Sunday, February 18, 2024

Book Review: The Warner Brothers

Film historian Chris Yogerst, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has become one of the foremost experts on the history of the Warner Bros. studio.

I previously reviewed Yogerst's FROM THE HEADLINES TO HOLLYWOOD: THE BIRTH AND BOOM OF WARNER BROS. and HOLLYWOOD HATES HITLER! JEW-BAITING, ANTI-NAZISM, AND THE SENATE INVESTIGATION INTO WARMONGERING IN MOTION PICTURES in 2017 and 2020, respectively. I learned a great deal from each book, especially the latter title, which was completely new subject matter for me.

Yogerst has now written THE WARNER BROTHERS, a comprehensive study of the Warner family. It was published by University Press of Kentucky in their Screen Classics series.

Brothers Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner, from a large family of Polish immigrants, got a toehold in their new country via hard work in a variety of businesses.

After an attempt at film distribution, thwarted by Thomas Edison's monopoly, the brothers ultimately went into movie production in Los Angeles, incorporating the Warner Bros. studio in 1923.

The Warner Bros. studio would be known for its innovations, including the ground-breaking sound film THE JAZZ SINGER (1927), and for leading Hollywood's fight against Nazi fascism, including the important film CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939). The brothers refused to be intimidated by politicians unhappy with the studio's "warmongering"; of course, the politicians would ultimately be overtaken by the events of December 1941 and onward.

One of the important things the book does is put the studio's relatively well-known film history -- including Rin Tin Tin, gangster films, Depression musicals, and all the rest -- into the context of the lives of the Warners themselves. Yogerst deftly mixes studio and family history into an engaging story of triumph mixed with tragedy. The tragedies included the untimely deaths of Sam Warner in 1927, prompting a battle for the custody of his young daughter Lita, and Harry Warner's son Lewis in 1931.

Yogerst clearly admires Harry Warner, who believed in using movies for good, whether fighting the Nazis or educating the public. Jack's name may be the best known of the brothers today, but the book does a wonderful job underscoring Harry's importance to the business.

When I attended an author discussion of the book at the Burbank Public Library last November, Yogerst mentioned it was a bit of a challenge to rein in his discussions of Harry to keep the book balanced. It's fascinating to me that Harry and his far less admirable (ahem) but very successful brother Jack came from the same family; as the book makes clear, unlike Harry Jack sadly did not know the meaning of the word loyalty.

Given the subject matter covered, this could have been an unwieldy volume, but Yogerst's clear and concise writing style simultaneously hits the high points while keeping the story moving forward. The book gave me a richer appreciation of both the studio and the family behind it.

I read a softcover advance reading copy. The book includes extensive end notes; the ARC did not yet have an index prepared but there are placeholder pages indicating one should be in the final copy. The book includes 64 black and white illustrations reproduced directly on the book's pages alongside the text.

The final page count for the final hardcover edition of THE WARNER BROTHERS is 360 pages, weighing a little over a pound and a half.

I loved THE WARNER BROTHERS, finding it an excellent read which kept me engrossed for the duration of a recent cross-country plane trip! I'm far from the only one to appreciate this book, which was named one of the best film books of 2023 by Sight & Sound. This is an important, recommended read.

Thanks to Chris Yogerst and the University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of this book.


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