It’s actually amusing when director Cass Warner asks tourists and locals in Hollywood whether they think there were real Warner brothers behind the founding of Warner Bros., one of the original studios that built a billion dollar industry over several decades.
Some quickly think of Bugs Bunny (maybe it’s the animated logo zooming forward with a carrot-chomping bunny that’s so indelible to people), while others are unsure of the brothers’ actual names or, at the very least, they’ve heard of Jack L. Warner, the company’s dapper public face who ran the film production activities, and sometimes ‘personally supervised’ a few or two each year.
Unsurprising are the strong personalities that created the studio with the same determination and bull-headedness behind rival MGM, Columbia, and Twentieth Century-Fox. Most of the studios started off as family-run businesses, but the Warner brothers were more open about who owned the company: they did, which is why their name became a logo, and their in-house style, affected by family tastes, was distinct from the rivals.
What Cass Warner sought to discover was the family makeup behind the shield, and her documentary is an affectionate chronicle that’s equally buoyed by some tragic moments in the family’s history. It’s also refreshing that she avoided a gloss-over. WB was a product of the American Dream, but the family created and lost the company due to strong personalities and brotherly jealousies.
Sam Warner was the man who gambled on sound film technology, convincing the brothers to buy Vitaphone and produce The Jazz Singer (1927). Although he died before the film’s premiere, Vitaphone was hardly the fad critics decried, and the film’s success pushed the industry to switch to sound film. Brother Harry was the company president who had an eye for topical, socially conscious stories which made the studio’s product quite different from glossy MGM. Albert Warner was the company treasurer, and youngest brother Jack enjoyed being more hands on, schmoozing and publicizing stars and studio productions.
Cass Warner details the family’s skillset and social makeup, and as the doc moves into the fifties, there’s the event that fractured the brothers: a day after the brothers sold their company interests to a syndicate in the fifties, Jack bought back a percentage of the company a day later, and installed himself as president. WB did enjoy strong profits, moving through widescreen, 3D, stereo, and television, but the family wasn’t the same after the betrayal.
There’s a touching moment at the film’s end where Cass Warner visits the family’s marble mausoleum, paying tribute to the grandfather (Harry) to whom she promised to tell the family story. After leaving the elegant, well manicured edifice, she leaves a tribute at the grave of Jack L. Warner, over which lies a weather-beaten slab with barely legible letters due to neglect. On the one hand, the fading headstone is symbolic of the divisions that can last within families, but her placement of flowers is also a symbolic peace offering of sorts, as well as an acknowledgement that divisions aside, each brother helped build the company into a powerful entertainment conglomerate.
Cass Warner’s direction is appropriately measured, and there’s generous use of archival stills, home movies, and film clips, but there are some odd technical issues that were never addressed in the final edit. Although an anamorphic widescreen master, some of the interview shots are squished into a square; film clips are matted from full screen sources instead of being window-boxed. It’s a bit wonky at times, with titles sometimes bleeding below the matted frame line, but those distractions are generally lessened by Cass Warner’s focus on her family’s history instead of the company’s.
Woven among the family interviews are famous faces who new or had indelible impressions of the brothers, as well as comments on the WB style, and why the films continue to enjoy classic status.
Only qualm: there should’ve been an archive of stills or some of the home movies, or better yet, the vintage short of a birthday party Harry orchestrated for his daughter’s 6th birthday that the studio distributed in theatres – unheard of today when the contemporary versions of the founding major studios are huge entertainment multinationals.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan