Warner Bros.: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

WARNER BROS.: HOLLYWOOD’S ULTIMATE BACKLOT by Steven Bingen at Amazon.com and Amazon.ca

  Challenge

This review is part of the SUMMER READING CLASSIC FILM BOOK CHALLENGE hosted by Raquel at Out of the Past

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12 thoughts on “Warner Bros.: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot”

    1. yes, there is SO much detail and info in here, I can’t even start to list it. Fun to learn all about the workings and how the stages sound, etc. Also an appendix listing movies made on each lot or “street.”

  1. Took the tour back in 1989, when it was still allied with Columbia — very informative. Will have to take it again now that I live in the West (though I set foot at Warners in November to see an episode of “Mom” filmed).

    1. That must be lots of fun, I loved reading about all the places in this book, recognized many, and always love to hear about people’s visits there now.

  2. What a great book! I might have to get my hands on a copy of this.

    A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to take a tour of the Warner Bros backlot. So much fun! We were on a tour with people who were really bored and took no interest in anything, so I was able to monopolize our guide with questions while I madly scribbled notes in my little notebook. He even arranged for the head tour guide to meet us at the building where they filmed the scenes in Rick’s Cafe for Casablanca. I was able to go into the soundstage with him and, although I was not allowed to bring my camera, he showed me how the cafe was set up inside the studio. It was thrilling! When he ushered me out of the soundstage, my sister-in-law arranged for everyone on the tour to clap and cheer for me. Hilarious!

    1. That’s a fantastic story, thanks for sharing it, and it’s very “a propos,” because there is actually a story in this book the author tells of a woman who promised her late mother she would visit the CASABLANCA stage but there was some confusion about which one it was. You would get a special kick then, out of reading this, because it has great descriptions of the unique acoustics of the soundstages and how they seem to be endlessly huge inside, etc. Nice for people who have never been there and just as much for people like you who will find familiar things. Thanks!

  3. Great review! My husband bought this book at Larry Edmund’s bookshop last time we were at TCMFF. I’ve taken three tours of the WB lot and I definitely want to take a fourth virtual tour through this book. That’s disappointing about the authors tangents and all of the errors. It definitely could have used that extra attention to detail as far as editing is concerned. Thanks for the warning!

    1. Even with the missteps there is so much info and image in here that you can’t take it all in from one reading. Mindboggling numbers, just the sheer logistics of how much work went into that place and what came out of it. I’m sure you’d enjoy it even more having been in many of the places mentioned! I haven’t read his MGM lot book yet which I hear is even better, look forward to that one. Thanks & best!

  4. the trivia is nice. i bought this book a little while ago and have only made it halfway through. Your post reminded me that I wanted to finish the book

    1. It is a book you can put down and come back to, since it has so much material. I know I will be returning to the different chapters as I watch the movies. Fascinating look at what it takes to make movies! Thanks.

  5. What a great, in-depth review! Thanks for posting it! I’ve got this book sitting on my shelf and though I’ve read portions of it, I haven’t actually read the entire thing from back to front (yet). Lots of interesting tidbits and facts in this one 🙂

    1. Thanks very much, nice to have you drop by! This one is definitely made for dipping into, with all this info I’ll be doing that a lot in the future. Looking forward to picking up his MGM lot book now too, for a tour of that place 🙂

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