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DVD Review: The Brothers Warner

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Cass Warner Sperling was born into the American movie-making aristocracy. Her father was writer/producer Milton Sperling. Her maternal grandfather was Harry Warner, eldest of the four Warner Brothers whose eponymous studio launched the talking pictures revolution and helped sculpt the history of cinema.

The personal and professional lives of the movie mogul brothers were famously fraught with conflict and tragedy. But to the general public, the most well-known version of events was that promoted by flamboyant, narcissistic Jack L. Warner in his 1964 autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. Youngest of the four, Jack shamelessly maneuvered himself into the position of studio CEO, and today is the only Warner Brother whose name is remembered by most people.

Cass has spent several decades working to live up to the ideals of her grandfather Harry, who died when she was ten. She felt that she made a promise to her grandfather to set the record straight about Jack L. Warner and the family. In 1998, after eleven years of research, she published Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story (reissued in 2008 as a film tie-in under the title The Brothers Warner). In 2003, Cass formed a media company, The Warner Sisters, and in 2008 released a documentary based on her book with additional material collected in the ten-year interim. Featured on PBS as part of the American Masters series, and winner of multiple awards, The Brothers Warner is now available on DVD.

The 90-minute documentary is a very personal story for Cass, and this has pluses and minuses. As an "insider," Cass collected rare private photographs and footage, and was able to interview coworkers, family members, and friends, many of whom appear in the film. She even contacts a distant relative who knows the original family name, lost when Benjamin Warner arrived in New York and chose a new name in 1888. This privileged glimpse into the family saga is moving and intimate.

The minus, however, applies when Cass' personal perspective veers from intimate to self-referential. A scene in which Cass sits with her mother paging through old scrapbooks slows the pace, for example, as do some of the filmed reminiscences that serve to highlight character flaws or gems without otherwise informing the audience of facts. Cass does a Jay Leno imitation when she takes a microphone out on the street and buttonholes passers-by to ask them if they think there were real people called "the Warner Brothers" and what their names were. (Almost no one knows the right answer. "Why do I care?" asks one man.) The documentary is strongest when it follows its core narrative, describing the success of the brothers and their studio through hard work, astute risk-taking, and no small amount of ruthlessness. Unfortunately, as a whole, it reveals a certain bias.

It's hard to argue that Jack L. Warner was a jerk, even if he did accomplish some important cinematic achievements. Nothing more is needed to demonstrate Jack's less attractive side than allowing him and his actions to speak for themselves. The Brothers Warner certainly doesn't aim simply to disparage Jack. But both the material and the presentation treat Jack Warner differently than the rest of the family.

Cass presents the older three brothers — Harry, Albert, and Sam — and their father, Benjamin, with a respect and dignity approaching reverence. Their virtues — family values, vision, moral fiber, and an amazing work ethic — and good deeds for family, society, and country are painted in glowing colors. Whatever character flaws they undoubtedly had are left unmentioned or glossed over. We do hear one passing comment that Harry "had a temper," and Cass tells Roy Disney, Jr. that her father, Milton Sperling, once stopped Harry from going after Jack "with a lead pipe." But Harry's behavior is implied to be justified by the stress Jack was putting him through. I also was highly dubious about the way Harry pressured Sam Warner's young Gentile widow into signing over custody of her infant daughter to him in 1927. Cass frames this as evidence of Harry's devotion to family and a generous action that was best for all concerned.

Such justification isn't surprising in a family memoir. But Jack L. Warner isn't given the same benefit of the doubt. Repeatedly, the documentary digresses to discuss Jack's negative behavior or abrasive personality, several times jumping out of its otherwise chronological sequence to do so. For example, after covering the studio's "socially conscious" silent films before and after World War I, The Brothers Warner wanders into a critique of Jack's two marriages and how they offended the family. Then, while covering the "gritty and realistic" dramas Warner Brothers produced in the 1930s, the documentary pauses for a series of anecdotes about Jack's character quirks and insensitive remarks, most of which didn't occur until decades later when he was head of the studio.

We're told about Jack's cooperation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, his marriage to his mistress, and how he fired his own son. (Jack M. Warner collaborated with Cass on the book and the documentary.) We hear how he tricked his brothers into selling their shares in the firm so he could secretly buy them up the next day, thereby taking control of Warner Brothers Studios and putting himself in charge. These stories are juxtaposed against such contrasting anecdotes as Harry Warner organizing the "Friendship Trains" of food donations during World War II and being called "the man who brought charity to Hollywood."

It's not merely the choice of material that sets Jack's depiction apart from everyone else's. Jack's stories are presented in a slyly humorous way which is not applied to any other brother. I thought that the animated cartoon recreations of a few of Jack's more notorious offensive remarks were crude, silly, and jarringly out of tone with the rest of the documentary. The story of Jack's successful takeover of the studio segues into a sequence of film clips showing Jack clowning around in a swim suit, while the song "Me, Myself and I" by David Campbell plays on the soundtrack. If the rest of the Warner family enjoys a gravitas worthy of Alistair Cooke, Jack L. Warner gets the Michael Moore treatment.

Apart from this, The Brothers Warner presents an engrossing, if severely condensed, history of the movie industry and the studio's contributions to it. The saga of the Warner family, with its tragic deaths and bitter quarrels, is affecting and poignant, even if it does seem sugar-coated. Several major stars appear on camera to share their memories of the Warners, including Dennis Hopper, George Segal, Tab Hunter, and Debbie Reynolds. Also intriguing are accounts from Roy Disney, Jr. about his father and uncle and the similar experiences of his show business family.

On the Warner Sisters website, Cass writes, "Warner Sisters is here to carry on the purpose of the original Warner brothers’ motto that my grandfather, Harry Warner, president and founder of the studio, initiated and implemented for over fifty years. Producing entertainment that 'educates, entertains and enlightens' is my legacy. Inspiring other artists and businessmen to increase understanding amongst their fellow man is, I believe, our creative duty and honor." While Cass may have felt obligated to place her great-uncle Jack under a stern light for the sake of his deeply wounded brothers and son, she ends the documentary with a visit to his grave and the assertion that he, too, is her family. It's refreshing to see a Hollywood memoir that doesn't merely dredge in the muck. The Brothers Warner is a priceless window into a private world that outsiders are seldom allowed to see.

The DVD is presented in matted widescreen format, color and B&W, Dolby digital audio, subtitles optional, 94 minutes. Not rated.

For more information, visit the film's official website.

View The Brothers Warner trailer.

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About Vyrdolak

Inanna Arthen (Vyrdolak) is an artist, speaker and author of The Vampires of New England Series (http://vampiresofnewengland.com): Mortal Touch (2007), The Longer the Fall (2010), and All the Shadows of the Rainbow (2013). Book 4 is currently in progress. Inanna is a lifelong scholar of vampire folklore, fiction and fact, and runs By Light Unseen Media (http://bylightunseenmedia.com), an independent press dedicated to publishing vampire fiction and nonfiction. She is a member of Broad Universe, New England Horror Writers, Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and Independent Publishers of New England (IPNE). She holds an M.Div degree from Harvard and is an outspoken advocate for the Pagan and LGBT communities. She is minister of the Unitarian-Unitarian Church of Winchendon, MA.
  • Greg Barbrick

    This sounds pretty interesting.