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Brothers Warner, The (DVD Review)

15 Mar, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$19.98 DVD
Not rated.

A traditional documentary about Warner Bros. would rely heavily on Golden Age clips from movies starring Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, James Cagney and Errol Flynn — with a much later segue into, say, Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, Superman and Batman once the four founding siblings were gone and the studio entered the conglomerate age.

This is not that portrait. This one is about blood kin. And, at least figuratively speaking, blood.

Sons of Jewish immigrants, as most of the early movie moguls were, quiet Albert receded into the woodwork, while innovator Sam rocked the very foundations of the clan by dying on the eve of its once fledgling company’s most durable success: the revolution wrought by talking pictures with the release of Warner’s The Jazz Singer in 1927. Left to battle it out as only siblings can were humanitarian Harry (a relative low-key social conscience) and kid brother Jack, a self-promoting vulgarian who brought undeniable energy to the movies’ most energetic studio.

Only Warners could make a classic muckraker such as 1932’s I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, which led to congressional reforms of Southern penal systems — and then wrap itself in the American flag with 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, still the end-all, be-all of patriotic musicals.

The studio’s motto was to educate, entertain and enlighten — advice that indirectly came from the brothers’ father but seem in particular to have been Harry’s creed. One of the best parts here deals with the studio’s foiled attempt to make a movie about German concentration camps in the 1930s (which would have put them a stratosphere ahead of the Hollywood curve) — and the movie they did make against much opposition: 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, which first and finally addressed the Nazi threat head-on.

Writer-director Cass Warner Sperling was Harry’s granddaughter and the daughter of producer Milton Sperling, whose films for the studio ranged from Bogart’s The Enforcer (a pretty good mob toughie) to Sam Fuller’s Merrill’s Marauders. She obviously has good access to her own relatives — most of them getting up there in age — and to longtime veteran actors like Tab Hunter, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Dennis Hopper and Debbie Reynolds (an MGM star, but she made her screen debut at Warners), who were wee youngsters when probably the most benign aspect of the Harry-Jack relationship was their refusal to speak to each other.

What Jack ultimately did to Harry likely ranks with one of the most despicable acts anyone ever did to business partner — and here they were brothers. Hopper tells a great anecdote about James Dean (whose three starring big-screen roles were all for the studio) humiliating Jack in public fashion over the Harry affair. He didn’t quite spit in Jack’s eye — but close enough.

For comparably warm recollections about Jack, try to find 1995’s wonderful documentary on director William A. Wellman (Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick) to hear Wellman’s thoughts on the studio-butchered cut of his final film: 1958’s Lafayette Escadrille (with Hunter and a very young Clint Eastwood).

To paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of this documentary is business, which is why the limited utilization of classic Warner scenes isn’t a problem here. But I do wish there were some reference to the restrictive studio contracts that resulted in Cagney and Davis always seeming to be on suspension — and against which Olivia de Havilland won a landmark lawsuit in the 1940s. And also a little more about the discomfort of Jack, who produced the pro-Russia Mission to Moscow when they were our World War II ally, after the 1943 movie became a hot potato during the now historically disparaged post-war House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings.

There is, in fact, some good material here about the HUAC period, but maybe it would have been instructive to clarify just how much of a rabid right-winger Jack became. You can’t really say he kowtowed to the committee; he probably wanted to coach the team.

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