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Peter Bart: Jack Warner Presaged Trump, Hated Roosevelt, And Might Have Voted For ‘Oppenheimer’ At The Oscars

“That movie was the President’s idea, not mine, but it was a demand, not a suggestion.”

The speaker was Jack Warner in a 1947 foreshadowing of his Donald Trumpian style. I recalled his remarks this week as I drove onto the Warner Bros lot, the fabled arena where Warner long reigned.

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In his heyday, Warner was a Trump pre-clone in terms of temperament and rhetoric – a man who boasted about his mental acuity yet, to Hollywood’s power players, seemed occasionally unhinged.

I was visiting Warner Bros this week to spend some time with David Zaslav, a figure who, in temperament and politics, is the mirror opposite of Warner but whose empire is nonetheless a product of Warner’s erratic vision. Some believe that Zaslav’s studio – Hollywood in general – might still glean some insight from its founder’s idiosyncrasies.

A career maverick, Warner promoted gangster movies like Public Enemy or Little Caesar to his Depression-era ticket audience and fostered Casablanca in 1942 when moviegoers wanted to forget war. He bought the rights to My Fair Lady in 1964 when movie musicals were dying (it worked) and, early on, built Rin Tin Tin into a blockbuster though he hated dogs.

He might even have voted for Oppenheimer (see below).

A stalwart Republican, Jack Warner often quarreled with President Franklin Roosevelt, called Winston Churchill “foolish” and cheerfully put up $40,000 in lawyers’ fees to rescue Errol Flynn (star of Captain Blood) of rape charges.

Warner’s frequent speeches at banquets inspired his friend Jack Benny to observe: “He must be ad libbing because no professional writer would ever create that sh*t.” On at least two occasions Warner delivered acceptances for awards he hadn’t won.

Jack Warner never met Zaslav but would have admired his decision to celebrate the studio’s hundredth anniversary. Warner’s own 1975 autobiography was optimistically titled My First Hundred Years in Hollywood (he died three years after its publication).

Warner fought bitterly with rival studio chiefs, yet now and then supported their aberrant decisions, as when Columbia’s Harry Cohn paid gangsters to suppress a strike that the union never intended to launch. He also congratulated Louis B. Mayer for regularly lecturing his young contract players on the virtues of “hard right” conservative politics.

Rival studio czars turned on Warner, however, when he cowered before the red-baiters at the 1947 House Un-American Activities hearings. The studio chiefs initially tried stonewalling the congressmen until Warner panicked and started “naming” supposed Communists whom he had identified and fired – a distinguished list of directors and writers.

One reason for his panic was an imminent Warner Bros release titled Mission to Moscow, which took a friendly attitude toward Russian leaders who were struggling to create a democracy. Fearing heat from Congress, Warner argued that he’d released Mission to Moscow only because the White House had “demanded” it – a claim President Roosevelt angrily refuted.

(L-R) Walter Huston and Manart Kippen in 1943’s ‘Mission to Moscow’
(L-R) Walter Huston and Manart Kippen in 1943’s ‘Mission to Moscow’

Given his Trumpian instincts, Jack Warner would never have understood Zaslav on a personal level, but would have admired his style and financial sophistication. A youthful Warner had welcomed innovations like talkies, but later was mystified by the public’s embrace of television in the ’50s and ’60s. He rejected offers from rising young conglomerators like Steve Ross or Charles Bluhdorn who proposed linking Warner Bros with diversified media companies or video purveyors.

He ultimately sold control of the studio in 1966 to a relatively minor entity called Seven Arts, formally retiring not long thereafter. Though suspicious of journalists, Warner would call me when I was a young reporter at the New York Times and cheerfully chat about Hollywood’s surrender.

Studios had lost their sense of acuity, he argued; they were making churlish “message movies” like Midnight Cowboy instead of trying to find a new Public Enemy. Or at least training a new Rin Tin Tin.

Warner would have loved attending this year’s Oscars, provided he’d been invited to give a speech. He might even have voted for Oppenheimer, admiring its narrative but criticizing its running time. “I believe in tight cuts,” he told me. “I often threw directors out of the editing room. Even Orson Welles.”

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