Friday, October 27, 2017

Warner Bros.: The Making of an American Movie Studio

Warner Bros.
The Making of an American Movie Studio
by David Thomson
Yale University Press
Hardcover ISBN: 9780300197600
232 pages
August 2017

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When the film industry was in it's early years, Warner Bros. studio stood out as a leader and harbinger of change. They took a chance on adding sound to film with  when many other studios were still very comfortable churning out silents. They made socially aware films in a time when others focused solely on escapism. There were plenty of negatives too. Jack Warner was a tyrant who wanted full control, especially over his actors and actresses. In a roundabout way, Warner Bros. had a hand in the dismantling of the studio system especially when their own employees, notably Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney, fought back. They survived many ups and downs and still continue to be an important force in the industry today. Among the classic film community, Warner Bros. is known as the keeper of the flame. They have done much to protect, restore and release many classics, their own and those of other studio libraries they acquired like MGM and RKO.

In Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, author David Thomson explores the ins and outs of the studio's varied history and the four men, the actual Warner brothers, who started it all. This book is not a narrative, linear history of the studio, rather a collection of critical essays. Thomson provides the readers with many varied insights and observations about the complicated history of a film giant.

The book explores a range of topics and covers all sorts of films and careers. Figures featured include Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Busby Berkeley, Bette Davis, James Cagney, Doris Day, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Michael Curtiz, Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Kay Francis and more. Films are discussed at length exploring how they fit in the timeline of Warner Bros. history. These films include: Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, Gold Diggers of 1933, Jezebel, The Letter, Casablanca, The Big Sleep, Young Man With a Horn, The Jazz Singer, White Heat, A Stolen Life, Mrs. Skeffington and more.

Then there are the four brothers themselves: Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack. Readers learn about their early days in Poland, their migration to Hollywood, Sam's untimely death and Jack's eventual takeover and domination.

The four Warner brothers. Left to right: Sam, Harry, Jack and Albert

This book does not contain a traditional linear narrative about the history of the studio. If you go into it with that in mind, like I did, you'll be disappointed. Reviews on Goodreads for this book have been mixed. Some didn't care for the author's voice and some were drawn to it. I recommend reading a sample before diving in.

Many thanks to Yale University Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

The Warner Archive Podcast recently featured an interview with author David Thomson. Give it a listen.

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