The new documentary The Brothers Warner tells a story that many younger generations aren’t familiar with – how Warner Brothers was born. It wasn’t just a brand but the vision of the four original Warner brothers: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack. These brothers were responsible from some of the most iconic films in Hollywood history such as Casablanca and The Public Enemy, bringing sound to movies, and also creating movies with a message – something modern Hollywood often forgets they have the ability to do.
The brothers took the first steps into the movie industry when they acquired a movie projector and opened their first theater called the Cascade in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1903. Their business grew as they secured the rights to distribute films across a four state area, and then by the time of World War I, they began producing their own films. Their first nationally syndicated film was My Four Years in Germany.
The documentary starts at the beginning and examines the Warners’ ventures into the entertainment industry which predates the forming of Warner Brothers by 2 decades. After the formation of the company and the innovation the brothers brought to the industry – things slowly start to fall apart as Jack Warner gets a little lost in the power he’s obtained. He betrays his brother Harry in 1956 creating a wedge between him and his brother that was never removed. Harry Warner died in 1958.
Cass Warner, granddaughter of Harry Warner, produced/directed this film. She took a little bit of time to talk with us about the film and her family.
As a child were you aware of your family’s story and Jack’s betrayal?
Cass Warner: Oh yes. You know I was 10 when the betrayal happened, and there was bitter fighting going on behind the scenes. That’s why Jack never showed up at family gatherings. And I found that very curious. Jack was a very interesting character. I describe him as kind of a Looney Tune. He had that kind of energy. He was always polished. I mean he literally looked like someone had polished his face and bald head.
He was like the kid on the school lot, who you feel really bad for, because they’re just on all the time. They can’t just calm down and be there comfortably.
It fascinated me though. I grew up around my father who was this wonderful screenwriter and storyteller. Characters were always being discussed. That was my fascination with them at first. Then I thought, ‘Well no one is telling this story. And it’s going to disappear, because all these people are dying.’ So luckily, I got quite a few people in the 80’s on audio tape when I was researching the book. So that was good, but damn I wish I had had a video camera. [laughs]
At one point in the documentary, one of the brothers mentions that they can get more accomplished because of the trust they had in one another. Was there a defining moment when that trust started to fall apart?
Cass Warner: Good question. I think it grew, because when you have that amount of power, and you don’t delegate it – you don’t sit down and really communicate… It was just a lack of communication between Jack and Harry. It’s really sad to me, because my father had said that back then they had titles like CEO- and my grandfather would have been CEO. Jack would have been the president. And Jack having that title, I think would have made a lot of difference to him.
There were other things too. Differences in personalities, their lifestyle differences, things that were important to them – they couldn’t have been more different.
Your grandfather had such a wonderful attitude towards his work – and wanting to make a difference – and a lot of Hollywood has drifted away from that mentality as the years have passed. What’s your opinion on the current state of the entertainment industry as compared to then?
Cass Warner: I’m hoping, especially with this film, that it reminds filmmakers that they have this powerful communication tool. That they can slip in a little viewpoint. Even if it’s just their viewpoint that’s meaningful to them. I think, being an optimist, that there will always be independent filmmakers who have a conscience.
So I think it’s kind of like a clothing fad with all the 3D and high tech – and I think that’s great, innovative, and fun. But for me, it’s all about the quality of the story and the quality of the storytelling. I just hope that art form doesn’t die, because that would be very sad.
I love documentaries because I like getting into the skin of the characters. That seems to be where you get to do that. There are exceptions though. There are important films – I think Avatar is a really important film. The messages that come through that film are important. And it’s because the filmmaker wanted to communicate something. Something that is important to him. It’s a great example of a combination of educate, entertain, and enlighten.
While the Warner family hasn’t been involved with Warner Brothers since the selling of the company in 1956, Cass Warner has still embraced her filmmaking heritage. She started her own production company appropriately entitled Warner Sisters where she could carry forward her family’s motto ‘educate, entertain, and enlighten’ and also expand as a filmmaker. While some filmmakers have forgotten that motto that the Warner family so successfully embraced, Cass Warner hopes that this film will remind filmmakers that they do have a powerful communication tool.
The Warner family has made so many huge contributions to the entertainment industry, and it’s wonderful that there is a film that sheds light on this story. We highly recommend you check out The Brothers Warner, and if you want even more information about the story of the Warner brothers, check out Cass Warner’s book The Brothers Warner.
Interview/Article by: Emma Loggins