The men who created the Hollywood studio system were Jewish, so does that mean there’s something distinctively Jewish about Hollywood movies? That question—how Jewish is Hollywood, really?—used to be considered anti-Semitic. Then in 1988 Neal Gabler wrote An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood and made the question kosher. Gabler’s thesis was that the immigrant Jews who founded the movie studios were simply intent on assimilation and acceptance, and created an idealized America on screen, an enchanted mirror designed to flatter and unite the ticket-buying public. The Jews of Hollywood didn’t just subscribe to the American dream, they invented it. Jewish control of Hollywood could be a matter of pride, not awkward evasion.

I always had a slight problem with Gabler’s suggestion that the films themselves were an expression of the Jewish moguls’ point of view. Even if the studio heads were overwhelmingly Jewish, the directors, writers, and actors who made films were not. I’ll see your Cukor, Lubitsch and Wilder, but I’ll raise you Sturges, Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Capra. How Jewish were those guys? Howard Hawks was an anti-Semite, according to Lauren Bacall (aka Betty Perske). Do we really think there’s anything Jewish about The Big Sleep?

Still, Gabler performed a valuable service, and his prodigiously researched tale of the founders and the studio system they created remains a classic of Hollywood history, even if the title is a bit of an overreach.

Now comes British critic and historian David Thomson, as much a provocateur today as Gabler was 30 years ago, asking once again: How Jewish is Hollywood? Thomson still thinks the movie industry was very Jewish, but with a twist. In his new biography of Jack Warner and the Warner Bros. studio, the latest volume in Yale’s Jewish Lives series, Thomson dispenses with Gabler’s notion that the moguls were patriotic flag-wavers and all-American dreamers. Instead he gives a fresh, subversive spin to Gabler’s now classic thesis. MGM may have peddled sunny assimilationism, and Paramount, Old World sophistication, but Warner Bros. courageously reflected the grittier aspects of Depression-era America and wasn’t afraid to make pictures that tapped into the anarchic and libidinous seams of the American dream.

Jack Warner was the youngest of the Warner brother and the least likely choice ever for Yale’s dignified series of Jewish biographies. Traditionally, the subjects have been a pantheon of Jewish cultural and political eminences, from Rabbi Akiva to David Ben-Gurion.

Jack Warner, however, was a real prick. He cheated anyone he could, including his wives and his brothers. He was uneducated, boorish, and a vulgarian; dishonest in business, abusive to family and employees, and a serial exploiter of women—among his many other achievements, he may very well have invented the casting couch.

As for leading any kind of Jewish life, Jack didn’t even want to be Jewish. He said he couldn’t remember his family’s original name. (It was Wonsal, or possibly Wonskolasor.) His older brother Harry was the real Jew: an ethical, religiously-observant man. Naturally, Jack betrayed him, stealing control of the company from behind Harry’s back. But as Thomson makes clear, all those wonderful films, those Warner Bros. classics of the 1930s and ’40s, were the projections of only one of the brothers: that randy, grinning gangster, Jack Warner.

During the studio’s heyday, a Warner Bros. picture was often darker, more violent, yet more true-to-life and socially-conscious than your average Hollywood fare. Warner Bros. engaged with the Depression rather than sugarcoat it, releasing torn-from-the-headlines films like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, class-conscious musicals like Gold Diggers of 1933, and in-your-face gangster films like Little Caesar and Public Enemy, the latter starring the studio’s first superstar, James Cagney, the pug-nosed punim of Jack’s “hard-boiled factory,” who made 30 pictures at Warner Bros. between 1930 and 1939.

“No studio did more for gunplay and devil-may-care outlaws,” writes Thomson. Jack Warner’s contribution to culture was to unleash the American id across the screens of the world. Is that a Jewish idea? It is if your idea of an American “everyman” is closer to the unruly, urban horn-dogs of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth than the shtetl-dwelling goody-goodies out of Sholem Aleichem. In Thomson’s version of Hollywood history, Jack is the original Augie March.

