Updated: Sep 5
The Warner Brothers (2023) Chris Yogerst
University Press of Kentucky (part of the Screen Classics series)
Hardcover, 360 pages
Includes foreword by Michael Uslan, notes, bibliography, acknowledgments, index, photos
Official release: September 5, 2023
The book’s prologue, “Put Up or Shut Up,” could have stood as the subtitle of Chris Yogerst’s new book The Warner Brothers. After early struggles, triumphs, and failures, these Polish American siblings became the first movie studio to create a feature defying the Nazi threat with Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). It wasn’t the first time the studio portrayed society’s problems on the big screen, and it certainly would not be the last. Yet while the four Warners banded together for many victories and moments of greatness, their personal lives often caused anguish, bitterness, and great damage.
Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner built their studio’s reputation by being courageous, not only in creating motion pictures portraying stories “ripped from the headlines,” they also led the way in embracing talkies, depicting an uncompromising view of the Great Depression, and, as mentioned earlier, standing up to Hitler. The brothers succeeded in spite of (or perhaps because of) their different personalities: Albert, quietly content to work away from the spotlight in distribution; Sam, “a genius whose enthusiasm for technical advancements was contagious” (p. 5); Jack, the VP in charge of production; and Harry, the president of the company, a man who watched trends, understood audiences, and was powerful enough to meet with world leaders. Most of the story - and the fireworks - belong to Jack and Harry.
While the movies that emerged from the studio are not the primary focus of the book, the major films, such as Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and many others receive plenty of attention. Yet the brothers’ behind-the-scenes efforts on those films provide narratives we perhaps haven’t heard.
Readers will find all the big stories here: censorship, stars and contract disputes (James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Bette Davis, etc.), battles with the U.S. Senate, the upheaval caused by WWII, the New Hollywood of the 1960s, and more. But each of these accounts takes on a different meaning when placed under the microscope of the battles raging between the brothers and their families. Prepare yourself for not only triumph, but heartbreak and tragedy. Although Warner Bros. prided itself on producing movies that addressed real issues in an uncompromising manner, some of the greatest conflict occurred within the walls of the Warner family itself.
Yogerst packs a tremendous amount of the history of the Warner Brothers and the studio into one volume, making for an informative and compelling read. Anyone with an interest in movie history, especially of the major U.S. studios, will want to add this book to their collection immediately.
This review is part of the 2023 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!