Monday, September 11, 2017

A Special Event and Book Signing with David Thomson


Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, by David Thomson

This Wednesday night, September 13, the distinguished film critic David Thomson will be here at Burbank Public Library to discuss his new book on the Warner brothers. The event is free to the public at the Buena Vista Branch and begins at 7:00 p.m. Mark Greenhalgh, a senior archivist at Warner Bros., will introduce Mr. Thomson, and he will be interviewed by George Feltenstein, who is Senior Vice President of Theatrical Catalogue Marketing at Warner Bros. Home Entertainment.

Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio is part of Yale University’s Jewish Lives series, an ongoing publishing project that pairs major American Jewish historical and culture figures with well-known contemporary writers. It is hard to imagine a more felicitous pairing of writer and subject than David Thomson writing about the Warner brothers. Thomson has written more than 40 books, almost all of them on the history of the movies, including biographies of classic film stars and of directors, books about particular movies, and comprehensive works on the general history of motion pictures. (We stock 18 of them in our collection.) His New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its sixth edition, has become a classic film reference. The novelist John Banville called Thomson our “greatest living writer on the movies,” and many others have praised his work as a critic and film historian.

The dashing Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, 1935
What Thomson writes is impressive for its insight and observation, and is presented in an elegant and engaging prose style that is distinctively Thomson’s own. But what is especially noteworthy about Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio is the intelligent way Thomson has solved the special problems of writing one of these characteristically compact volumes for this series, a challenge amplified by the scope of his subject. How do you write something in this short format that captures the essence of the Warner brothers’ story? There are four brothers, there is Warner Bros. as a corporate entity, and there are the many decades of films and movie history. So what Thomson has produced is not a biography in the expected sense, nor is it a corporate history, or a comprehensive overview of the oeuvre of the studio. That simply was not going to be possible. 

A meeting at Warner Bros circa 1940s. Jack Warner is at
the head of the table, and Harry Warner is to his right.
Thomson’s book is perhaps best described as a biographical sketch, not so much of the individual brothers (although we do get a sense of their different characters and sometimes competing visions for the studio) but a sketch of the character of Warner Bros. as a studio: what was innovative about the kinds of movies it produced, and what was distinctive about the studio’s portrayal of American culture. We get an understanding of the lasting impression that those movies made on our sense of ourselves as Americans. Thomson’s intriguing analysis of the movies intersects with details of individual biography, but that occurs mostly reflectively and by intimation. We can accept this approach not only because it is a solution to the formidable task of choosing focus and telling a story succinctly here, but because we know that with art it is hard to tell the dancer from the dance. 

Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, 1942
Thomson touches upon an astonishing number of movies in so brief a space--it’s a tour de force that demonstrates his erudition about the history of film, but also his familiarity with the Warner Bros. catalog. The prose is fluid and literary, and while Warner Bros may not lead you to want to find out more about the Warner brothers, it does something more important: It inspires you to go back and rediscover these wonderful movies (with a new sense of their context) or to see them for the first time. This discerning and measured focus, one that allows Thomson to do what he does best, is what will make this small but scintillating volume a pleasure for every movie-lover.


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