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Warner Bros. started out as fairly low-rent movie studio. The company’s breakout hit, 1929’s The Jazz Singer, was made when Jack’s older brother, Sam, was guiding the business. The film’s explicitly Jewish-American theme of assimilation and generational conflict argues for Warner Bros. as a traditional Jewish-American studio in the Gabler mold. But The Jazz Singer was really Sam’s movie, and Sam died just as it was finished. The Great Depression years, when Warner Bros. truly came into its own, belonged to Jack, and as Thomson points out, “no other studio did hard times with the same panache.”

Yet one paradox of Warner Bros. is that much of its early social conscience is associated with its young head of production, Darryl Zanuck, a gentile from Nebraska.

Jack was certainly happy to follow Zanuck’s cues. During the ’30s, Warner Bros. films took on the KKK, southern lynchings, and the rise of fascism. And while most studio heads identified as conservative Republicans, the Warner brothers supported FDR, and their studio, in Thomson’s words, kept its “reputation as the most socially conscious or leftist studio outside the Soviet Union.”

Did Jack Warner decide to push the studio in that direction, and hire Zanuck to do it, or did Zanuck nudge Jack? One bit of evidence suggests the latter. In 1947, long after he left Warner Bros. to take over Twentieth Century Fox, Zanuck made Gentelman’s Agreement, the first major Hollywood film to tackle anti-Semitism head-on. The Jewish chiefs at the other studios, including Jack Warner, tried to talk him out of it. It seems more than likely that the most Jewish-seeming aspect of Warner Bros. films, their progressivism, came from a goy.

And if Warner Bros. had surprising politics, they surprised audiences even more with their rambunctious attitude toward sex and violence. In 1931 Cagney insolently shoved that half-grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face in Public Enemy, which launched America’s love affair with the American gangster. Warner Bros. didn’t invent the genre, but effectively stole the copyright. Even the Production Code, designed to rein in the very impertinence that powered Warner Bros.’s early success, couldn’t rein in Jack Warner. In a memo to one of his producers he wrote: “We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts, otherwise we’re going to have these pictures stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord’s sake, don’t let those bulbs stick out.”

It’s a myth that the Code subdued Hollywood’s libido, and Warner Bros. films are the proof. Studio directors and writers simply revved up the doubles entendres and tacked on pat codas about how crime doesn’t pay. But of course crime paid; it sold tickets. “Warners gave us dames, gunfire, jazzy music, wisecracks, and outrageous, unhindered ids in smart suits, guys who’ll go for broke because they know they are doomed,” Thomson writes. “It’s nearly a version of Breaking Bad.”

During the war years, Warner Bros. gentrified its gangster spirit, replacing Cagney’s cockeyed Irish grin with Humphrey Bogart’s urbane fedora, but the studio still set a high bar for outrageousness. Only Warners could have managed the paradoxical star power of Bette Davis, whose contrariness, even nastiness, made her the true successor to Cagney. Both were “marauders,” Thomson says, “rapists, nearly, to tender sentimentality.”

In Neal Gabler’s Hollywood, the goal of the moguls was respectability. In Jack Warner’s, respectability was never the objective. “There’s a brazen amorality that runs riot in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy,” Thomson writes. “It matched the ascent of people like the Warners, who had gained social heights without education, class privilege, or old family money, and without abandoning the aura of eastern European Jewry.”

Or as Daryl Zanuck put it, “Jack was unreliable, but never boring.”

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During World War II, Hollywood experienced its Golden Age. As Los Angeles swelled with exiles and refugees, the studios took upon themselves the task of articulating for the world what the allies were fighting for. Narrow jingoistic propaganda wouldn’t do, not given the international aspect of the war, or the polyglot make-up of the Hollywood community. Among all the surpassingly great films made between 1939 and 1945, the pinnacle for Warner Bros.—and maybe all Hollywood as well—was Casablanca, filmed in 1942 and released the following year.

