David Thomson is one of the world’s leading writers on cinema, the author of more than 20 books, including The Biographical Dictionary of Film. And there is much fine writing in this book, part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series. But I was little wiser at the end, having read a reiteration of much of what I already knew.
Jack Warner, the driving force and the youngest of the Bros — there were six in all, and a further five or six sisters — is universally described as a horrible man. Constitutionally unfaithful and in charge of the studio’s casting couch, he still managed to marry only twice. Yet he remains a curiously flat presence in the book, with Thomson reserving both his firepower and his enthusiasm for the actors and the films that made the Warner brothers famous.
Thomson is at pains to tell us how alienated Jack Warner was from his Jewish identity. He cites the film, Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck, made at another studio in 1947 about a journalist who pretends to be Jewish in order to report on antisemitism. The film won 1947’s Best Picture Oscar but, before that, Thomson tells us, “someone organised a gathering of Hollywood elders to impress upon Darryl Zanuck, the film’s producer, that it was ill-advised and unduly provocative to stir up this issue. The instigator of that meeting was Jack Warner, who preferred to make Jewishness go away as a brand image”.
At this point, I expected to find out more about Jack and the other Warners but Thomson veers off into a long disquisition about Zanuck — who was not Jewish. And the next chapter is devoted to Casablanca and whether or not it could be described as a Jewish film.
We meet the Bros in their original form in Chapter Three, where we are introduced to “Benjamin Wonsal or Wonskolasor” living in “Krasnoshilt or Krasnosiele” in the middle of the 19th century, about 50 miles north of Warsaw in what is now Poland; Benjamin was a shoemaker who was married to Pearl Eichelbaum, and some of their children were: Hirsch, who became Harry Warner, Aaron, who became Albert, Szmul, who became Sam, and Jacob, who became Jack, the only one of the founding film quartet who was not born in “the old country”, but instead in Ontario, Canada.
Harry was the only one who remained Jewishly observant, and he and Jack, for a variety of reasons, remained at odds nearly all their lives.
What propelled the Warners into the movies became the stuff of family legend. In 1904, when Harry Warner was 22 and Jack was just 11, Sam, then 16, had brought home a kinetoscope, an early film projector. When they finally got it working, “the assembled Warners watched The Great Train Robbery”.
It seems that one minute the family was transfixed by watching grainy 1904 footage, and the next, the brothers were “doing worthwhile business playing pictures in parlours, halls, and any enterprise with a big room”. But there was “a lack of pictures” — so the answer was to make the movies themselves.
What pushed Warner Bros into the big time was a German shepherd dog called Rin Tin Tin, whose canine adventures captured American hearts. There were a staggering 27 hound films, Thomson reports, “before sound and old age killed Rinty off”.
And it was sound, and the legendary film, The Jazz Singer, starring the chazan’s son, Al Jolson, which catapulted Warner Bros to the forefront of Hollywood studios. Warners later became the go-to studio for seminal gangster films, and Thomson writes fondly about James Cagney and the infamous scene in The Public Enemy in which Cagney pushes half a grapefruit into actress Mae Clarke’s face.
But the stories of Bogart and Bacall, of Bette Davis and her squabbles with the studio, of the films noir, while enjoyable, are not new. And Jack Warner’s penchant for regrettable behaviour — including stitching up his brothers commercially — is not an edifying tale.
Warner Bros by David Thomson is published by Yale University press (£16.99)
Jenni Frazer is a freelance writer