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

Daily Express - - NEWS - From Peter Sheri­dan

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

Pic­tures: GETTY; REX; ALAMY

LOSS: Sam died mak­ing ‘talkie’

SLEEPY: Al­bert was trea­surer

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