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The Uncivil Servant: Four Brothers, One Dream Machine

Mitchell Abidor
October 29, 2017

Discussed in this essay: Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio by David Thomson. Yale University Press, 2017, 220 pages.

WARNER BROS: The Making of an American Movie Studio, the great film critic David Thomson’s book on the eponymous producers and their studio, is the latest in Yale University Press’s eclectic Jewish Lives series. The series has featured biographies of characters as diverse as Rabbi Akiva, Emma Goldman, Sigmund Freud, and Hank Greenberg, but this is the first to have a collective subject: the four film-producing Warners, Albert, Harry, Sam, and Jack. Thomson establishes the subject’s oddity by saying in his introduction that Jack is “maybe the biggest scumbag ever to get into a Jewish Lives series.” A womanizer, a man who preyed on aspiring actresses, a man who cheated his more upright brother Harry of his place in the studio, “scumbag” is an accurate description of Jack Warner, and a reminder that Harvey Weinstein did not emerge out of a historical void. As Thomson writes, “Hollywood, you see, is fond of its rascals.” Rather too fond.

Fitting the Warners within a Jewish framework is a more difficult task, one that Thomson makes more difficult for himself almost immediately.

The Warner brothers were born either Wonsal or Wonskolasor in Poland, their original given names Moses (Harry), Aaron (Albert), Szmul (Sam), and either Itzchak or Jacob (Jack). Arriving in America, the family lived briefly in Baltimore and Ontario, then settled in Youngstown, Ohio, where the brothers began (the legend goes) purchased a projector and showing films. In the wide open world of movies in the early 20th century, their perseverance and luck paid off, and the immigrants moved to California and build one of the most important studios there.

But being a Jew doesn’t mean you live a Jewish life, of course, and Thomson early on abandons any attempt to tie the Warners, their rise, and their studio’s productions to any particularly Jewish element. He dismisses Neal Gabler’s essential book on the subject, the 1988 An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, which demonstrated the myriad ways the largely Jewish studio owners created the cinema’s — and thus the country's and the world’s — image of America. Thomson accepts some of Gabler’s thesis, but argues that “it failed to explore how fully the American public had acclaimed and digested Hollywood, and whether or not the moguls understood that or were really in charge of the process.” He also points to the many non-Jews vital to the growth of the American cinema (Griffith, DeMille, Pickford, Gish, etc.), and observes that “[a]long the way to power and their sometimes lurid splendor, these moguls compromised many of the hallowed meanings of Jewish life beginning around, say, 1900.”

THAT THE JEWISH movie moguls fully understood what set the American pulse beating and were not mere accidental players is proved by the ways they dictated what films would be made, what genres would be focused on, what actors would be featured. They took America’s taste for the West and turned it into iconic images and tropes; they made the lone detective the symbol of the strong, isolated urban individual. Whether they conceptualized this intellectually cannot be said; what matters is that they provided America with not a mirror, but an image of itself that it would then take as real. That this had nothing to do with the “hallowed images of Jewish life” is irrelevant: no one has ever claimed that the American cinema was a form of Jewish proselytizing,; just that it was Jews who gave non-Jews like Griffith, De Mille, etc., the opportunity and the framework within they would produce a fictional America that would conquer the world.

Once Thomson dismisses this thesis we are left with a fascinating précis and analysis of some of the greatest films made in Hollywood, along with tales of the ups and downs of its greatest stars. As a result, it’s only mildly surprising that the frontispiece photo is not of the brothers, but of the echt non-Jew Jimmy Cagney. THomson's chapters feature critical essays on Cagney and Bogart, on the Cain and Abel theme in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, on the work of Busby Berkeley, and in a nod to the series in which book appears, to the first sound film, the Jewish-themed The Jazz Singer.

Another chapter is dedicated to the most loved of American films, Casablanca, reminding us that it was directed by Michael Curtiz (né Mano Kaminer), was produced for Warner’s by Hal Wallis (né Aaron Blum Wolowiwicz), and was written by Julius and Philip Epstein (with an assist by Howard Koch). While the main actors were all non-Jews, Peter Lorre (Laszlo Lowenstein), Marcel Dalio (Israel Moshe Blauschild); S. Z Sakall, and Leonid Kinskey are also all there in Rick’s Place.

No one has ever or could ever say Casablanca is a Jewish film, and Thomson tells us that on a whole “the Warners were anxious not to seem like a Jewish business. They wanted to be American, and hoped that role existed... So it was a film that addressed the justice and necessity of the war… But the Jewish experience of the war was not emphasized.” Like all the Jewish studio owners, the Warners elided Jewish references and issues from virtually all of their movies — even from films like The Life of Emile Zola — until Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire, both made in 1947. (Coincidentally, both directors would soon distinguish themselves as informants before HUAC.) But for the purposes of Hollywood history this is of little import. The Jewish studio moguls made American films, and thus, after being molded by America, in turn molded America. They aimed far higher than Second Avenue theater.

AS A BOOK on Jews and America and Jews and film, Warner Bros is thus a disappointment (made even worse by Thomson’s occasional infelicitous fake yiddishisms, like “having his matzo and eating it.” But Thomson is nevertheless a delight to read when he sticks to films, as in his appreciation of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, in which he is thorough and convincing in its case for its genius.

Happily, Thomson does not restrict himself to the human geniuses who inhabited Warner films. A better appreciation of Bugs Bunny is unlikely to be found anywhere. Writing about Bugs’ first appearance on the screen, in Elmer’s Pet Rabbit, he gets its star exactly right: “Bugs is an invader: he eats any and every vegetable he can see; he will take over Chez Fudd and make it his hotel; he is a trickster and a demon, without scruple or shame — but wordy (in seven minutes he comes on with ‘frankly,’ ‘irony,’ ‘humiliate,’ ‘responsible,’ and ‘cad’). And he talks to the camera.” In Bugs we find “the mayhem of liberty, the orgy of self and unrestrained id.”

This is David Thomson at his best, and Warner Bros, if it fails to provide equivalent insights into the Jewish history of the Warner studio, provides many like it in its analyses of films, filmmakers, and actors. In his brilliant 1985 novel Suspects, Thomson managed to prove that Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver was, in fact, the son of George Bailey of It’s a Wonderful Life. One puts this volume down regretting one main thing: his failure to prove that Bugs was a member of the tribe.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.