‘Jewish Lives’ series turns spotlight on iconic film family

‘Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio’By David Thomson, part of Yale University Press’ “Jewish Lives” series;  232 pages; $25. 


“Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio” is the latest entry in the Yale University Press “Jewish Lives” series. Author David Thomson is a film critic and historian who has written more than 20 books, including “The Biographical Dictionary of Film,” which is now in its sixth edition. 

The “Jewish Life” books are not written in-house but are commissioned independently.  The risk always exists that a mismatch between writer and subject might occur resulting in a weak book, but this certainly is not the case here.

Although this volume in the “Jewish Lives” series is one of the briefest, Thomson skillfully tells three fascinating stories.

First, he chronicles the lives of Harry, Albert and Sam Warner, whose name was originally Wonsal or perhaps Wonskolasor.  The brothers emigrated from a village 50 miles north of Warsaw as part of the East European wave of immigration in the latter part of the 19th century.  Thomson explains how they were able to use the entertainment industry to achieve the American Dream.

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Thomson next traces the history of Warner Bros. film studio beginning with Sam Warner investing in a movie projector. The brothers distributed their own films until they established Warner Bros. Pictures on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1918.  Like most of the early movie studios, Warner Bros. bought theaters and then evolved from operating them to running their major studio in Hollywood.

Finally, Thomson turns his attention to the fourth and youngest brother, Jack Warner. Born in Canada in 1892, he was the only one native to the New World. Thomson describes Jack Warner as a ruthless businessman who persuaded his brothers to join him in selling their stock in the studio and retiring. Jack then secretly bought back the stock, ousted his brother Harry and appointed himself president of the company. 

Thomson refers to Jack Warner as a scoundrel and “maybe the biggest scumbag ever to get into a ‘Jewish Lives’ series.” 

In this book, Thomson gives the readers a brief but well-packed narrative of a Hollywood studio that flourished during the Great Depression and the World War II years. Fans and scholars of movies will find this book fact-filled and fascinating. Thomson has an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of the movie industry and has produced an incisive, witty and well-documented book.  

One reason this book is such an entertaining read is that Thomson is a master at using the segue. Warner Bros. signature genres were early gangster films and backstage musicals.  For example, Thompson devotes a chapter to the gangster film, especially those in which James Cagney is the male star. As soon as he has finished summarizing Cagney’s gangster films, Thompson goes right into Cagney’s major roles in musicals such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Love Me or Leave Me,” which also featured Doris Day.  Without allowing the reader to catch a breath, Thompson is then “off to the races” discussing Day’s contribution to the Warner Bros. studio.  The action never stops.

In addition to the nonstop pace of the book, readers who enjoy such movies will find delight at the fond memories this book will bring. Such Hollywood icons as Al Jolson, Lauren Bacall, Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, James Dean, and even nonhuman stars Rin Tin Tin and Bugs Bunny got their start at Warner Bros.

To add to the nostalgia, Thomson details the early movies produced at Warner Bros: “The Jazz Singer,” “Public Enemy,” “Casablanca,” “Jezebel,” “Dark Victory,” “Now Voyager,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “The Big Sleep,” “Little Caesar,” “East of Eden,” “White Heat,” “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Petrified Forest,” “Psycho,” “To Have and Have Not” and “The Letter.”  There’s enough material here for at least a month’s worth of Turner Classic Movies.

This book is an excellent starting point for readers to become acquainted with the contributions of the Warner brothers to the movie industry.  

Thomson admits that he owes a debt to Neal Gabler’s 1988 book “An Empire of Their Own,” which many consider one of the greatest works of film scholarship in the past 30 years. According to Thomson, it was Gabler who maintained that Hollywood was the invention of second-generation Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, who painted a portrait of the America they were otherwise excluded from. Thomson agreed with Gabler that the creative forces behind large portions of classic  Hollywood were the studio heads themselves, not the writers or the directors.  And Warner Bros. Pictures led the way.

This is one of the best books in the Yale University Press series.