The Warner Brothers, cinema, and America


Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio by David Thomson, Yale University Press US $25.00, Pp 220, August 2017, ISBN 978-0300197600

No family has influenced and shaped cinema as much as the Warner Brothers. The Warner Brothers came to America as unschooled Jewish immigrants and changed their names to acceptable Christian names in order to succeed. Moses became Harry, Aaron became Albert, Szmul became Sam and Jacob became Jack. They together founded a studio that later grew into the smartest and most radical of all in Hollywood. The Warner Brothers studio reshaped our ideas about our country, about immigrants and about ourselves. In Warner Bros, film critic and historian David Thomson discusses Warner Brothers’ rise, their brilliance, their shared success and painful sibling rivalry and, most importantly, the American cinema.

Thomson says that there really were four Warner brothers. If Albert was a sleeping partner, Harry, Sam and Jack were genuine characters. Sam took an early hit for the team, and that made him a beloved hero, but Harry and Jack carried the load of life-long rivalry. They fall into unthinking opposition. Thomson writes, “Why do we have siblings? They wonder — So there’s someone close to us who is not us?” Jack wins this fraternal struggle. But so many of his victories feel like defeats, too, because of his suspect character. He is known as a rascal now, while Harry seems upright and duty bound. Harry could read and write in Hebrew while Jack struggled with English. If Harry was dull, Jack was shifty. The two of them always seem at odds.

But Warner Bros movies were for all of us. Yiddish theatre might be for Jews, but the movies were for everyone. Thomson says that you didn’t have to be orthodox or saved to buy your ticket. And these brothers longed to transcend Jewishness, and the traditions that they thought made them vulnerable in America. There were many Jews in Hollywood but the business was never all Jews. They were powerful for a time, enough to feel a new version of being “chosen”. This lasting power rested in what the uncontrolled and the un-understood technology was doing to American hopes. Along the way to power and their sometimes lurid splendor, these moguls compromised many of the hallowed meanings of Jewish life beginning around 1900. That is how Harry Warner would be ashamed of his young brother Jack. The “empire” was less a dynasty than an escape struggling to regain or reinvent home. These immigrants were Americans now, but “home” was up for redesign. ‘The country is still torn over the battle to decide whose story it will be,” concludes Thomson.

Warner Bros is the story of not only four immigrant Jewish brothers but also the American cinema and how they changed us and our country. With his unmatchable and impeccable credentials as a film critic and historian David Thomson has written probably the best book on the Warner Brothers and American cinema. Thomson has beautifully weaved the stories of the Warner Brothers, cinema, and America into one big story. This is a required book for those who are interested in American cinema. Both university students and experts of cinema will benefit from this book.