My friend Chris Yogerst is a writer and assistant professor who teaches film, media, and popular culture. He’s written an interesting new book, From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros. In it, he examines the period from the studio’s first sound pictures to 1941, with a focus on the policies and production methods that enabled them to rapidly and profitably adapt “last night’s newspaper headlines” and hot-button issues into popular media. The book’s opening section provides background on the Warner family and the birth of the studio, along with the basics of that recognizable Warner Bros.’ house style–realistic, gritty, newsy and daring. We learn about the ways the company sought book rights and mined headline events and sensational material to position themselves as the studio most in touch with the audience, “the voice of upcoming movements,” socially relevant filmmakers with street cred, industry pacemakers. They were in the business of entertainment and escapism, but as industry coverage from that era shows, they were increasingly over this period regarded as cultural watchdogs and influencers who seemed to uniquely, consistently understand and reflect the public’s problems and concerns.
This book reads like a biography of Warner Bros. as told through several representative films, the subjects they chose to adapt, the ways they did so, the battles they picked and the controversies they faced. Yogerst looks closely at the real events that inspired these movies, their impact on audiences, and as markers in the studio’s growth. The obstacles and rewards of bringing taboo, difficult or forbidden material to the screen, along with the push to expand their audiences, makes for some fascinating reading, and it begins with the underworld tale Lights of New York (1928), a “perfect combination of new technology and edgy storytelling,” the first of many that hit the sweet spot of the sensational mixed with the social. Many key movies/issues are likewise discussed in depth, including: the “taxi” wars (in the aptly titled Taxi), prison/institution reform (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mayor of Hell), optimism in FDR and The New Deal (Heroes for Sale and some musicals), freedom of speech/press, and bigotry (Black Legion). As WW2 approached, Warner Bros. were ahead of the curve in pivoting to address global concerns, and called “the only studio with any guts.” In making movies like Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), they were motivated by a greater responsibility to educate people about the presence, effects and dangers of prejudice, antisemitism and nationalism.
Yogerst writes about the studio’s responses to criticism that they glamorized criminals in their “bread and butter” genre, gangster films. Harry Warner said these movies always showed that crime never pays; they also featured G-Man heroes or redeemable criminals with an honourable streak, or, as in Night Nurse (1931), showed us underworld figures defending society in its own ways and by its own “laws.” Yogerst describes how the studio transferred some of their patented gangster/rebel appeal to its westerns, costume/period films and even a Shakespeare adaptation. Even under the limits of the Production Code, they continued to push boundaries by mocking moral crusaders and sticking to risque subject matter.
Harry Warner had such a strong faith in new technology, and a firm belief in the potential of movies to reflect main street concerns and be a transformative cultural force. Warner Bros. may have been the only company without a newsreel, but they were considered the best at capitalizing on and dramatizing the news (and generously used headlines in their movies). This book provides an educational and accessible look at how they developed that talent and reputation, along with some great stories about real people and events, the making and reception of the fabulous films we enjoy as a result. It would also make a great introduction to any film newbie who thinks old studio product is hopelessly dated or tame.
Chris Yogerst was kind enough to answer some of my questions and share thoughts on his work:
Q: What would you say was the “seed” idea for this book? Was there one specific movie, event or story that captured your interest and started you looking deeper into this period and this studio?
Chris Yogerst: From the Headlines to Hollywood has several origins for me. First, my interest in the history of Warner Bros. began with my appreciation for Martin Scorsese. I’ve long been a big fan of his work and when I learned that he was deeply influenced by the studio’s classic gangster films it made me curious to learn more. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the films of James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Barbara Stanwyck, and the rest of the early Warner stars. I began writing about the artistic influence of films like The Public Enemy and G-Men on Scorsese’s work when I was a master’s student.
This brings me to the next reason for this work, which is my interest what is often called the Hollywood Studio Era. The more I learned about the history of every studio the more enthralled by the history I became. I read books like Thomas Schatz’s The Genius of the System, Douglas Gomery’s The Hollywood Studio System: A History, and Tino Balio’s Grand Design. These are all excellent books that should be read by every fan of American film history. Each of these studies deals with Hollywood as a whole, which only leaves so much room to focus on a single studio. What I wanted was more depth on the Warner Bros. films and production practices that, for me, stood out from the others in many ways.
