Saturday, April 22, 2023

Flashback, April 1923: Warner Brothers Pictures Formed

One hundred years ago this month, Harry, Albert, Sam, and John L. (Jack) Warner—a quartet who, only two decades before, had pooled their money and that from their father's hocked watch to buy a projector—formally incorporated themselves as Warner Brothers Pictures, which became one of the best-known and most enduring of American film studios.

Earlier this month, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) kicked off four weeks of programming from the studio with The Brothers Warner, a 2007 documentary by Cass Warner, the granddaughter of Harry Warner.  The documentary should be seen and evaluated for what it is: a fulfillment of debt of love to the filmmaker’s ancestor—useful for its direct knowledge of Harry, but hardly objective.

In the golden age of Hollywood, I wouldn’t have had to tell you what kind of movies Warner Brothers made. Even in the 1990s, when “entertainment retail” became something of a fad, you could have gone to one of the Warner Brothers Studio Stores (130 locations at its peak) and seen all kinds of merchandise associated with its history.

The store underscored the premise by which the company had long operated, even if it never used the term: it was a brand, just as much as MGM (home of the lavish Astaire, Kelly, and Garland musicals, as well as “More stars than there are in heaven!”) and Disney (focused on animation) were.

The business environment in which Warners thrived is long gone, and young people these days often regard black-and-white films as antiquated, similarly to how those of my generation viewed silent movies. So let me spell out what the Brothers Warner gave us:

*Sound on film, all but taken for granted now but a “disruptive technology” if there ever was one, pioneered in vehicles for John Barrymore (Don Juan, with synchronized musical score and sound effects but no dialogue) and Al Jolson (The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length movie but synchronized music and at least some dialogue);

*The gangster movie, which gave rise to such stars as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni, Humphrey Bogart, and George Raft;

*The socially conscious “movie with a message,” taking in subject matter that other studios wouldn’t touch in the Thirties, including the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, chain gangs, and the rise of Nazi Germany; 

*The dog as savior of the family—i.e., Rin Tin Tin, a French-born German Shepherd that saved the studio from bankruptcy more than once in its early years—such a reliable money-maker that, according to New Yorker writer Susan Orlean, he was nicknamed the “mortgage-lifter” at Warner Brothers; and

*Bugs Bunny cartoons, a moneymaking series that (surprisingly) the economy-conscious brothers didn't appreciate or value.

The documentaries that TCM aired earlier this month on the Warners—the one by Cass Warner, as well as Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul, created in 2006 by this brother’s grandchild—were intriguing, but told only part of the story of the company in its heyday.

For a more complete picture, I strongly recommend that you hunt down a copy of the 1985 history Inside Warner Brothers (1935-1951). Rudy Behlmer took full advantage of a cultural historian’s dream: Warner Brothers’ mandate that everything be put in writing during production, so that there could be no doubt about what creative talent wanted in case disputes arose.

For that reason, Behlmer was able to reproduce letters, memos, telegrams, phone conversations, and production reports not just from the founding brothers chronicled in the previously mentioned documentaries, but also from directors, stars, screenwriters, lawyers, and other personnel who affected how movies got made back then.

You get to hear about:

*Humphrey Bogart, barking about Conflict that “Nothing will convince me it is a good picture” and daring Jack Warner to suspend him for refusing to do the movie (eventually Bogie yielded, much to his regret);

* George Raft launching a volley of profane insults and threatening physical harm to Edward G. Robinson during production of Manpower;

*Bette Davis constantly wrangling with the studio about her roles; and

*Executive producer Hal B. Wallis, haranguing director Michael Curtiz on the lace collars and cuffs worn by Errol Flynn in his star-making vehicle, Captain Blood (“I want the man to look like a pirate, not a molly-coddle”).

The Warner Brothers lot was more of a home to patient professionals ready to endure such second-guessing rather than to idiosyncratic directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, or Orson Welles.

The brash and belligerent Jack Warner especially provoked reactions, not just from those making movies for him but from more stoic siblings Harry and Albert. The decline and collapse of the latter relationships would be worth an entire blog post in itself, which I hope to write later this year.

But in the meantime, the best way to appreciate these films is to see as many of them as you, pay close attention to the credits, and follow the trail from there. Paradoxically, the quickly and cheaply made products of the Warner movie factory often turned out to be creative art of the highest quality

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