‘The Brothers Warner’: of film and family
September 25, 2008
ASPEN ” The documentary “The Brothers Warner” makes the case that Warner Brothers was a pioneer among Hollywood studios in using film as a voice to weigh in on social issues. The studio used its commercial capital ” built initially with a huge gamble on the first talkie, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer,” which paid off handsomely ” to begin making movies that weighed in on the issues of the day. Films by Warner Brothers, founded in the first years of the 20th century by brothers Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner, examined the prison system in “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” and the coming tide of fascism in “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” ” both of which were acclaimed, popular and controversial.
Making “The Brothers Warner,” Cass Warner saw the history of social activism that has run through her family.
Among the things Warner says she learned through making the documentary was “that I came from a family who had a conscience, that they felt they had a responsibility, they had a communicative tool that was very powerful. And that my goals are very similar to their goals.”
Warner, granddaughter of Harry Warner, is getting a small taste of that power. She tired of her past career, as a film actress, when she didn’t like the roles that were being written for women. So she moved behind the camera ” taking a place, more or less, in the family business ” and turned her 1993 book, “Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story,” into her first film, “The Brothers Warner.”
The movie shows today, at 5:30 p.m., at the Wheeler Opera House, as part of Aspen Filmfest, with Warner expected to attend. The screening will be followed by a dinner celebrating Aspenite Lita Warner Heller, a cousin of Cass’ who is featured in the film. Proceeds from the dinner will go to Aspen Film’s new Emerging Filmmakers Fund.
“Brothers Warner,” made through Cass Warner’s Warner Sisters company, plays partly as a personal reflection. Through home images and the memories of Warner and other family members, the film tells of the Polish-Canadian Jewish siblings who became fascinated with the emerging film technology and built a chain of theaters. It is another version of the American dream tale: immigrants taking extreme risks, dreaming big, and succeeding in expanding the business and artistic landscape.
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“Being close to my grandfather, working to do something in his honor ” that was a big purpose,” said Warner, whose late father, Milton Sperling, was a film producer and screenwriter. “I think it’s a great saga of family who had a dream and didn’t quit until they made it happen. You can’t quit if you have a dream, and every barrier is an incentive not to stop, to keep going.”
The documentary also works as a tale of ego and family strife. Jack Warner, the youngest of the studio founders, is recalled as a flamboyant figure, the brother most closely associated with the studio, and a back-stabber who acquired exclusive control in Warner Brothers after convincing his brothers to sell their stock in a sham business deal.
Cass Warner learned from this episode that film can be a potent tool not only for the viewer, but for the maker.
“He’s an interesting character,” she said of her great-uncle Jack, who died in 1978, “and I learned to love him as well as the rest of the family. I felt good about including him and forgiving him, rather than making him the enemy. I’ve always been interested in evaluating information for myself, to uncover who these characters were. Why they made these decisions was fascinating to me.
“Power is an interesting state of existence, and it’s a very delicate and potentially dangerous tool if you don’t know how to control it.”
Warner, the mother of four and grandmother of three, is intent on using her newfound power as a filmmaker. She has two projects in the works. “A Shade of Grey” she describes as a “To Kill a Mockingbird”-like story, seen through the eyes of two children. The project has several well-known actors attached to it whom Warner would not publicly identify. The other is “Dog Stories,” a four-person coming-of-age story which she might direct herself.
The documentary “The Brothers Warner” shows at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Wheeler Opera House as part of Aspen Filmfest.