Finally, when I began digging for information on Warner Bros. I learned that their films mirrored the real world in interesting ways. Many books refer to how Warner Bros. films are “ripped from the headlines,” but very few spend time showing how they did that. For this study I looked at not just the films and studio archives, but the newspapers of the day as well as public speeches given by Jack and Harry Warner that provide insight into why they were interested in this headline-driven production method. Originally, this book was going to cover the studio into the 1950s but when I began to find vast amounts of great material I knew it had to be more than one book. This also allowed me the space to begin the book with an overview of the Warner family and their beginnings in the industry before really taking off in 1927. I ended the book at the end of 1941 because that marked the insurgence of many war films, which is where my next book begins and continues to 1956.
Q: I learned a lot about the real-world inspiration for many of these movies, and enjoyed reading about things like the real “Nails” who was killed by a horse (as seen in The Public Enemy), a Nazi attack on a studio employee, the lawsuit from the KKK (about patent violation of all things) over Black Legion, or Howard Hughes taking issue with the similarities of Warner’s The Dawn Patrol to his Hell’s Angels. What was your favourite source material or “making of” story in the book?
CY: They Won’t Forget (based on the Leo Frank case). Reading through the newspaper archives regarding the trial and lynching of Leo Frank was fascinating. I found dozens of articles from 1913-1915 and read them in historical order so I could get a sense of what it was like to learn about this case as someone reading at the time. When I finished the last articles and learned that the story ended with frontier justice, I was completely floored. Of course anyone who was coming of age during those years and saw They Won’t Forget in the 1930s would have certainly made the connection to the Frank case and seen it’s relevance in a pre-World War II society.
Q: Did you gain a new appreciation for someone you now consider an underrated star, filmmaker or other figure at Warner Bros.?
CY: Yes! Ruby Keeler. She was often cast next to a larger starlet and was always a great supporting character. However, there are many films in which she is a true scene-stealer. It’s too bad she didn’t work in Hollywood longer.
One of the main goals for this book was also to provide additional coverage on Jack and Harry Warner who were vocal figures in the industry in many areas beyond filmmaking (their brother Sam died in 1927 and Albert was more of a quiet partner). From what I’ve learned about Harry Warner, it’s clear to me that he may be one of the most respectable figures in film history. Both as a studio president and family man, Harry led by example in ways that many studio moguls (inducing his brother Jack) could not.
Q: Which of the films discussed in the book do you think Warner Bros. did the best job on, in terms of addressing an issue and creating a culturally important piece of art?
CY: While I feel that all of the films I looked at had some amount of cultural significance, there are certain ones that are impossible to forget after watching them. A short list of unforgettable early Warner Bros. films would be The Public Enemy, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, Black Legion, and They Won’t Forget. Each one of these films cuts deep into an issue that was pressing at the time. From crime to the massive economic crisis to the rise of the new KKK known as the Black Legion and the unrest in Europe, these films are amazing pieces of art that accomplish exactly what they set out to do. These films were already entertaining and shocking to me before to me before researching the time period. The more I learn about this era the more incredible these films became.
Q: What would you hope is the main takeaway from this book, and what are your thoughts on why classic movies are important to explore and appreciate?
CY: Most of all, I believe we can learn more from film history than just production practices and Hollywood gossip. This is why I’ve always been drawn to cultural history – it’s the context of the films that give them weight. When we look at Warner Bros.’ movies of the 1930s we can see that the studio was engaging in a tense and polarized culture (not unlike our own today). Popular culture can become an important outlet for cultural fear, frustration, and fascination. We can look at old films and easily spot the differences from one era to another in terms of style, architecture, dialogue, etc. However, when we look closer, classic films may show us that past generations have dealt with similar issues that we may be facing today. Right now a huge issue is racism and prejudice, which is similar to the Warner’s (and Hollywood’s) focus on fighting anti-Semitism and any other form of religious persecution in the 1930s. I always tell my students that movies are a window into another time period (James Stewart described movies more eloquently as “pieces of time”). When looking back at film history with a critical eye, we can learn that while time has passed we can still relate to a generation that lived before we were even born.