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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE BROTHERS WARNER"


 
The words "Warner Brothers" surely warm the heart of every hardcore movie lover. The studio has turned out some of the greatest and most beloved motion pictures in the history of cinema. Of course, these days, we think of the studio as being part of a much larger, more impersonal conglomerate; the fact that it started off as a family business has, to some extent, been relegated to the back of our collective mind. Cass Warner, granddaughter of Harry Warner, attempts to rectify this with The Brothers Warner, a documentary about her own family's travails in the movie biz.

The four Warner brothers - Jack, Harry, Sam, and Albert - developed their fascination with movies during the days of the silent nickelodeons. They opened one of their own, then decided it would be better to fund production of movies rather than just exhibiting them. Around 1918, they opened their own studio in Hollywood and began the process. Each brother had a specific role within the company, from creative stuff to business matters, and the motto that drove them was "Educate. Enlighten. Entertain."

What set Warner Bros. apart from other studios was its vision. The Warners weren't shy about taking on political or social issues, and many of their gangster pictures were hard-edged for the era. They tried for years to make a movie condemning Nazism, but couldn't get one approved by the Code office until Confessions of a Nazi Spy broke through that glass ceiling. Technology was also embraced; they changed movies forever by gambling the company fortune on synchronized sound, at a time when a lot of people felt sound was unnecessary.

The Brothers Warner uses archival film footage, archival sound interviews with the subjects, and current testimonials from people who knew the Warners to trace every success the studio had (and there were many). However, Cass Warner isn't content to simply write a love letter to her relatives. She also includes in her doc some of the more troublesome events of the family, starting with Jack Warner's divorce and subsequent remarriage to his mistress, which angered his brothers. Harry had particular disdain for Jack, which made running the studio somewhat tricky.

The final third of the documentary does indeed focus on Jack, who became the public face of the studio, calling many of the shots and acting in the capacity of a stereotypical movie tycoon. It was a role he seemed to relish, even going so far as to rush the stage at the Academy Awards so that he could take credit for a winning picture that, in reality, he had little to do with. He later orchestrated a plan to cut his siblings out of the business altogether. It was a betrayal for which he was never forgiven.

The Brothers Warner documents all these things in a fair, entertaining way. Kudos to the director for not shying away from the uglier parts of the story. Commentary from film scholars, stars such as Dennis Hopper and Debbie Reynolds, and contemporaries like Sherry Lansing help to provide perspective, giving us a more complete understanding of how Warner Bros. evolved from a family business to a seminal show biz icon. Interviews with Warner grandchildren provide additional insight into the personalities of the key players.

The Brothers Warner is something that should be viewed by anyone who really wants to understand both the birth and the changing nature of the Hollywood studio system. It works beautifully in that capacity, yet it is also a compelling family tale filled with joys and sorrows, crushing failures and massive successes.

( 1/2 out of four)


The Brothers Warner is unrated but contains some adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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