Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Brothers Warner (“Warner Sisters,” 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie I’d recently recorded from TCM: The Brothers Warner, a quirky 2008 documentary directed by Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry Warner (though since her descent from Harry Warner was matrilineal — her mom was Harry’s daughter, Betty Warner Sheinbaum — she obviously only got “Warner” in her own name either from her parents or from herself). There were some scenes in this film that were unnecessarily cute — like the one early on in which she’s doing person-on-the-street interviews on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in L.A. and asking passers-by if they know how Warner Bros. got its name (and finding, predictably, that most people have utterly no idea and hear “Warner” as merely a brand name, part of the Time Warner conglomerate, without any clue that there were four real Warner brothers who started the business) — and a good bit of legend-mongering, but the film was unexpectedly interesting.

I was a bit skeptical about whether there’d still be anything interesting to say about the history of Warner Bros. after the three-part, six-hour documentary You Must Remember This, but there was quite a lot — indeed, at times the story of the Warner brothers resembled that of one of the more dysfunctional royal families of Europe, with a couple of Byronic early deaths (not only that of Sam Warner, the principal advocate for going into sound films, on the eve of the premiere of The Jazz Singer, but the perhaps even more tragic death of Harry Warner’s promising son Lewis at 23 in 1931 of an impacted wisdom tooth that got infected; Lewis had been in charge of Warners’ diversification into music publishing, book publishing, radio and records — and while the music publishing continued and was a success, the brothers bailed out of the ancillary businesses after Lewis’s death), a child custody battle (Lita, daughter of Sam Warner and his actress wife Lina Basquette, was taken away from her mom after Sam’s death and given to Harry and his wife to raise) and an eventual blood feud between Jack and Harry that resulted in Jack Warner finding a buyer for the studio in 1956 — and then buying it back just one day later, meaning that Jack became sole owner and froze Harry and Abe out.

The parts of The Brothers Warner dealing with the inner dynamics of the Warner family are, predictably, the most interesting parts of this movie; the story of the studio itself follows pretty much the standard narrative (as John Ford said, albeit in a non-Warners film, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”), including the one about how Warners was close to bankruptcy when they threw a last roll of the dice introducing Vitaphone and filming the first commercially successful sound films. Alexander Walker did a pretty good job debunking this one in his book on the early days of talkies, The Shattered Silents, pointing out that Warners, though down the studio food chain from Paramount and MGM in the 1920’s, still had substantial enough assets that they were able to get major loans from their investment banker, Waddill Catchings (who also represented AT&T, inventors of the Vitaphone technology, which gave Warners an inside track in licensing it), to fund their first Vitaphone productions.

The film also argues that Warners’ style of socially conscious moviemaking came about largely as a personal commitment from Harry Warner — and indeed it includes a lot of archival footage of Harry Warner making public speeches about his philosophy that a movie studio had an obligation not only to entertain the public but to build social awareness — and ignores one of the key factors in Warners’ concentrating so heavily on working-class stories in the 1930’s. In 1928, flush with the profits of The Jazz Singer and Al Jolson’s even more successful second film, The Singing Fool (the documentary states that The Jazz Singer set a box-office record that wasn’t surpassed until Gone With the Wind — it was actually The Singing Fool that did that), Warners bought the First National company, which had been formed in 1918 by independent theatre owners, concerned that Paramount would monopolize production and freeze them out of major product. Since First National’s founders were owners of theatres in less affluent locations than the grand picture palaces of Paramount and Loews (MGM’s parent company), Warners produced films about people lower in the socioeconomic scale than those in Paramount’s or MGM’s films because that’s what the people in the neighborhoods where the First National theatres were located wanted to see.

The Brothers Warner doesn’t really go into the reasons why Jack and Harry Warner became such bitter enemies over the years — though I suspect it’s because Cass Warner Sperling and her relatives don’t really know (this seems to be a secret Jack and Harry Warner took to their graves) and in a funny sequence towards the end it reveals what the original Polish family name of the Warners was before it got “Anglicized”: Wonskolaser. The film features quite a wide range of interviewees, from Dennis Hopper (reminiscing about his days as a Warners contract player in the 1950’s) to Sherry Lansing (former head of Paramount and Fox, noting the sad truth that the conglomerate-owned studios of today would never tolerate top executives saying, as Harry Warner did, that they were as much in the business of educating as entertaining) to Sam Goldwyn, Jr. (remembering that the night they first saw The Jazz Singer, his dad and Irving Thalberg agreed that it was just a “one-shot,” a passing fad that wouldn’t amount to anything) and Roy E. Disney — whose father was partners with his brother in a studio that remains one of the power players in the business today (and Walt and Roy Disney didn’t get along any better than Jack and Harry Warner had, mainly because Walt was the visionary and Roy was the how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-pay-for-this? finance guy); another still-surviving studio that was founded by feuding brothers was Columbia (and in an interesting coincidence the feuding brothers of Columbia were Jack and Harry Cohn, though their roles were reversed from those of their namesakes at Warners: Jack Cohn was Columbia’s Harry Warner — the New York-based finance guy — while Harry Cohn was Columbia’s Jack Warner, the flamboyant head of production in Hollywood).

The Brothers Warner might have been an even more interesting film than it is if Cass Warner Sperling had focused more on the political transformations the Warner brothers went through — from Roosevelt liberals in the 1930’s to hard-line Right-wingers in the 1940’s (they were “conservatized” largely by the appalling jurisdictional disputes between two unions — the Mafia-controlled International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, or IATSE, and the Communist-controlled Conference of Studio Unions, or CSU — that plagued Hollywood and led to several production shutdowns as one or the other union pulled the set builders out on strike and actors and other workers had to choose sides and decide whose picket lines they were or weren’t willing to cross) — and how they actually moved away from socially conscious moviemaking in the late 1940’s (though John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda made money in 1948, Doris Day’s first movie, Romance on the High Seas, made so much more money that Jack Warner fired Huston and Negulesco and oriented his production schedule towards frothy comedies and musicals, most of them in color).

It showcased the musical Camelot as Jack Warner’s last production — which it was and it wasn’t; it was his last film at Warners but he went on to make one more movie, 1776, as an independent producer releasing through Columbia. Still, The Brothers Warner is an interesting look at the movie business and how studio ownership structures and corporate politics determine what we see on screen — and how a remarkable filmic legacy that continues to inspire and entertain got made and shown in the first place.