The Warner Brothers by Chris Yogerst

Full publicity shot of the four Warner brothers in 1922. From left: Sam Warner, Harry Warner, Jack L. Warner, and Albert Warner. Courtesy of Warner Bros./Max.

Chris Yogerst is the latest author to tackle the Warner brothers and their family’s legacy in his newest book, The Warner Brothers. The University Press of Kentucky published the book in their Screen Classics series in September 2023. Michael Uslan penned the foreword.

The Warner Brothers by Chris Yogerst
The Warner Brothers by Chris Yogerst (University Press of Kentucky).

There is no shortage of books about the four brothers: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack. In fact, the first few pandemic books I read were about the brothers. One of which was Cass Warner Sperling’s book, The Brothers Warner. The studio put out their own centennial book for the anniversary and a four-part documentary aired on Max. Suffice it to say, plenty of material was already in the market by the time University Press of Kentucky published Yogerst’s new book. And yet, this book is very different from the other books. Where Cass approaches from the family angle and Mark A. Viera’s coffee table book features many fancy photos, Yogerst takes a different approach.

Yogerst follows them from their birth and childhood in Poland to their arrival in North America. Like their peers, they escaped pogroms and antisemitism in Europe. It was not until sometime after settling in Ohio that the brothers would start their rise in the motion picture industry. The Edison Trust’s monopoly in the east would lead a number of founding Jewish studio moguls to head west to Hollywood. Yogerst notes how the studio found a way to survive the Great Depression. Even as the Great Depression gave way to wartime, the brothers were knee deep in the fight, Production Code be darned. They would take home their first Best Picture win with The Life of Emile Zola.

The hardcover does have a few typos. I expect that the University Press of Kentucky will fix them upon publishing the paperback. Regardless of the typos, Yogerst knows what he is talking about. Not surprisingly, Yogerst does discuss the 1941 Senate warmongering investigation in Chapter 4. After all, he did write the book on the matter even if he doesn’t bring up his other book while writing about the 1941 hearings. There’s a fascinating compare and contrast between the 1941 hearings and the later HUAC hearings. Harry and Jack took different approaches to these hearings and it shows. In any event, Yogerst offers an abbreviated version of his earlier book, Hollywood Hates Hitler!

Listen, I can go on and on about my current feelings towards Warner Brothers Discovery but it would be doing this book an injustice. The Warners revolutionized Hollywood by introducing sound to film in 1927. After introducing the sound-on-film system, Hollywood would never be the same–neither would the brothers but for very different reasons. Singin’ in the Rain perfectly captures the transition to sound and how it could make or break an actor’s career. In any event, we cannot discuss the current shape of Hollywood without discussing its Jewish founders. That’s why I’m glad to know that the Academy Museum is rectifying a wrong with the opening of Hollywoodland. It’s long overdue but I’ll stop myself before going off on a tangent.

Claude Rains as Haym Solomon in Sons of Liberty
Claude Rains as Haym Solomon in Sons of Liberty. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Chapter 4 focuses on the 1937-1941 period. This is one of the most important chapters in the studio’s history because of their fight against antifascism and antisemitism. It’s a known fact that Harry and Jack had strong feelings when it came to the Nazis. After all, their studio was among the first to pull out of Germany, doing so in 1933. They released Black Legion in 1937, a film in which Humphrey Bogart’s character falls victim to Coughlinesque rhetoric. The same year would see the release of The Life of Emila Zola. Zola took on Alfred Dreyfus’ wrongful conviction in a film that never says the quiet part out loud. The Dreyfus affair would lead Theodor Herzl to be the father of modern-day Zionism. They also released They Won’t Forget about the Leo Frank trial and lynching, which would give birth to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

In as much as they were taking on antifascism, they also boosted Americanism through through their patriotic short film series. Sons of Liberty was among the short films. The Oscar-winning short film was initially intended to be a feature film but ended up being the best film in their shorts about Americanism. As patriotic Americans, it was another way of adding to the anti-Nazi campaign and readying Americans for war against the Nazis. Confessions of a Nazy Spy would follow shortly thereafter. It was a risk for the studio but it was a risk they were willing to take. Other films, like Santa Fe Trail, were terribly misguided despite their best intentions. Not all films can be winners.

It will never not be sad while reaching the part of the book where the subjects are dying. Or in this case, reading about Jack’s betrayal of his brothers in what should have been a bittersweet moment in selling the studio, Instead, it becomes one of the saddest moment in studio history next to Sam’s tragic passing. They could have had a happy ending as a trio–for those unfamiliar, tragedy struck with Sam’s death on the heels of The Jazz Singer holding its New York premiere. In any event, Jack’s betrayal did some major damage, starting with Harry’s stroke and his death a few years later. Regardless of how sad that the era was for them, Yogerst captures it in a respectful manner.

The Warner Brothers is a new must-read book for anyone with an interest in the history of Hollywood but the four brothers who would go on to change the world.

The Warner Brothers is available wherever books are sold.

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.