The Brothers Warner

Chris Yogerst has a virtually Dostoevskyan story to tell: Whatever their differences in personality and outlook, the movie-making brothers remained dedicated to social progress and moral uplift.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The brothers Warner: Albert, Jack, Harry, and Sam in 1925. Via Wikimedia Commons

‘The Warner Brothers’
By Chris Yogerst
University Press of Kentucky, 360 pages

In 1905, the brothers Warner began their movie-made history in a theater with no permanent seats but with 99 chairs borrowed from a Youngstown, Ohio, funeral parlor. Restricting attendance to less than 100 avoided compliance with a fire code that mandated extinguishers and emergency exits, which the undercapitalized brothers could not afford. 

By the late 1920s, with the advent of sound pioneered by brother Sam, Warner Bros., as it came to be identified, had become a contender, rivaling giants such as Paramount and MGM, and staking out a unique identity as the studio that educated and titillated at the same time, producing crime sagas and socially uplifting entertainment.

The inspirer-in-chief was Harry, born in the old country, as my grandparents used to say. Like many immigrants grateful to this country for taking him in and providing the opportunity to create a successful business, he believed in serving the public good while profiting himself and his employees. 

Chris Yogerst has a virtually Dostoevskyan story to tell, climaxing in the eclipse of Harry and the ascendancy of the youngest brother, Jack, who ran the day-to-day studio with a cunning and ruthlessness that, in the end, destroyed the concept of family solidarity that his parents had established in their Youngstown redoubt.  

Sam died young, never to see the fruition of his faith in sound. The talkies required enormous investments from bankers that Harry cultivated, as well as the canny talents of the largely silent Albert, who made sure Warner Bros. pictures were distributed so as to compete with major studio rivals.

Whatever their differences in personality and outlook, the brothers remained dedicated to social progress and moral uplift. They were alone among the major studios in pulling their movies out of Nazi Germany, a lucrative market. Warner Bros. made the first anti-Nazi films.

“Little Caesar” (1931), criticized for glorifying crime, was also about, as its title suggests, the little guy who mattered, and audiences identified with this new kind of hero, whatever their qualms about his methods and practices.  

Warner Bros. films had grit, and that meant Humphrey Bogart; sass, and that meant Bette Davis; and elegance, when the company could borrow the likes of Ronald Colman. Backstage musicals like “Forty-Second Street” (1933) were about aspiring performers — not stars — who sang and danced to the demotic dreams of millions of moviegoers on elaborate stages and setups choreographed by the renowned Busby Berkeley.

Mr. Yogerst skillfully shows that the Warner Bros. brand remained intact even after their New Deal Depression-era support of FDR’s agenda and the patriotic period of World War II, and into the Cold War anti-Communist period of the 1950s.

Jack Warner collaborated in the perpetuation of the blacklist that made it difficult — often impossible — for actors, screenwriters, and some directors, to work because of their alleged communist affiliations, while he continued to think of himself as patriotic and fiercely protective of the business he had built with his brothers. Then, as Harry aged and began to ail, Jack filled a power vacuum and shattered the idea of a Warren Bros. monolith of family purpose.

In  Mr. Yogerst’s Coda to this book, he discloses that originally he had wanted to do a biography of Harry Warner, family man and socially responsible filmmaker, but was rightly advised that there was a bigger story to tell. Without the foil of Jack Warner, devious and adulterous, and his preening self-regard, Harry’s values and his legacy would have seemed less of an urgent matter to explain. 

Mr. Yogerst does not say so, but Jack Warner’s brand of “in it for himself” capitalism, while sometimes giving way to the higher didacticism that Harry promulgated, seemed inevitably to result in selling the company to a corporate conglomerate, since the sentimental idea of Warner Bros. never really appealed to the family’s only roguish member.

Without Jack Warner’s gangster mentality, would Warner Bros. have thrived as long as it did? Mr. Yogerst shows how sharp Jack was when it came to sizing up movie scripts, figuring what would not only sell but make a liberal social statement that had always been a Warner Bros. staple. 

In Mr. Yogerst’s telling, the Warner Bros. story is indeed a kind of demotic epic. Now, who is going to make the movie?

Mr. Rollyson’s work in progress is a biography of Ronald Colman.

The New York Sun

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