Clown Prince of Hollywood … By Bob Thomas
The Antic Life and Times of Jack L. Warner
Having recently enjoyed Stanley Tucci’s wonderful S.O.B. styled turn as Jack Warner on the TV miniseries Feud, the story of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, I scanned my bookshelf here in the vault searching for this bio originally published in 1990 that I picked up somewhere over the course of the last year while visiting local used bookshops. It’s from author Bob Thomas who has also written bios on the likes of Harry Cohn, William Holden, Bing Crosby and Irving Thalberg.
Yes I’ve read quite a bit concerning the “antics” of Jack Warner in my studies on film history as he makes appearances in most any book on the golden era of Hollywood, especially when reading up on the contract players of Warner’s. Bios dedicated to film icons like Bogie, Cagney and Bette. So while I may have read this fact previously but forgotten with time, I was surprised to learn that Jack was born in London, Ontario, Canada. Precisely one hour up the road from where I live. Another example of a Canadian making good in tinsel town.
I would suggest that the first third of the book is more of an overview of the Warner Brothers as opposed to focusing solely on the youngest brother in the family, Jack. The boys were a group of hungry go getters and through some shrewd business maneuvers, they bought into the new medium of film and are seen as always trying to stay ahead of the curve as the technology would continually change through the early years of the newfound entertainment. Jack was the youngest of the four brothers who would run the business and would team with Sam, the elder statesman to oversee the dealings in Hollywood during the silent era. Rin Tin Tin, the hero of many silent films would prove to be a cash cow for the boys and set them on their way to bigger things. They would also stake their business on the chance that “talkies” would revolutionize the industry and brought The Jazz Singer to screens revolutionizing the industry. Ironically, Sam Warner would die just as the film was being released leaving Jack alone to run the ship while his remaining older brothers Harry and Abe would be the money men in New York. In essence, Jack was really an immature kid in a candy store wielding an immense amount of power at the same time.
And so follows the many unbelievable stories of Jack Warner’s time running the studio and the people within it. His battles with Cagney, Bogie, Flynn and a petite, beautiful leading lady who would stand up to him and the seven year contracts, Olivia de Havilland.
He’d use up people, fire them when they were of no more use to him and heaven help anyone who attempted to usurp his power or take any claim for success that rightly belonged to the house brand known as Warner Brothers. After all, it’s his name on the studio water tower as he would constantly remind those who challenged his authority just as he fired them.
I have no idea what makes a man so greedy but Warner was just that. So much so that he cheated his own brothers out of the studio in the late fifties. The trio agreed to a sell out, selling their shares only to see Jack buy them all back one day later on his name and his alone. Harry Warner never spoke to him again.
A good read to be found here on the industry as a whole and from the vantage point of Warner’s with plenty of well known characters sprinkled throughout as they battle Jack. Incredibly, Jack would live and produce films right into the early 1970’s. Some of later successes and failures include My Fair Lady, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Camelot where a drunken Richard Harris would remind him of the troubles he had with Barrymore and Flynn.
Still, there is a heart that beats here and just when we think the cowardly Jack has no redeeming morals, he’ll shock and surprise you with some act of charity to a contract player or worker at the studio. Just not Hal Wallis who worked for Warner a number of years before the two had a falling out that came to a head the night Casablanca won the Best Picture Oscar.
If you enjoy the movies and star players I’ve mentioned here than this one is a book worth seeking out. Trust me, you’ll be shaking your head at the audacity and lack of class that Warner could repeatedly display to those around him. Still, there’s a devilish rascal inside that you can’t help but like. Yes, I think Stanley Tucci did one masterful job at bringing the studio head to life.