DVD Review: The Brothers Warner (2008)

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Perhaps it's inevitable in our technology driven corporate world that “As Time Goes By,” the history of our film industry, especially Warner Brothers is most synonymous with the images of Bugs Bunny, Batman, Harry Potter and Humphrey Bogart that have poured out of screens around the globe.

Yet before it was AOL Time Warner, or even just simply the larger-than-life Jack Warner who served as the figurehead for the studio that dared to fight Hitler by pulling WB movies out of Nazi controlled Germany as early as 1934, Warner consisted of four united, ambitious, passionate, and mad-about-the-movies brothers.

Inspired to venture into the motion picture business from the earliest days of the nickelodeon craze which was cemented by the launch of their first family run east coast theatre, once the brothers moved from distribution to production, making short training films for the government's World War I effort, Warner Brothers had become a fully-fledged national business, with a Hollywood property to boot.

With the eldest brother Harry, later dubbed “the man who brought charity to Hollywood,” in charge of finance, quiet Albert heading up distribution, dreamer Sam in charge of acquisitions of new material, and Jack overseeing the day-to-day operations of the picture business, the real Warner brothers kicked off what would eventually between them add up to over fifty years of running Warner Brothers.

As Harry's granddaughter and this documentary's director Cass Warner Sperling informs audiences, the uneducated four always knew they were on the right path if they were told that they couldn't do something.

And sure enough, WB broke a lot of new ground not just for their well known social consciousness pictures like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang that led to prison reformations and public outcry but also in terms of the technological advancements of the medium as well.

After Harry's historic gamble in borrowing the equivalent of what today what would one hundred and fifty million dollars to purchase Vitaphone in 1925 with the prediction that-- as his brother Sam agreed-- talking pictures would be the future, WB made the first official feature length work, Don Juan that contained an official soundtrack played by the legendary New York Philharmonic.

Still while this early and successful experiment proved beneficial not just to the brothers, their studios and in determining just what exactly audience members wanted to see (namely full length, moving stories), it is also quite revealing in the way that it brought Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack closer to the mission that in addition to entertaining and enlightening, films should educate.

By offering the masses the opportunity to hear music only the wealthiest citizens could afford to hear by the Philharmonic, Warner leveled the playing field, foreshadowing their future moviemaking practice of gritty, real life tales and daring pictures that as Harry noted wouldn't always be made for the money but simply because they involved ideas and ideals.

Yet, it wasn't until star Al Jolson ad-libbed the line that “you ain't heard nothin' yet,” in the first ever talking picture, The Jazz Singer that made WB the most innovative studio around.

Unfortunately this victory didn't come without a deeply personal price as Sam, the dreamer and technical wizard who made Jazz Singer his pet project passed away suddenly once it was finished, never living to see the way their gamble would change the movie landscape forever.

Interweaving family histories from first person family sources with family movies, photos, scholarly academic interviews, and anecdotes from Warner stars like Dennis Hopper and Debbie Reynolds, Cass Warner Sperling's riveting documentary begins like a love letter.

Then, intriguingly the film evolves into an unforgettable Shakespearean level tale of bravery, jealousy, and betrayal as a coup was staged by Jack to take control away from his brothers in a surprisingly callous manner that leaves viewers reeling.

However, as the film shares, it's “always between the brothers,” as Sperling speaks candidly with other children of fellow studios like Disney and MGM about life in the motion picture business. To this end, her family portrait is all the richer for its diversity in topic from not just studio highs like Casablanca to WB's fight against the production code in anti-war, anti-Nazi efforts and finding the law was on their side when the Ku Klux Klan sued them for their portrayal of the hate filled organization.

And unlike some highly technical behind-the-scenes documentaries, this highly recommended film benefits from utilizing a framework we can all relate to of hard work, family matters, and ambition that just so happened to exist within one of America's most successful motion picture companies, back when it used to be run by four uneducated Jewish brothers who loved movies and knew that they could do much more than simply entertain.

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FTC Disclosure:
Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.