Ruthless star-makers who became kings of Hollywood’s Golden Age
The Warner Bros studio was the creation of four brothers who bullied and cheated their way to the top of the movie business, according to an explosive new book
Jin Los Angeles OHN WAYNE was livid. The western star’s movies had made millions for the Warner Bros studio but he had seen little of the promised profits. Whenever studio chief Jack Warner arrived at a star-studded Hollywood party the man they called Duke would angrily storm out.
When Warner eventually caught up with Wayne he asked innocently: “What went wrong?”
“You screwed me!” said the hardbitten actor.
“Duke, I know,” replied Warner. “But that would have happened anyway. And we’re your friends.”
Cheating and exploiting its stars has been a Hollywood way of life for more than a century but few studios embraced that sadistic ethos more than Warner Bros.
The four brothers behind the studio – Jack, Harry, Albert and Sam Warner – are little-known today but a fascinating new book lifts the lid on the cut-throat, exploitative and often inspired men who produced many of our favourite film classics.
“They were barely educated immigrants who couldn’t read English well, ruthless tough guys who cheated their stars and each other but together they helped shape the American dream,” says David Thomson, author of Warner Bros: The Making Of An American Movie Studio.
“Their attitude to John Wayne was typical, if you’re going to be screwed in Hollywood it may as well be by your friends. The stars all felt they were being exploited financially and overworked but they made great movies.”
A leading Hollywood studio for 94 years Warner Bros produced movie classics such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon and An American In Paris, making stars of Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis in the process.
However money typically trumped art. When director Elia Kazan proposed filming East Of Eden, Jack Warner confessed he “hadn’t read the book, didn’t propose to and didn’t even ask what it was about”, says Thomson. “What’ll it cost?” he asked. “About $1.6million,” said Kazan. “You’ve got it,” said Warner. “Cast who you want.”
Thomson explains: “The brothers didn’t have much education and didn’t read books but they had a gift for knowing what moviegoers wanted and for picking the talent to make the films.”
OF THE four Warner brothers Jack “was the biggest scumbag”, says the author. “He was an untrustworthy flamboyant rascal who took advantage of everyone.”
He enticed Bette Davis with false promises of giving her the lead in Gone With The Wind. “It was insanity that I not be given Scarlett,” raged Davis when she lost out to Vivien Leigh. “But then Hollywood has never been rational.”
Many movie classics were originally envisioned with wildly different actors. Warners wanted Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan to star in Casablanca before Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman won the roles. George Raft rejected The Maltese Falcon “because he thought it was not an “important” picture”. Paul Muni declined High Sierra “because he felt it had no message”.
Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck both turned down the title role in the 1945 film noir Mildred Pierce but Joan Crawford was eager. Yet director Michael Curtiz initially refused to work with her, raging: “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddam shoulder pads! I won’t work with CUNNING: Jack was the real mover and shaker behind the massive company her. She’s through, washed up.” But Curtiz relented and Crawford went on to win an Oscar.
Jack Warner wanted Cary Grant to star in My Fair Lady but had to settle for Rex Harrison. Eager to put his stamp on the film Jack axed Julie Andrews, the star of the Broadway production of My Fair Lady, and hired Audrey Hepburn instead for $1million. But he stitched her up too. After promising that she would sing in the movie he had her dubbed by Marni Nixon.
The Warner brothers were among the 12 children of Polish immigrants Benjamin Wonskolasor, a cobbler, and his wife Pearl. Raised in Youngstown, Ohio, eldest son Harry was a teenager when he launched a business projecting early movie reels in 1903. Constrained by a lack of films he and his brothers began making their own.
They struck gold when they discovered a German Shepherd dog trained for the Kaiser’s army in the First World War named Rin Tin Tin. The canine movie star made 27 films between 1923 and 1925, becoming America’s draw.
When the brothers bought the rights to Broadway musical The Jazz Singer they intended to make a silent film but decided to gamble on producing the first “talkie”.
The project was plagued with technical difficulties. Indeed the movie made Sam Warner so ill that he died of pneumonia the day it premiered.
“The Jazz Singer killed him,” said Jack, who took command of production and the film went on to be a smash hit. “Jack ran the show biggest boxoffice and had the hunches and the luck that made it work,” says Thomson. “It was said he could assess a script in just a few minutes without reading the whole thing.
“Albert was a sleeping – or sleepy – partner, the studio treasurer living in Miami. Harry was studio president and always at odds with Jack and that intensified as they became the decisive brothers. Harry was a loyal family man, outraged that Jack had sordid affairs.”
While the Warners nurtured stars they dumped them when they outlived their usefulness. Take Errol Flynn. They made him a star via the 1935 hit Captain Blood but dropped him after a few years “because Flynn was so often drunk on set and in the habit of alienating his best directors”, says the author. “Flynn had little interest in filmmaking and often forgot his lines.”
Even family members were not immune to Jack’s ruthlessness. He had no qualms about firing relatives. When Jack met Albert Einstein he told the physicist about his own theory of relativity: “Never hire relatives.”
IN 1956, with movies losing profits to TV, Jack even duped his own brothers, persuading them to sell 90 per cent of their stock to an investor – then making a secret deal to repurchase the shares and make himself studio president. Harry walked away with £6million but suffered a series of strokes and could not bring himself to speak to Jack again. At Harry’s funeral, two years after the sale, his widow Rea said: “Harry didn’t die – Jack killed him.”
Days later Jack crashed his Alfa Romeo in Cannes and was left in a coma fighting for his life. His son Jack Jr raced to the south of France, stopping briefly to visit his divorced mother on the way. When Jack recovered he fired his son for not coming to see him first.
Jack finally sold the studio in 1966 for £24million. The next year his brother Albert died of a stroke while watching TV at home in Miami. Jack himself died in 1978, aged 86, after a series of strokes.
“The Warner brothers were uneducated immigrants who came out of poverty, tough guys in a tough business,” says Thomson. “Their desire, hope and perseverance helped us see there might be an American dream out there.”
To pre-order Warner Bros: The Making Of An American Movie Studio by David Thomson, published by Yale University Press on October 3, £16.99, call the Express Bookshop with your card details on 01872 562310. Or send a cheque or postal order made payable to The Express Bookshop to: Warner Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth, Cornwall TR11 4WJ or visit www.expressbookshop.com UK delivery is free.
LOYAL: Harry was a family man
LOSS: Sam died making ‘talkie’
SLEEPY: Albert was treasurer