Sunday 17 December 2017

Here's looking at you, Warners

This month, the legendary Warner Brothers studio celebrates its 90th anniversary. Founded in 1923 by four ruthless and driven Polish Jewish immigrants, Warner Brothers started out making adventure films and almost went bankrupt before The Jazz Singer came along to save the studio and turn it into a major player.

In the 1930s, Warners became famous for their hardboiled gangster films, and thereafter branched out into everything from comedies and musicals to cartoons and weepies. For more than 40 years the studio was run with a rod of iron by Jack Warner, whose contrariness and sharp tongue made him one of the most feared of the great Hollywood moguls.

He was some businessman, however, and a glance at the Warners back catalogue gives some idea of the studio's persistent levels of excellence. The Public Enemy, Angels With Dirty Faces, Jezebel, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Arsenic and Old Lace, White Heat, The Big Sleep, A Streetcar named Desire, Bullitt and Bonnie and Clyde are just some of the great films Warners produced in its golden age, and those and many more classics are now available on a special 100-film, 90th anniversary DVD collection.

These days Warner Brothers is a subsidiary of the mighty Time Warner multinational media organisation, but in its heyday the studio was a tightly run family business controlled by the will of a single, remarkable man.

Jacob 'Jack' Warner was born in London, Ontario, on August 2, 1892. He was the youngest of 12 children, most of whom were born in Russian-controlled Poland. He spoke Yiddish with his parents growing up, and Jack and his older brothers began hustling their way into the increasingly lucrative entertainment business in the early 1900s.

Jack had aspirations as a performer, and briefly tried his luck as a singer, but his elder brother Sam told him to cop on to himself. "Get out front where they pay the actors," he told him. "That's where the money is."

A canny pragmatist, it was Sam who got the family into the movie business in the first place. By the early 1900s the Warners had relocated en masse to the tough Ohio burg of Youngstown, where Sam got a job as a projectionist at a local amusement park. Enchanted by the possibilities of cinema, he bought a Kinetoscope and began touring the state showing films in small towns.

In 1905, Sam, Jack and their elder brothers Harry and Albert bought a vacant building in New Castle, Pennsylvania, and turned it into a movie theatre. Pretty soon they'd opened a few more, and by the end of the decade the Warners had begun to make real money by moving into film distribution.

By 1918 they'd moved to Hollywood and started producing films, and in 1923 the brothers bit the bullet and opened their own studio – Harry and Albert would handle the finances, Sam and Jack would make all the creative decisions. Their first big signing was a dog.

A German Shepherd rescued from a Great War battlefield, Rin Tin Tin scored a big hit in the Warner Brothers 1923 adventure Where the North Begins.

But the antics of an Alsatian weren't going to sustain Warners in the long run, and a more substantial form of brand recognition was required. In the mid-1920s, the studio began experimenting with the possibilities of combining pictures with sound.

Though the other brothers were sceptical, Sam Warner was convinced talking pictures would be the next big thing. In 1926 he spent a small fortune developing a new film sound system called Vitaphone, which was revealed to the public in a big budget John Barrymore vehicle called Don Juan.

There was no dialogue, just sound effects, and though the film did well at the box office, it didn't come close to recouping its costs and left Warner Brothers in big financial trouble.

The Jazz Singer saved them. A musical melodrama starring Al Jolson, the film had a then enormous budget of $400,000 and was a make or break gamble for the studio. Sam and Jack Warner were hopeful it would do well, but could not have guessed it would change Hollywood forever.

The film caused a sensation when it was released on October 6, 1927, and sounded the death knell for silent movies, but sadly Sam Warner never got to enjoy his pet project's huge success. He died the day before it opened, of a massive heart attack at the age of just 40.

Under the sole direction of Jack Warner, the studio made a string of hit musicals before turning in the early 1930s to the genre that would become synonymous with Warner Brothers – the gangster film.

From 1931 on, Warners began churning out tough, tightly written crime dramas inspired by the true adventures of prohibition gangsters. Films like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang were controversial but hugely successful, and made stars of actors such as James Cagney, Edward G Robinson and Paul Muni.

Arguably Warners' biggest star in the 1930s and 1940s was Humphrey Bogart, who started out playing bad guys in Jimmy Cagney vehicles before realising his potential in movies like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.

If Jack Warner had had his way, however, Bogart would never have become a household name at all. Jack thought Bogart too ugly to be a matinée idol, he signed him reluctantly and tried to make the actor change his name. Bogart refused, but Warner quickly realised that audiences loved him.

Jack Warner had a habit of falling out with his actors, whom he insisted on treating like prize cattle. James Cagney went to war with Warner several times over money. And Bette Davis fought and lost a bitter court battle with Warner over what she described as the "slavery" of her gruelling contract.

But Davis, Cagney and a great many other actors did some of their best work at the studio, which retained a reputation for excellence well into the 1950s. Jack Warner, though, liked to act the tough guy. "I don't want it good," he once said, "I want it Tuesday," and as he got older Jack grew harder and harder to work with.

In the 1950s he bought out his surviving brothers' shares in the studio behind their backs, and fired his own son after a disagreement. Jack hung on to the reins of power far longer than any of the other pioneering studio bosses, but in the mid-1960s began to lose his grip.

He sold his interest in Warner Brothers in 1967, shortly after the release of the musical Camelot, a costly flop that he'd backed, but continued to produce films independently well into his 1980s.

Jack was gone but Warner Brothers lived on, subsumed by larger corporations but continuing to produce high quality films. In the 1970s and 1980s they launched the Batman and Superman film series, and their recent successes include the most lucrative movie franchise of all time, Harry Potter.

Warners, then, is here to stay, but one hankers for the glory days of bustling sound stages in the heart of Hollywood, and a studio ruled by the whims of a temperamental, unpredictable but reliably colourful movie czar.

Irish Independent

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