Of the major studios, one was family. Harry, Albert, Sam, Jack- the Warner brothers- turned a storefront that used a sheet for a screen into a dream factory rooted in the credo of educate, entertain and enlighten. In this fascinating documentary, filmmaker (and Harry’s granddaughter) Cass Warner Sperling tells a story of sibling rivalry, social conscience and the silver screen. It’s a story of pioneering (risking all the talkies) and politics (standing alone in Hollywood against the Nazis), of reels (The Public Enemy, Casablanca and more) and rifts (including a shocking family betrayal). It’s a story told from the inside (via rare family archives) by those who lived it (among them such starts as Dennis Hopper, Debbie Reynolds, Tab Hunter and more) and from the outside by film historians. The people, the picture, the tales untold on camera until now.
eyelights: the overall overview. the personal touches.
eyesores: the thinness of the history. the potential bias.
‘The Brothers Warner’ is a 2007 feature-length documentary on the founders of the Warner Bros. motion picture studio. It was directed by Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry Warner, the eldest of the brothers, and consists of the journey that brought Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack to the top of the motion picture business.
And their respective downfalls.
I knew nothing of the brothers going in. I can’t even say that I ever cared. To me, Warner Bros. is a massive corporation that’s part of larger conglomerate that’s too large for me to fathom. In fact, I probably never would have watched the film if not for the fact that I’m currently exploring cinema on a general level.
But I’m glad that I did: it had a few surprises in store.
Beginning with her film company’s logo, Warner Sisters (A nice touch. Is it ironic, or a tribute?), Cass Warner becomes our guide through her family’s incredible history, narrating the film and also interviewing the many participants, which include family members, friends, colleagues and many other industry leaders.
Evidently proud of her heritage, Cass begins by addressing the fact that Warner Bros. began as a family business – that it wasn’t always a corporate entity as it is now. She even goes out on the street, asking people if they think there actually were brothers involved, or if it was just a brand. Sadly, most people had no idea.
But these Warner brothers were very real, and each had a very distinct personality:
- Harry was the eldest of the four brothers and had to take care of his 11 other siblings. Because of this, he was extremely responsible. He would become President and strategist of Warner Bros.
- Albert was the quiet one, and liked to remain low key. He would be in charge of distribution and exhibitor relations.
- Sam was the visionary, the more technically savvy one; he was extremely bright, if unsophisticated. He became the producer and was in charge of acquisitions
- Jack was the youngest, and the most animated of the lot; he was very strong, direct. He became the company’s front man, taking care of day-to-day operations.
The family came from Poland in the late 1800s, changed their name (Cass discovers the original one during her interviews) and left everything behind. They were uneducated. They had little so they had to work extremely hard. In 1903, all four saw the future of the nickelodeon, and pretty much all had the same idea: to get into movies.
So their father sold a few things and they opened up a movie house, The Cascade. It was so popular that they soon opened a string of cinemas. According to this documentary, when they ran out of films to play, they started producing. And when Edison tried to control East Coast productions, they moved West.
(nota bene: Wikipedia indicates a much more complicated history than this film presents. And, according to the imdb, there are also some factual inconsistencies in the documentary along the way).
The big turning point came in 1925, when Henry bought Vitaphone, upon Sam’s recommendation. He became convinced that talkies were the future of cinema, so he put 7 million dollars into it – a HUGE risk at the time. They were derided by the rest of the industry, who believed that cinema and sound didn’t mix.
However, this lead to ‘Don Juan’ and then to the massive success of ‘The Jazz Singer’, which not only put sound on the map, change the industry, and brought them back from bankruptcy, but it made them rich. Unfortunately, Sam never saw the premiere of ”The Jazz Singer’. He suddenly fell ill and died of a brain hemorrhage.
‘The Jazz Singer’ is significant for many reasons. The most important one is that its success showed that talkies were a viable investment, which invariably meant more talkies eventually followed. This is what inspired Walt Disney to produce ‘Steamboat Willie’ the animated short that put him and Mickey Mouse on the map.
Warner Bros. was now well ensconced in Hollywood. They were known as a hard-edged studio with a social conscience, and a champion for patriotism. They made topical films that discussed the human condition. The Warners are known for saying that there was more to making films than making money.
Harry in particular is portrayed as being rather generous, giving to the poor anonymously, giving bonuses to his staff, …etc. It is said that he tried to give back to the community, tried to do the right thing, that he had a conscience. Of course, this documentary was written and directed by his loving and devoted grand-daughter…
Still, he stopped doing business with Germany when Hitler came to power, many years before anyone else did. He even tried to make anti-Nazi films, but the production code prevented it. It would be until 1939 before he could, with ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy’. By 1941, they could finally make war effort films – which they did with gusto.
But there was trouble brewing between the brothers, particularly between Harry and Jack. Albert managed to keep the peace for years. Part of the problem was that Jack was wasting company money and had an immense ego, taking credit for everything (he even took the Academy Award for ‘Casablanca’ in the producer’s stead).
Harry’s health was affected by their conflict. When the House of Un-American Activities Committee held its communist witch hunts, Harry and Jack were divided even further. Legend has it that Harry was once seen chasing his younger sibling with a lead pipe swearing “I’ll get you for this, you son of a bitch.”
Jack eventually managed to convince the family to sell the company to Serge Semenenko, a banker. The moment the deal was concluded, Jack bought back the stock and made himself President. It was the ultimate betrayal, and the family never spoke to Jack again. He was so cold-blooded that he later fired his own son.
What the film fails to explain is the extent of the tensions in the family. Jack was already a pariah within the family by the mid-’30s, when he had an affair and then married the woman he had an affair with. None of the family attended the wedding, sending him a cruel letter instead.
Without reading more extensively on the matter, I couldn’t say when the feud began and who started it. Needless to say, this documentary is selective in the way that it portrays the issue. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that Jack did in fact backstab his own brothers in the end. Irrespective of who started it, he was ruthless.
After producing a number of ground-breaking films, he sold his shares in the company for 32 million dollars (24 million after taxes – still an incredibly significant amount at the time). As we all know, Warner Bros. has since become even bigger than ever, merging with Time Inc. in the late 80s and then AOL.
But what this documentary is about is the brothers Warner, not about Warner Bros. itself. From that perspective, it’s somewhat successful because it gives an overview of the family dynamics and shows us the milestones that brought them success. Unfortunately, it also skips many important moments in their lives.
Still, filled with tons of home videos, archival footage and pictures, many film clips (naturally) and candid interviews with family and colleagues, ‘The Brothers Warner’ is a good primer for the uninitiated. It’s not a perfect film, and it certainly shows a bias, but it does a decent job of putting the main pieces together.
And of showing that blood isn’t always thicker than water.
Date of viewing: March 29, 2015