If we’re lucky we grow up with our parents and grandparents present in our lives. But very few of us have a grandparent who helped found one of the major Hollywood studios. Filmmaker Gregory Orr learned one day just how powerful was his step-grandfather, Jack L. Warner, when the studio mogul ran every red light along Sunset Blvd. A watchful police officer pulled him over, but upon catching the name on the driver’s license, let Warner and his young passenger on their way.
“I didn’t come to movies by going to movie theaters, like most people do who love movies. I came to it by sitting on a movie set,” filmmaker Gregory Orr said of his early cinema education on the Warners backlot. “So I kind of had to catch up later in life, seeing all those movies that film buffs have seen.”
In the early nineties Orr said his intention was to fashion a documentary about his step-grandfather to preserve not only his legacy, but also a record of the infancy of one of the most extraordinary industries the world has ever known.
“[I had] some family [whose stories] I got to mine [and thought] let me try to sort it out—and one way to do that is through writing or [making] a film.”
Orr accomplished precisely that, releasing “Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul” in 1993, and shortly after the 9-acre Warner estate in Beverly Hills had been put up for sale.
“I knew a time in Hollywood history was disappearing,” said Orr. “It was just a very magical place for me to visit—although you needed to make an appointment before you went up to see your grandparents.”
His own 1993 documentary “could be better,” in his own words. Thus with the centennial of the founding of Warner Bros. this year, Orr felt it was time to present a new version of his film, which is now available for streaming and digital download.
“Even though we had a fair amount of visuals and cooperation from Warner Bros. on film clips, we had these color home movies [of Warner] from the thirties and fifties. And I thought about it for all these years,” said Orr. “But I didn’t really [know] if it would be the [right] time. Would somebody be interested in revisiting it?”
Working alongside his original editor Don Priess, the new version of “Mogul” boasts a 4K transfer. Orr has also spiced up the picture and sound mix as well as included some elements he had to leave behind three decades ago. (Full disclosure: Don Priess and I worked together on the TV show “Shop ’Til You Drop in 2003-2004.) Furthermore, modern computers made it far easier to freshen up the special effects.
Orr’s original interviewees included Debbie Reynolds, Jack Warner, Jr. and his own father, William T. Orr. William came to Hollywood to become an actor, but after he married Jack Sr.’s stepdaughter Joy Page, William was hired by the studio boss to work as an executive in the family business—eventually rising to head the Warner Bros.’ fledgling TV division. Of all of Orr’s talking heads, three decades on, only Shirley T. Jones, now 89, is still living.
“Her interview was so good from back then, so why redo it?” said Orr, who has lived in New York, far from his Hollywood boyhood, for a quarter-century.
THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Along with his brothers Harry, Sam and Albert, in 1904 Jack Warner got into the movies by purchasing a used projector for the kingly sum of $150—more than $5,000 in today’s money. The projector even came with a print of 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” widely considered one of the first motion pictures with a “story.” The brothers began charging admission for patrons to enjoy the new motion picture technology at a theater in their native Youngstown, Ohio.
“They were at the beginning of a new industrial revolution in a way, and so they grabbed onto the technology and rode it and improved on it,” said Orr, noting that it was indeed Warner Bros. that released the first “talkie” in 1927, “The Jazz Singer.”
But artistic vision alone wasn’t enough. The Warners needed business savvy as well.
“They made sure they had money, which meant talking to investors and bankers,” said Orr. “Harry Warner was a great salesman [who] made sure that they had enough money to keep that company going strongly.”
Despite the company’s success, however, Warner Bros. was rife with fraternal conflict. The story goes that when the surviving Warners agreed to sell their shares in the company in 1956, it was Jack who bought back enough shares to ensure he stayed on as head honcho. Orr disputes this account, allowing that while Jack may have fooled his brothers, he didn’t precisely “cheat” them.
“Jack [wasn’t] ready to retire. So [he] secretly [found] a way to keep the job,” Orr relates. “The new owners, the investors and bankers, wanted Jack in the job…so Jack did not ‘anoint’ himself president. The new owners wanted that continuity of leadership because [Jack knew] how to run this place.
“But it broke Harry’s heart in a way because the ‘band’ broke up.”
“The Last Mogul” doesn’t shy away from Warner’s appetite for philandering, nor the fact that his first divorce estranged him from many of his children. Orr admits that Warner could be almost schizophrenic: friendly and engaging one minute, vindictive and dismissive the next. However, this chameleonic quality is what Orr believes allowed his step-grandfather to thrive in Hollywood for as long as he did—particularly when there was no blueprint for how a movie studio was even supposed to be run.
“The times changed, movies changed, the business changed; and he had to change with it or be out of business—be an ‘ex-mogul,’” said Orr. “He was willing to hire people who would stand up to him, who were contentious, who had an energy that made them independent. [This] could cause the studio some problems, but also make for some really great movies.”
POWER, THEN AND NOW
MeToo has led to at least a partial reckoning for powerful men who abuse their authority. While Orr says that his step-grandfather was never accused of deeds similar to Harvey Weinstein, there was certainly “hanky-panky going on” outside his marriage.
“At a time now when power is diversified and … in how we approach these things, I had a little bit of a cringe factor,” Orr said. However, he cautions that even though Warner behaved in ways that are perhaps easy to decry as negative from our “enlightened” times, his part in the history of the movie-making industry cannot be dismissed—nor should it be, despite his sins.
“It’s like someone saying, ‘I don’t want to learn about the past. It’s just not relatable.’ Then you don’t want to learn about human nature,” said Orr, adding that each generation is remarkably similar to the last but “wears a different hat.”
Thus Orr nudges potential viewers to view Warner as a whole person, not simply his less-than-attractive qualities as a businessman, husband and father—not to mention grandfather figure. For Orr shares that although Warner and his grandmother gave Orr a Super 8 movie camera when he was 12, his step-granddad was less than encouraging about his going into the family business.
“When I was maybe 15 or so, I showed him a little Western I’d made on the Warner Bros. backlot,” Orr said. “He looked at it and said, ‘Listen kid, don’t go into the movies; be a lawyer and play it safe.’ So that was completely unexpected.
“He wasn’t mean to me, but he didn’t know how to mentor. And I’m not sure he was ever really mentored himself; he was dragged along by his older brothers to get into the business. But he loved it. He loved the showbiz world.”
The revised and expanded version of “Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul” has already played at
the Jewish Film Festival and JFilm in Pittsburgh. Beyond playing on TCM and being available for streaming, Orr hopes perhaps a future researcher might trip over his documentary in the Academy library. (Orr also believes that people who work at Warner Bros. today might learn more about their corporate history from his documentary.) Meanwhile, viewers might come to know his step-father as a whole person, and one whose legacy—and that of the movie industry that he and a very few other men founded—is complicated but nonetheless worthy of study.
“Hopefully you’ll learn about nuance,” Orr said. “You can’t just assume that people are one way because you want them to be one way going forward.
“It’s a chance to learn and be surprised and think about our own time too, I think,” Orr said. “I like to say preserve [history] before the cement completely dries.”