Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Book Review: From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros.

FROM THE HEADLINES TO HOLLYWOOD: THE BIRTH AND BOOM OF WARNER BROS. is a detailed history of the studio's early years written by my friend Chris Yogerst.

Yogerst is an assistant professor of communication at the University of Wisconsin Colleges.

The majority of books on Warner Bros. in my collection happen to date from the '70s or early '80s, including titles such as Ted Sennett's WARNER BROS. PRESENTS, James R. Silke's HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU, KID, Clive Hirschhorn's THE WARNER BROS. STORY, and William R. Meyer's WARNER BROTHERS DIRECTORS.

It was thus a particular pleasure to read a fresh history from a recent perspective. FROM THE HEADLINES TO HOLLYWOOD is exhaustively researched; Yogerst made great use of varied resources, including the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, where the materials accessed included not only production records but speeches by Harry and Jack Warner. He also looked at newspapers and trade publications of the time period to explore contemporaneous reporting on the studio.

Since the book's focus is on the studio's early years, I particularly appreciated that roughly half the book covers the pre-Code era, which earlier film historians sometimes hurried past, perhaps because of relative lack of access to the movies in previous decades.

The author explores the studio's technological innovations with sound films -- the pioneering talkie THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) was a Warner Bros. film -- and especially its "ripped from the headlines" style, with its finger on the public pulse. Warner Bros. sought not simply to entertain but to educate, spark debate, and move the needle of public opinion on key issues of the day, including WWII.

I found it especially interesting reading and considering Warner Bros.' engagement in current issues in the context of our polarized modern-day culture; it helps illustrate the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same, especially when it comes to popular entertainment trying to influence public opinion.

A related aspect I found interesting was that the book brought Harry Warner into sharper focus for me. I've read a great deal about Jack Warner but fairly little about Harry, so I was interested to learn more about Harry's role in shaping the company's projects and later confronting the rise of the Nazis, on screen and off. With America officially neutral regarding the war and the studio releasing films such as CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939) and UNDERGROUND (1941), Harry found himself testifying in front of a Senate subcommittee on motion picture propaganda in the fall of 1941. Needless to say, within weeks that was a moot issue.

Yogerst explores how Warner Bros. accomplished their studio style by taking a look at the production histories of a number of films. Along with examining source material, production background, and censorship battles, he also presents the historical context in which various films were made and released, which I felt made the book particularly engaging.

A few of the key titles he explores are THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931), UNION DEPOT (1932), TAXI! (1932), GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), HEROES FOR SALE (1933), BLACK LEGION (1936), THEY WON'T FORGET (1937), and CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939).

For more on the book, please visit an author interview with Kristina at Speakeasy.

Yogerst plans a second volume on Warner Bros., which is great news for both film history and those of us who love to read it.

FROM THE HEADLINES TO HOLLYWOOD is 226 pages including index, footnotes, and bibliography; the index and reference source pages take over 40 pages, an indicator of the deep research behind the book. I caught a rare typo on the leading man's name for THE PURCHASE PRICE (1932), but that stood out simply as on the whole the book is very well edited and produced.

The book is lightly illustrated with posters and other advertising materials printed directly on the book's non-glossy pages; given that, the reproduction quality of the illustrations is good.

FROM THE HEADLINES TO HOLLYWOOD: THE BIRTH AND BOOM OF WARNER BROS. is an excellent piece of film scholarship; while it will be particularly enjoyed by those interested in Warner Bros. and the studio system, it's essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Hollywood of the 1930s and the significant ways one studio impacted U.S. popular culture and history.

Thanks to Chris Yogerst and Rowman and Littlefield for providing a review copy of this book.


Blogger Jerry E said...

Your fine review makes me want this book, Laura! WB was especially fertile in the '30s and their films certainly did not go for a 'cosy' view of the times, probably why so many of their films from that era are still so enjoyable today.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Jerry! Glad to know you enjoyed the review. I hope you are able to read the book soon and will enjoy it also. If you're interested in WB style of the '30s this book should be of great interest.

FYI I realized this afternoon there was another point I wanted to bring out about the book's coverage of Harry Warner, who often seems to be in brother Jack's shadow, and just added an additional new paragraph to my review!

Best wishes,

3:01 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Yes, that is interesting about Harry Warner, Laura. Coincidentally, I watched a doc on UK TV just recently about the Warner brothers and their early years in film-making which brought out a lot about Harry. Originally, there were three brothers involved, if I remember correctly, but only Jack and Harry persisted.
On a side note, anyone who has watched WB TV series will recognise the name of the exec. producer on all of them as William T. Orr, Jack's son-in-law. I have recently been watching episodes of a TV western called "TATE" that was produced by RonCom, Perry Como's production company and the exec. producer on that was William E. Orr!!
The Orr Brothers as well as the Warner Brothers??!!

11:23 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I'm wrong of course. There were 4 Warner brothers that started out but Sam died in 1927 just as their real success was beginning.

11:32 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

William E. Orr was a script supervisor on many productions, but in 1960 when Tate was being broadcast, William T. Orr, birth name Quinn, was still at Warners. I think it likely this similarity has to be chalked up to coincidence.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

Thanks for the link to the Q&A, Chris had some fascinating things to say about his work and I really enjoyed his book. Loved learning what all went into the studio's choices and approach, and made those movies enjoyable then and now.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks to you all for sharing your thoughts on the Warner family!

Kristina, I really enjoyed the Q&A you did with Chris, it was quite interesting -- I was especially intrigued with his comment about Harry being so respectable.

Best wishes,

10:08 AM  

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