner family emigrated to Baltimore in 1886 from Krasnoshiltz, which is now part of Poland, because Benjamin Warner wanted to work and educate his family. With twelve kids, the potential was literally formidable, and work they did. Harry started out selling newspapers and shining shoes, which, as he said, taught him to value work. If one didn’t work, one didn’t eat.
So how did the family get into the movie business? Well, it happened in much the same way as it did for other very early film moguls: They stumbled into a nickelodeon. Before long, the Warners decided film exhibition was where it was at, and they started off projecting movies on a bed sheet with chairs borrowed from a funeral parlor. They soon moved on to owning a movie theater, Cascade Picture Palace, in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Everyone had a job, including the youngest, Jack, who, among other antics, had to gently nudge audiences out between showings. Well, “gentle” is a relative term: Jack’s method of nudging usually involved bad jokes and even worse singing.
The filmmaking ball got rolling when the supply of movies dried up, so the Warners started producing two-reelers. Dad Benjamin gave Albert, Jack, Harry, and Sam some advice to the effect of, if the brothers hung together, they would be unstoppable. Harry, as the oldest, was the one to keep everyone united.
All of the brothers had very distinctive personalities. Harry was a quiet, serious, gentle soul. Albert was also quiet, but less gentle. Sam was mechanically minded, always with an eye to new innovations. Jack was the cut-up with the zany sense of humor.
They might have been unstoppable, but things were definitely hard going, especially at the beginning. The Warners bought a studio at 5800 Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles, which is today Sunset Bronson Studios, home of KTLA. Rin Tin Tin was the Warners’ first star and their bread and butter. The wolf wasn’t quite at the door, but he was sniffing around.
However, Sam had some ideas that would favor the Warner fortunes in a big way. The Warners acquired Vitaphone, which primarily produced shorts, but Sam used them to experiment with sound film. President Harry was dismissive at first because he thought no one would want to listen to actors talk, but his tune quickly changed after the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, which featured the top performer of the time, Al Jolson, and roughly two minutes of sound footage. From that point on, Warner Bros. was known for its innovation.
It was also known for its head-on approach to issues, but unlike the Hollywood of today, social issues were approached with a heavy dash of patriotism and respect for the public. Subjects such as prison brutality, presented in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, became fuel for reform. The Warners took some heat for these types of movies, but their sense of morality was so strong that they were able to tell dissenters to go fly a kite, even when their films got them sued, such as when the Ku Klux Klan came after them (and lost) for 1937’s The Black Legion.
This bullishness carried over into the World War Two period, when studios were being advised not to name the Nazis directly or portray them in too bad a light. Hollywood wanted to keep its collective foot in the European market and therefore didn’t want to make Hitler mad. The Warners said, “Nuts!” to that, producing Confessions of A Nazi Spy in 1939. They got sued over that one, too.
Things weren’t always so serious at the Warner lot, though. Warner Bros. is, of course, known for Bugs Bunny and the Looney Tunes cartoons, which later became a staple of many a Saturday morning or, nowadays, a binge watch.
Jack and Harry fell out in the late fifties when Jack sold the studio out from under his two remaining brothers, Sam having passed away in 1927. He also ingratiated himself to the new owners, the Semenenko-Allen Group, who then sold the studio back to Jack. Harry may have been the president, but Jack shouted him down in more ways than one. Harry was out and Jack was in. Jack would be a presence at the studio in some capacity until the early seventies, the last Warner standing. His three brothers were erased from the studio’s history.
Harry suffered a debilitating stroke soon after the sale and lost the ability to speak. When he would see Jack at family gatherings, Harry would get away from his younger brother in the only way he could–by shutting his eyes. The rest of the family shared Harry’s distaste, which is why Jack is the sole brother not buried in the Warner mausoleum at Home of Peace Memorial Park.
The Brothers Warner is peppered with original footage and interviews with family members, actors, producers, and other industry professionals who knew the Warners. This isn’t new for documentaries, but in the case of Warner, it’s gold. And it’s very personal. Cass looks at family photo albums with her mother, the late Betty Warner Sheinbaum and listens to her swap memories with her cousin and close friend, Jack Warner, Jr. She also sits down with Roy Disney, Debbie Reynolds and Dennis Hopper, all of whom have stories of their encounters with the Warners. The thing that seemed to impress everyone was the brothers’ desire for their employees to be as committed and passionate as they were. “Put your tookus on the table.” was a common saying.
The film beautifully handles its very touchy subject matter. It doesn’t tear down or white-knight, but quietly and simply presents the Warner story and then backs off. The brothers speak for themselves, those who knew them relate their experiences, and viewers can draw their own conclusions. I found Harry as likeable as Jack was underhanded, but in the end I couldn’t help but acknowledge the unique contributions to American life and film they both made, as did Albert and Sam. While the family’s story is not well-known to many, their influence is undeniable.
Sperling clearly bears Jack no malice; in one scene she visits Jack’s grave. “We’re family,” she says. “Mischpokhe.”
But, she also says, fate will not have the last word.
For more of the American Experience On Film Blogathon, please see Debbie at Moon In Gemini. Thanks for hosting, Debra–this was a great idea! Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you next weekend for Taking Up Room’s visit with U.N. Owen (cue creepy music and thunderclaps)…
The Brothers Warner is available on DVD from Amazon.
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