Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio By David Thomson, Yale University Press, 220 pages, $25.
A droll title but you have to read it carefully. There is no period after the word “bros,” so the implication is that Thomson is not using the word -- or at least not ONLY using the word “bros” -- as an abbreviation of “Brothers” but also playing off the breezy, millennial appropriation of the word as, as in “Hey, bro, how’s it going?”
It seems to be very side-of-the-mouth Thomsonian joke which some will complain is not appropriate in a book like this which not only comes from the prestigious Yale University Press, but its “Jewish Lives” series in the bargain (previously everyone from Ben-Gurion and Leonard Bernstein to Barbra Streisand and Leon Trotsky).
There were four Warner Brothers -- Harry, Al, Sam and Jack. But for Hollywood purposes, there was mostly Jack, a 24-carat SOB (Thomson uses a nastier word which also fits) who successfully out-maneuvered his respectable and religious brother Harry out of the studio that bore their names.
Thomson is not a financial reporter here, He is, by trade, one of the best film critics and historians we have so his interest is in the following things in order: personalities, films, filmmakers and performers, especially on the last two, depending on the page.
Neal Gabler did it longer and better in “An Empire of their Own” but in Thomson’s case, that means tales of “Casablanca,” “East of Eden,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Big Sleep,” “Public Enemy,” Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Rin Tin Tin, Daryl Zanuck (at first) and Wile E. Coyote. Any reasonably informed film fan is always able to argue with Thomson. I for one, would have liked here to see so much more about those very special Warner cartoon geniuses Chuck Jones and Tex Avery.
But this was the studio of great wiseacre cartoons, and gangsters, and social consciousness, and World War II refugees and a lot of stuff funkier than, say, MGM. A place that, in modern parlance, would be full of “bros” no doubt.