Finished Warner Bros: The Making of an American Studio by David Thomson this weekend. I loved it. Thomson is such a good writer - smart, engaging, opinionated - that I’ll read anything he writes. He could publish a book called A Book and I’ll buy it. He once wrote a book called the The Whole Equation (about movies, of course, not math) in which we never find out what the “equation” in the title actually is. But it doesn't matter - it’s Rosebud, a McGuffin, the metaphorical rug that ties the room together.
This lively volume, though, focuses on the Warner brothers. There were four of them: Albert, Sam, Harry, and Jack. Albert had no interest in the movie business and spent his life in Florida; Sam died from pneumonia and overwork at the birth of the sound era; and Harry and Jack battled it out to the death for the remaining years, with the latter emerging as the shvantz supreme. Thomson does an admirable job telling their story, but despite all the success and the fratricidal hate, it’s a tale that never really grips the reader. They’re bores.
Thankfully, Thomson soon gravitates to the movies and movie stars on the Warners lot during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Names and dishy anecdotes abound: Daryl Zanuck, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell, Joan Blondell’s tits (Jack Warner: “For Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out!”), Michael Curtiz, and others. Even Julie Andrews and Warren Beatty make an appearance. When Beatty told Jack Warner that Bonnie and Clyde was “an homage to Warners gangster films” Jack replied “What the hell is an homage?”
This book is packed full of fascinating details. I discovered, for instance, that when Little Caesar opened it was so popular that “Warners had to run it twenty-four hours a day with mounted police controlling the line.” I learned that the darkness into which Paul Muni flees at the end of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (“I steal”) was caused by a sudden power outage on the set, not by directorial or producer genius. And I found out that Lena Horne was briefly considered for the part of Sam in Casablanca before being passed over for Dooley Wilson. The mind reels at the prospect of what impact such a prominent role for an African-American woman could have had in 1942 Hollywood - and America.
I also learned about Jack Warner’s sexual harassment m.o., which was not just de rigeur, it was part of his daily schedule - literally. 4PM. In his office. Everyday a pretty young starlet would be shown in for diddling and oral sex (on him, of course). No furtive befouling of potted plants for Jack Warner, thank you very much. I wonder if Turner Classic Movies is now planning a new special series “Casting Couch: A week-long showcase of wholesome classic films produced by Tinseltown’s leading Golden Age serial sexual harassers!” Somehow I think not. Though it would have been entertaining to see the late Robert Osborne try to glide over those ugly facts.
But I digress.
The best parts of this book are Thomson’s insights and opinions about movies. Here he is writing about The Public Enemy:
The Public Enemy is an anarchist exultation in which “law and order” is a forlorn concession to what we are supposed to think. Here we are, in 1931, at a time of devastated economy and diminishing hope, with an inspiring celebration of outlawry. Warner Bros is often thanked for its liberal sentiments and social concerns. But that is hogwash if you really inhabit Cagney’s energy in The Public Enemy. We are witnessing, and enjoying, a force of unhindered danger. That people demanded to see it was a sign of how the movies had uncovered our violence and despair.
Gangster films seem to bring out Thomson's best. That's not surprising. The gangster genre has turned out to the sturdiest from that era. Westerns and musicals have diminished or largely disappeared. Melodrama, horror, and comedy have changed until they're unrecognizable to their predecessors. But the gangster story has a vitality that just doesn't stop. Even when it goes bad, it just gets better. Thomson turns to 1949’s White Heat and notices that after a decade and a half the heroic quality of the gangster is now gone: Cody Jarrett is merely a psychopath with mommy issue. The liberating anarchism of Public Enemy seems to have hit a wall. Maybe Warners Bros
…was trying to avoid the truth, that it had defined and released a dangerous energy…, only to discover that the dream can hit a dead end. Decades later, we would have to learn how far Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, and Walter White spoke to the unease and anger at being free yet imprisoned in a world of ruined dreams.
I would add Stringer Bell from The Wire to that list, too. In fact, Imprisoned in a World of Ruined Dreams would be an apt alternate title for The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, or The Wire, as well as White Heat, Key Largo, and any number of film noir gems. Another fitting name for our modern gangster epics would have been Dead End. But, alas, that title is already taken. It’s a gangster movie from 1937. And the studio? Warner Bros.