Picks and Pans Review: Clown Prince of Hollywood: the Antic Life and Times of Jack L. Warner

updated 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1990 01:00AM

by Bob Thomas

Jack Warner wasn't the brightest, the smoothest or the best of Hollywood's founding studio moguls, but he was the one who lasted longest. In 1966, at age 74 and after more than half a century in the movie business, he sold his holdings in Warner Brothers for close to $25 million after taxes. Eight months later, as Warner took one last walk through the studio's back lots, an employee congratulated him. "Yeah," replied Warner. "But today I'm Jack L. Warner. Tomorrow I'll just be another rich Jew."

There are plenty of similar stories and quotes in Bob Thomas's biography of Warner, but too many of them are familiar, having been told before in the memoirs and biographies of other film executives and movie stars. Thomas, the veteran Hollywood correspondent for the Associated Press and the author of nearly 20 Hollywood biographies and as-told-to books, has written a surface account of Warner's life. Thomas's breezy look at Warner pales when compared with, say, the exhaustive research and telling scope that characterized last year's Goldwyn, A. Scott Berg's worthy biography of Samuel Goldwyn.

Not that there isn't a story to tell. Warner was born in 1892, the ninth of his Polish immigrant parents' 12 children. He was a poor student who longed to be a stage performer, a yearning that would later manifest itself in the endless telling of lousy jokes. ("Jack Warner would rather tell a bad joke than make a good movie," Jack Benny once said.) Warner and his three brothers entered the film business and in 1927 released the first feature-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer. With Jack running the studio in Los Angeles, Warner Brothers made hundreds of tightly budgeted classics starring James Cagney, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart during the 1930s and '40s.

Both professionally and personally. Warner was a self-indulgent pig whose misbehavior put to shame that of such modern- day vulgarians as Donald Trump. Warner threw temper tantrums, fired people capriciously and played around on both his wives. In later life he was constantly seen in public in the company of attractively blowsy women who appeared to be only a step or two up the social ladder from call girls. He would often introduce them as the bearers of titles.

Thomas tells the colorful stories well. But the story of what made Warner tick, and what kept him ticking so long, is missing from Thomas's perfunctory account. (McGraw-Hill. $9.95)

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