The Saga of the Warner Brothers, Hollywood's Studio Family

Culture Watch

Thomas Doherty is Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. He specializes in the history of film. His latest book is Hollywood's Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration (Columbia, 2009).

For once, Groucho Marx was dead serious.  In 1938, at an informal gathering of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the incorrigible wisecracker hailed the happy news that a film daring to use a forbidden four-letter word was finally in the production pipeline:  Confessions of a Nazi Spy, the first shot at the Third Reich from a major Hollywood studio.  “Here’s to Warner Brothers,” said Groucho, raising his glass high, “the only studio with any guts.”

In The Brothers Warner (2008), currently playing on Turner Classic Movies,  the story of Hollywood’s most famous bloodline moguls—level headed chieftain Harry, backstage mediator Albert, tech geek Sam, and obnoxious front man Jack—is told with wry affection and inside-dopester dishing by Harry’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling.  Part archival documentary, part private scrapbook, the film chronicles the inner workings of a smoothly operating dream factory that was also home to a fascinating, if often dysfunctional, family—the Rothschilds of American cinema.   

Like many Hollywood brand names, the Warner brothers were of Eastern European Jewish heritage:  father Ben, who emigrated from Poland in 1880, was so eager to erase memories of the Old World that the real family name was jettisoned before their boat docked in the New.  In 1903, noticing how enthusiastically customers plunked down coins for a nickelodeon treat, the brothers got in on the ground floor of a growth industry—first exhibition, then distribution, finally production. By dint of hustle, hard work, and chutzpah, the quartet soon secured a precarious niche in a wide open, wildcat business.  Setting up shop in Hollywood under a copyright logo officially writ as “Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., ” they made the studio payroll mainly on the back of one of the most talented and least temperamental stars of the silent era, Rin Tin Tin.

In 1925, the mechanically fixated Sam persuaded his skeptical siblings to invest in a new-fangled technology that bid to expand the sensory range of the motion picture medium.  The result was The Jazz Singer (1927), the epochal first sound film and, not coincidentally, a story of Jewish assimilation and all-American aspiration.  (The original program for the film included a Yiddish glossary to help baffled gentiles with the intertitles.)  In a melancholy twist of fate, the Warner brothers did not attend the gala premiere to witness their triumphal breakthrough:  Sam died the day before the film opened.

The Jazz Singer propelled the company from Poverty Row to the big time, but the house style was never as opulent or fantastical as the product conjured on rival backlots.  The Warner Bros. look was lean and hungry, urban and hardscrabble, clouded by cigarette smoke and bathed in noirish lighting.  The roster of contract players suited the atmospherics.  Over at MGM, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo embodied the celestial glamour of the studio that boasted “more stars than there are in heaven,” but at Warner Bros. the actors were more down to earth, streetwise and smart-mouthed, typified by the likes of James Cagney and Bette Davis.  They didn’t need to stretch too far to play taxi drivers, waitresses, truck drivers, shopgirls, bootleggers, and dime-a-dance dames who may have moonlighted at a less vertical profession.    

In the mid-1930s, the studio hit its stride.  A series of “great man” bio-pics such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) lent prestige and garnered Oscars, but the trademark genres were gritty gangster films, fast-moving action-adventures, and multiple-hankie “women’s weepies.”  Not least, in moody, hard-hitting melodramas such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932),  Black Fury (1935),  and Black Legion (1936), the studio pioneered a cycle of “social consciousness” films that fessed up to the fact that something called the Great Depression was lurking just outside the theater lobby.

On and off screen, another quality set Warner Bros. apart.  In film content and political affinities, it was the most frankly Jewish and vehemently anti-Nazi of all the Hollywood studios.  In 1933, after its Berlin manager was pummeled in a back alley by Nazi brownshirts, Warner Bros. became the first studio to sever economic ties with the lucrative German market.  The brothers also pledged their allegiance by supporting the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, hosting fundraisers, and even dunning employees for “donations” to the cause.  At first allegorically, then more explicitly as war clouds darkened over Europe, the studio agitated for tolerance at home while warning of the menace abroad.  Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) is the acknowledged landmark, but even more influential was Sergeant York (1941), a bio-pic of the most decorated hero of the last war that was really a call to arms for the present war.

After Pearl Harbor, the premature antifascism at Warner Bros. became official government policy.  As Jack strutted around the lot in his colonel’s uniform (specially tailored by the costume department), the studio did more than its bit, producing dozens of training films and propaganda shorts.  Yet its signature contribution to the war effort may have been the creation of the “Warner Bros. platoon,” an ensemble first mustered for service in Air Force (1943):  the cooperative combat unit made up of statistically apportioned percentages of Brooklyn Jew, Boston Irishman, Iowa farm boy, etc., all working shoulder to shoulder to defeat the common enemy.  “We would hate to be known only as the company that made the most successful musical film of this great war for freedom,” declared Harry.  Of course, the war years also bequeathed the beloved classic showcasing the genius of the system, Casablanca (1942).  

In the postwar era, Warner Bros. confronted an unexpected blowback from Washington.  Though made at the behest of FDR for the cause of Allied unity, the studio’s Mission to Moscow (1943) was a whitewash of Soviet history and Stalin’s crimes that looked less patriotic in the midst of the Cold War.  Called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Jack was understandably flummoxed to discover that he, of all people, could be suspected of fostering anti-capitalist subversion.  Chastened, Warner Bros., like all the Hollywood studios, enforced a strict blacklist against any “ideological termites” that might burrow into American cinema.

In the 1950s, with television siphoning off motion picture audiences and the studio system collapsing, Warner Bros. struggled to meet the new realities.  With characteristic foresight, the studio moved aggressively into television production. It also tapped into the burgeoning youth market, most notably with Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  

In 1956, however, a threat greater than TV or HUAC would crack the Warner Bros. shield to pieces.  Proving that blood ties were not thicker than stock options, Jack doubled crossed Harry and seized sole controlling interest of the company.  Under Jack until 1967, Warner Bros. would remain a high-profile Hollywood studio, and later morph into the global entertainment conglomerate we know today.  Yet it would never again be what it was in its golden age-- a family business.   

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Michael Green - 3/14/2010

The Warner Bros. also deserve credit for generally leaving alone a brilliant group of artists--Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin and Bob McKimson in particular--to make the greatest animated cartoons of their day.

Not that the Warners were necessarily that aware of what was going on. Their producer wangled a lunch meeting for Freleng, Jones, and McKimson after the animation unit had been running for more than 20 years. At lunch, Jones said, Harry Warner said all he knew about their animation unit was that they had Mickey Mouse. The three cartoon directors looked at one another and, thinking he was joking, finally Freleng said they would do their best to make sure he remained the most popular animated character. Jack said if they valued their jobs, they would make sure of it.