HTF DVD REVIEW: The Brothers Warner

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  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer

    Feb 20, 2001
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    The Brothers Warner

    Directed By: Cass Warner Sperling

    Narrated by: Cass Warner Sperling

    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Year: 2008

    Rated: NR

    Film Length: 94 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 16:9

    Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

    Release Date: March 9, 2010

    The Film ****

    The Brothers Warner is a documentary that traces the history of brothers Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner who founded the movie studio bearing their name. It traces their personal and professional history from their turn of the century Polish Jewish immigrant origins all the way through the retirement and passing of youngest brother Jack Warner in the 1970s. It is written, directed, and narrated by Cass Warner Sperling, the granddaughter of Harry Warner.

    There have been numerous excellent documentaries and featurettes telling various aspects of the intertwined family and studio history of the Warner Brothers through the years. Some of the best and most readily available include:
    • Jack Warner: The Last Mogul which was included as part of the Casablanca Ultimate Collectors Edition DVD and BD releases
    • The Dawn of Sound which was included as part of The Jazz Singer Three Disc Deluxe Edition DVD release
    • Warner at War which was included as an extra on the This is the Army disc in the "Warner Bros. and the Homefront Collection".
    • You Must Remember This: the Warner Bros. Story which is a sprawling studio history from Richard Schickel that is available independently on DVD

    While there is considerable overlap between those documentaries and this one, The Brothers Warner carves out its own niche by primarily focusing on the history of the family itself, zeroing in on the four brothers who formed the company and how their talents, visions, dreams, and personality quirks charted the course of the studio for five decades.

    Writer/director/narrator Cass Warner Sperling is the granddaughter of Harry Warner, the oldest of the brothers and the original studio head. The film is adapted from her 1993 book "Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story" which in its most recent printing has been retitled consistent with the name of the documentary. It is well paced and researched, with Sperling taking advantage of her unique personal knowledge and family connections to offer-up insights into Harry, who as the oldest had an almost patriarchal position relative to his siblings, Albert, who was in charge of finances and theatrical distribution and frequently the peacemaker between Harry and Jack, Sam, the visionary who pushed the company towards talking pictures before his tragic death almost concurrent with the release of The Jazz Singer, and Jack, the flamboyant youngest brother who was the head of production and the last of the classic Hollywood studio moguls standing after he staged a corporate coup to take the company from Harry and Albert in the 1950s and continued as studio head through to the late 1960s.

    While watching the documentary, one wonders if Sperling's family connections are biasing her point of view, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Jack L. Warner given his falling out with his brothers late in life. One particular passage where crudely animated cartoons are used to illustrate many of the extremely politically incorrect episodes attributed to him might just be taking things too far, but to be fair, his behavior as illustrated here is no less eccentric and outrageous than most other accounts I have seen or read.

    In addition to Sperling's narration, the film's story is told through the words of a number of on-camera interview participants ranging from famous Hollywood stars and filmmakers such as Debbie Reynolds, Tab Hunter, Dennis Hopper, and Haskell Wexler to family members and former studio employees in administrative positions. Even family members of other movie moguls of the time are interviewed such as Roy Disney and Samuel Goldwyn Jr.

    Sperling's attempts to impose a narrative structure and establish the modern relevance for the historical events discussed in the film are modestly effective. The film opens with a somewhat cliched sequence where various persons on the street are asked if they know who the Warner Brothers, presumably so their ignorance can illsutrate the necessity for this documentary. It quickly gets back on track after that episode. A framing device where Sperling states her lack of knowledge of the family's original ethnic name at the film's opening and then locates a distant relative with first hand knowledge of it near the film's end was actually quite effective for me, but your mileage may vary.

    The Video ***

    The documentary appears to have been shot primarily on high-definition video, and the 16:9 enhanced image is usually outstanding. Some of the talking head interview segments have brief cuts to footage from a second camera that looks like it was originated as 4:3 standard definition video. The quality of the various vintage film clips is all over the place, with some 4:3 material cropped to 16:9, some 4:3 material windowboxed with a slight squeeze applied, a couple of clips that seem to be improperly encoded with 3:2 pulldown artifacts, and a handful of other issues I will not describe in detail. While the editing is very good throughout, the varying quality of the film clips is occasionally jarring

    The Audio ***

    The English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is solid and gets the job done with solid centered dialog, a nice stereo spread for the supporting score, and not much else to crow about.

    The Extras ½

    There are no special features on this disc.


    The DVD is enclosed in a standard Amaray-sized Eco-Box case with no inserts. The contents are contained on a single-layer DVD-5. Menus are straightforward with options for chapter and subtitle language selection.

    Summary ****

    The Brothers Warner is an interesting feature-length documentary from Cass Warner Sperling, the granddaughter of Harry Warner, that traces the personal and professional history of the four brothers who founded the Warner Bros. studio. It is presented on disc with a solid 16:9 enhanced video presentation marred only by some inconsistencies in the quality and presentation of vintage clips and some infrequent "b-roll" interview footage that is of lesser quality than the rest of the feature.


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