BOOK: History of Warner Bros. studio is behind-the-scenes look at stuff dreams are made of

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You must remember this.

Bogart sitting in a Casablanca café, pining for Ingrid Bergman. Jack Nicholson, his face smeared with grease paint, wreaking havoc as the grinning Joker. The children of Hogwarts, now grown, face Lord Voldemort for the last time.

For a century, Warner Bros. filled screens with “the stuff that dreams are made of,” to quote another WB classic, “The Maltese Falcon.”

And now Mark A. Vieira’s “Warner Bros. 100 Years of Storytelling” captures those visions in print. It’s a tale of humble starts, family feuds, setbacks, censorship, and eventually mammoth multi-media corporations and billions in profits.

“The Warner Bros. saga began in Krasnosielc, Poland, which was then part of the Russian Empire,” Vieira writes. “This was a community of Jews. They wanted to own property and build businesses. They could do neither. Instead, they were threatened by marauding Cossacks who came on horseback to whip Jewish men and rape their women.”

“In January 1888, Benjamin Wonsal said goodbye to his wife and children and sailed for America,” Vieira says of the patriarch and his wife. His wife and children soon joined, and he changed the name to the more American-sounding Warner.

Struggling to support his large family, Warner tried shoemaking, running a general store, trading furs, and dealing in scrap metal. He moved the clan from Baltimore to West Virginia, to Virginia to Detroit to Ontario. Finally, they settled in Ohio.

His four sons — Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack — soon struck out on their own in all directions. They sold cider vinegar, soap, and ice cream cones. They ran a bicycle shop. Jack, the youngest, sang in a local theater.

Then Sam saw a new invention — an Edison Kinetoscope.

“Once he learned how to operate this ‘moving-picture projecting machine,’ he was hooked,” Vieira writes. “Something touched his emotions.” He also discovered that, for an initial outlay of $150, he could buy a projector, posters, even a film.

Sam told his father, who raised the money by pawning the family’s one asset — a gold watch. And with that, and a print of “The Great Train Robbery” — the big hit of 1903 — the brothers Warner went into the movie business.

Their first theater was an empty store. They borrowed the folding chairs from a local funeral parlor.

Cut to 20 years later.

By 1923, the Warner brothers had officially incorporated as Warner Bros. Now based in Los Angeles, they were also producing their own films. Their first star was a German Shepard, Rin Tin Tin.

Looking for something new, they gambled on a new invention: Synchronized sound. Their initial effort, “Don Juan,” was released in 1926, with pre-recorded music and sound effects. It was such a hit that they decided to do a musical for their next big release.

The movie, “The Jazz Singer,” was groundbreaking and featured spoken dialogue for the first time.

After that, everything changed.

There were speed bumps ahead. Going all-in on sound meant not only buying new equipment for the studio but for all the theaters it owned. Then, while the Warners were still paying off that debt, the stock market crashed. They needed to sell tickets, a lot of tickets.

Warner Bros. did so by putting out ultra-violent gangster pictures, risqué melodramas, and musicals with half-dressed chorus girls. Other studios followed suit. The Studio Relations Committee, an industry-run board charged with keeping screens clean, told everyone to tone it down.

“Paramount and MGM cooperated to a certain extent, and Fox Films to a lesser extent, but not Warner,” Vieira writes. “With its semi-nude chorus girls and racy exchanges, Warner was the most flagrant violator … The last straw was the notorious ‘Convention City’ (1933), a lewd and lusty comedy.”

In response, Hollywood created an independent organization with the power to write and enforce a code of content. Every picture had to be approved before release. Movies with graphic violence, coarse language, or “immodest” fashions would be banned.

It was a challenge, but Warner Bros. met it, releasing some of the era’s greatest movies. Sometimes it was despite the youngest Warner brother, Jack. He had taken over the day-to-day creative decisions of running the studio and often quarreled with the talent.

Bette Davis, no pushover, fought him for better roles. Initially, she lost. But “with each defeat, Davis gained ground, winning smarter, more showy roles,” Vieira notes. “Once Davis hit her stride, her gallery of portrayals drew a nation of women to her.”

Other stars, like Jimmy Cagney, battled the studio, too, walking off until they landed better parts and more money.

Despite the fights, the studio prospered. The 1940s brought some of its biggest hits: “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Now, Voyager,” “Mildred Pierce,” “The Big Sleep,” and “White Heat.”

There was trouble ahead, however. After the war, conservative politicians went hunting for communists and “fellow travelers” — and claimed to find plenty of them making movies. Liberal stars, some of them Warner Bros. icons — Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield — found themselves unable to get work. Some filmmakers even went to jail or into exile.

The brand-new medium of television posed another challenge. How would studios lure audiences to movie theaters when they had entertainment for free at home? Once again, as they had in the 1920s, Warner Bros. responded by embracing technological breakthroughs, including wide-screen and 3D.

But there was even bigger drama off the screen. Behind his brothers’ backs, Jack had engineered a deal that cut them out while leaving him as president of the company.

“This news tore the Warner brothers asunder,” Vieira writes. “Harry died two years later. Albert never spoke to Jack again.”

It wasn’t a family business anymore. And there were bigger changes to come.

“Every year, a higher percentage of the audience comprised young people attending without parents,” Vieira notes. “By 1968, nearly 50 percent were between sixteen and twenty-five.” They knew what they wanted, too, even if the studio — pumping out musicals like “Finian’s Rainbow,” with Fred Astaire, and John Wayne’s pro-war “The Green Berets” ― didn’t share their tastes.

By then, a weary Jack Warner had already sold his stock and walked away. What would follow would be the corporate years, as a very personal family business became just something to be bought and sold, merged, and re-branded.

Despite those changes, the studio remains strong. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became known for its careful cultivation of relationships, forging loyal bonds with top directors — Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood. Today, its success relies on its command of popular characters and franchises — Bugs Bunny and Superman, Harry Potter, and “The Lord of the Rings.”

The coffee table book is crammed with studio photos.

Frankly, the book begins to drag after the brothers leave the stage. How can corporate restructuring compete with stories like Jack Warner locking a producer out of his office? When the man set up his desk on the lawn outside, Warner had a truck dump manure all over the grass.

But even if they’re not as interesting, the new studio heads are still pumping out pictures. They’re still growing, moving into all sorts of new ventures and platforms. And still promising — as Jolson did, in that first talkie — “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”