Given that the film had a Jewish director, Jewish writers, and Jewish producers, how Jewish was Casablanca? “That’s a question to bear in mind while understanding that Warners were anxious not to seem like a Jewish business,” Thomson writes. “They wanted to seem American.” To that end, the studio suppressed all explicit Jewish references from the Casablanca screenplay, despite talk of concentration camps and stateless refugees, or the obvious Jewishness of many characters and so many of the actors. “It’s more to the point,” Thomson says, “that the film was liberal in its sentiments … fond of sentiment, yet hard-boiled, as if to say we’re Americans, we can take it and dish it out, we’re the best, tough and soft at the same time. So much of that crazed package of attractive attitudes came from the movies and passed into the nervous system of the country.”

This is quite true, and seems to explain why Casablanca, and all the best films that came out of Hollywood, subvert the idea that Jewish Hollywood made Jewish films. But Julius Epstein, one of Casablanca’s many screenwriters, insisted the film’s cynicism and humor were Jewish, taking us right back to the apparent tautology at the heart of Gabler’s original thesis. Thomson quotes Epstein quoting Lenny Bruce to the effect that everyone in show business, Jewish or not, becomes Jewish anyway. That explains how a whole industry can be tagged as Jewish, even if everyone in it is not Jewish, but it doesn’t tell us what is distinctly Jewish about any of the actual content. After all, Jews don’t have a monopoly on cynicism and humor.

If the studios were run by men trying to escape their ancestral foreignness while trying to create a marketable version of American life for Americans, how is that Jewish? After all, as Thomson puts it, “these moguls compromised many of the hallowed meanings of Jewish life.” Did Hollywood push Jewish hopes and fears on the American public, or did the public push Jews in the front office into making the films that they, the public, wanted to see? Maybe Jews were just along for the ride.

Without definitively resolving any of these questions, Thomson at least manages to establish that there was not one kind of Jewish mogul, nor one kind of Jewish Hollywood. That’s a step in the right direction.

Universal’s avuncular founder, Carl Laemmle, was reputedly a kind and generous man, and Jack Warner was a mean, fratricidal goon. Still, Jack made some great films, including two—To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, both directed by Howard Hawks, an anti-Semite—that Thomson thinks are among the dozen or so greatest films ever made in Hollywood. Jack Warner’s contrarian management style—Thomson calls it “willful chaos”—made those films possible, and his edginess allowed idiosyncratic stars like Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart, stars who would never have flourished at any other studio, to became stars at Warner Bros.

Jack was never boring.

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By 1967, Hollywood’s founders were either dead or out to pasture. Jack Warner was still the titular boss at Warner Bros., but he no longer owned the studio and no longer made the real decisions.

That was the year of Bonnie and Clyde, a bellwether for anyone today trying to understand how Hollywood was transformed during the ’60s. A Depression-era outlaw fantasy, Bonnie and Clyde celebrated the violent, bubbling id of America in the late ’60s by subverting the gestalt of old classics with off-beat humor, shockingly explicit violence, and sexual role reversals.

The film’s producer and star, Warren Beatty, wanted to screen a nearly-finished cut for the old man, so he dutifully brought a print to Jack’s home screening room in Beverly Hills. Jack was distracted, flummoxed by the film’s quirky pastiche of cheerful youth rebellion and slow-motion bloodletting. He hated it.

“What the hell was that?” Warner said.

Beatty tried to explain in a manner he thought Jack would appreciate.

“It’s an homage to Warners gangster films,” he said. But Jack was having none of it.

“What the fuck’s an homage?” Jack Warner said.

And that, in a tidy little package, is the secret of Hollywood’s original Jewish gangsters, the ones who invented modern cinema. They are hard to nail down because they made masterpieces without even trying. Without even wanting to.

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