Can a book be a pleasurable journey, even if it broadly fails at its raison d’être? That is the question raised and then answered in the affirmative by British film critic David Thomson’s idiosyncratic history, Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio. The fifth volume this year in Yale University Press’s robust “Jewish Lives” series, Warner Bros can only loosely be described as a work of biography. The title is the giveaway. Thomson’s book is a delve into the ascendency of Warner Bros., not the brothers Warner: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack. Even without the subtitle, that conspicuously absent period in the abbreviation is a telltale sign that this slim, trenchant history is not primarily concerned with the lives of mere men, but that of the dream factory they founded. Even still, it is a decidedly odd, fragmentary studio history.
Thomson’s name on the cover is the other omen that Warner Bros does not resemble the typical effort to weave a middlebrow narrative from a succession of biographical facts. The septuagenarian author is a prolific critic, historian, and novelist, but his most well-known work remains the Biographical Dictionary of Film, currently in its sixth edition. Notwithstanding its reference desk title, the Dictionary is an eccentric tome that blends the density and erudition of the Time Out Film Guide with Thomson’s spiky outlook and literary turns of phrase.
Immediately, it is quite apparent that Jack Warner is the author’s favorite among the brothers; as a biographical subject, if not as a human being. And why not?
Indeed, Warner Bros is exactly the biography that one would expect from the author: peculiar, digressive, thoughtful, a tad crotchety, briskly unconcerned with completism. The book mostly holds the Warners at arm’s length, almost impudently disinterested in a comprehensive account of the brothers’ lives. Yet it is too prone to dash down rabbit holes in pursuit of Thomson’s favorite films and stars to serve as a detailed, definitive history of the studio. Yale characterizes the Jewish Lives series as “interpretive” and “lively,” and that certainly describes Thomson’s uncommon approach. Warner Bros is foremost a David Thomson book, meaning that it is an enjoyable, enlightening read that is not remotely concerned with what the reader’s expectations might be.
Immediately, it is quite apparent that Jack Warner is the author’s favorite among the brothers; as a biographical subject, if not as a human being. And why not? The youngest of the four adult brothers, Jack was the charismatic, hot-blooded public face of the studio, and arguably the creative dynamo that powered it throughout the classical era. Singling Jack out for the lion’s share of attention is a reasonable stratagem on Thomson’s part, if only because the youngest brother undoubtedly appears most often in Warner-related documents, news clippings, photographs, and anecdotes. However, Jack was also the sibling who most enthusiastically embraced a uniquely American identity. Not incidentally, the brothers’ studio acted to shape the nation’s self-conception for much of the 20th century.
In Thomson’s analysis, Jack embodied the eager assimilation of Jewish Americans into the bourgeois melting pot, but also the way that aspects of Ashkenazic Jewish culture found their way into the warp and weft of wider American life. This was partly due to the influence of pop cultural movers and shakers like Jack Warner, who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking household and never concealed his Jewishness, but also radiated a distinctly American prosperity, exuberance, and ruthlessness.
This perceived symbiotic relationship—between nominal Great Men and the American Idea as expressed through popular culture—is crucial to the book’s character. It clarifies why Thomson’s framework for Warner Bros is comparable to a kind of auteur theory, albeit one in which Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack (but especially Jack) were the authors of not just the hundreds of films produced by their studio over six decades, but also of America’s understanding of itself.
Following a sketch of the brothers’ adult personalities and a summary of the family’s journey from Poland through the United States and Canada, Thomson wryly recounts a quasi-mythical—and almost certainly bunco—origin story. In it, the young Warners have an awestruck encounter with the influential silent short The Great Train Robbery, in a dewy scene that the author readily acknowledges seems a little too … cinematic. Thereafter, Thomson takes an episodic and generally chronological tack, charting the way that several currents and milestones in the studio’s output over the decades reflected and shaped the national mood.
Strip away Thomson’s admittedly charming poetics and vivid formulations, and Warner Bros essentially uses the films produced by the studio from roughly 1910 – 1966 to psychoanalyze both the brothers and the nation.
