A big book tour of Warner Bros. lot and history.
WARNER BROS.: HOLLYWOOD’S ULTIMATE BACKLOT by Steven Bingen is an information-packed tour of the grounds and the history of a giant Hollywood studio. I love reading about the Warner Bros. lot tour some of my favourite bloggers go on while in Hollywood for TCM Classic Film Festival, so I thought I’d use this book to walk around the place from almost 2500 miles away.
The book is easy to read, in a style that combines the author’s personal stories with extensive research, lots of photos and an abundance of detail. I could have done with less of Bingen’s tangents and digressions into his personal life, and the text needed better editing, as there are phrases and words repeated on the same page, errors on things like movie release years, and twice a favourite actor’s name was misspelled as Warren Williams. Even with those weaknesses, it is still fun to go through all the lot’s buildings and objects in the context of the studio’s growth, setbacks and rebounds from its startup days through entertainment trends and management changes. There are tons of facts about prop construction, type, use case, even cleaning and storage, most of which should interest movie buffs. Just to pick a few, there’s a “biography” of the Maltese Falcon telling how many copies were made using which methods, and where they ended up. I loved learning about the Big Bertha chandelier with its 36,000 pieces of Czech crystal and some historical connections; it may have come from the Russian Czar’s palace and was in a big movie the day President Kennedy was assassinated. It’s fun to know that there are enough racks of curtains on site to drape the Queen Mary two times over, or that fake paintings look much better on film than the real works.
Bingen also covers a lot of stars’ activities on and off screen. Steve McQueen retrofit the bowling alley into a shooting gallery, George Clooney had a regulation-size court made for basketball games with the ER cast, producer Irwin Allen built a sauna and a wet bar and fed the little mobs of stray studio cats, then Clint Eastwood (who used Howard Hughes’ old offices) took over kitty feeding duty when Allen left. Again, a small selection of fun stories from many that span the entire life of lot from silents to Super Bowl ads.
As a fan of trains and stations in movies, I enjoyed the look at the train shed which includes some real cars, and some partial exteriors towed on cables. Through each building we go: prop, light, electrical, mill, costumes, writers’ and Sinatra’s offices, film lab (where 4 million feet of film was processed per year in the 1940s), even first aid and mail rooms, and with each stop you learn much about the logistics of running a studio in its heyday and decline.
After a fascinating trip through the unusually numbered stages, Bingen takes us to the backlot and its variety of neighbourhoods (with nice maps to follow along): Tenement Street, Brownstone Street (the only first generation set that was never burned or torn down), New Orleans Street, French Street, Laramie Street, and the most beloved and familiar area, Midwest Street, where the joke is made that Doris Day (who wrote the Foreword) lived in every one of its houses (truth: one house was in four Day movies). You’ll learn how many other iconic movie and TV family homes were here, how easily the structures were altered or shot from different angles to “play” different buildings, and you might be as surprised as I was at how often fires wiped out huge sections of the lot.
Bingen doesn’t neglect the company’s other locations at Burbank and Calabasas, and the Brooklyn studios included with the purchase of Vitagraph, where they had audio problems due to the nearby noisy railroad, and a tragedy involving the “dump tank” used for NOAH’S ARK (1929). Bingen even takes you to the company’s British studios, where Errol Flynn made his movie debut, where Thames Television was based for a time, where Pinewood took over, and where a former Ministry of Defense plant manufacturing de Havilland bombers became the place GOLDENEYE (1995) and the Harry Potter movies were shot.
And I haven’t even talked about the mystery of the Jack Warner statue, Warner’s feelings about the animation department, the elusive locations of Bette Davis’ and Errol Flynn’s dressing rooms, the secret pin up room, or how the company ended up with the largest bowling alley in the world in the 1930s. Read the book for those stories, and to see how Jack Warner’s last film at the the studio, CAMELOT (1967) effectively ended large scale backlot feature production. A few years later, Warner Bros. combined with Columbia as joint owners, which led to nearly two decades of infighting, a chapter of infighting, shortfalls, less filming in-house, neglect and disrepair. By that point in the book, you’ve gotten to know the place inside out and feel for its misfortune like you would for a friend in hard times. I’ve only scratched the surface of all the information to be found in here, that I’ll be revisiting as I watch movies and get curious about an alley, courthouse, staircase or car chase past a fountain.
This review is part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past