This approach virtually demands that the author make a case for the outsized significance of specific films, stars, and trends in the development of the studio and American culture generally. As such, Warner Bros often lingers indulgently on subjects other than the Warners themselves, building entire chapters around, say, Rin Tin Tin or The Jazz Singer or Bette Davis. Fortunately, despite this to-and-fro flitting, the book never feels distractingly slapdash, primarily owing to Thomson’s characteristically nimble, engaging prose. The reader quickly ascertains, however, that Warner Bros has no ambition to be an all-inclusive history of the Warners or their studio. The book is not even that concerned with the three older brothers: Harry, Albert, and Sam are drawn quickly and broadly, with Harry acting as the button-down foil to Jack’s vigorous, libertine, occasionally volcanic persona.
Not incidentally, Thompson’s reliance on this structure—in which a film or actor is presented as a signpost within the studio’s culture, on both the backlot and the screen—allows him to champion his own favorite works. Hence the praise lavished on the bleak 1939 crime drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or the 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In both cases, of course, the reverence is entirely justified. Notwithstanding Thompson’s reputation for eccentricity, his tastes generally skew contrarian only when he has an axe to grind or a sacred cow to demolish. (Consistent with the attitude of many older, erudite cinephiles, he has a faint reactionary streak that can make him seem sneering and dismissive in a sweeping way where contemporary film is concerned.)
At times, Thompson narrows his scrutiny to the atomistic level. Witness his gushing over the perfection of the camera movements and Joan Blondell’s singing during a single number in Gold Diggers of 1933. Film criticism tends to be at its most gratifying when it is positive and passionate, so it is hard to scold Thompson for these indulgent bits of advocacy for a specific film, scene, or shot he admires. Such passages are simply too enjoyable for one to feel peevish about their inclusion, yet their proximal relevance to the life and times of Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner is not always apparent.
Warner Bros is at its most stimulating when it regards the studio’s movies, stars, and filmmakers as both passive reflections and active agents of a monolithic American cultural identity. Thompson is comfortable with the quantum uncertainty that underlies this notion, and deftly writes around its unfathomable sociological complexity. When James Cagney violently and contemptuously mashed a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face in The Public Enemy, was the studio giving America what it wanted or telling it what it wanted? Thompson does not offer a definitive answer—he is more concerned with ferreting out who is the real author of that notoriously misogynist moment—but he does seem to believe that both truths can co-exist.
Thomson advances that the Warners were at once products and architects of America, in an era when that word “America” was starting to drift away from reality and towards the distorted reflection the millions observed in the mirror (i.e., on the silver screen).
The paradox echoes that of Jack Warner himself: gregarious but pugnacious, spiteful but magnanimous, pitilessly business-minded yet solemnly aware of a movie studio’s great civic responsibilities. On the one hand, that latter view compelled Jack to steer Warner toward a house style of gritty, broadly progressive social realist pictures in the pre-Code era. On the other hand, it later brought him before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness, where he named screenwriters with alleged communist sympathies. The contradiction is apt. Thomson advances that the Warners were at once products and architects of America, in an era when that word “America” was starting to drift away from reality and towards the distorted reflection the millions observed in the mirror (i.e., on the silver screen).
Strip away Thomson’s admittedly charming poetics and vivid formulations, and Warner Bros essentially uses the films produced by the studio from roughly 1910-1966 to psychoanalyze both the brothers and the nation. It is glib in an engaging, garrulous way, but glib nonetheless. It demands a crisp awareness of just how choosy the author is in selecting the films and stars it examines, in a history that runs shy of 200 pages, excluding the notes and index. The entirety of the Warner cartoon short canon receives an admiring but passing mention, for example. If one is going to scrutinize Casablanca for insights into Jack Warner’s personality or into America’s self-conception, then why not the collected works of Chuck Jones? Such hypotheticals are worth pondering, but they are not ultimately defeating to Thompson’s book. Warner Bros should not be mistaken for a thorough study of the brothers or the studio, but it is nonetheless droll and disarming in that inimitable Thomson way.