The famous Warner Bros. logo

When Cynthia Baron invited me to write a book for the Palgrave Studies in Screen Industries and Performance series, I knew this would have to be about Bette Davis and the way in which she developed an effective screen acting method at Warner Bros. in the 1930s. Yet when I began to work on this, I soon realised that there was a much bigger story to be told – story about the way in which one of the largest Hollywood studies had become dedicated to producing prestige pictures based on Broadway plays in the early 1920s, almost ten years before Warners hired Davis as a contract player.

A studio portrait of Bette Davis taken when she was still a minor contract player at Warner in the early Thirties.

Bette Davis was just one of a long line of actors that Warner Bros. recruited from the New York stage, including John Barrymore in 1924 and Mr George Arliss is 1928. Once I began to see that Bette Davis’ transformation into one of Hollywood’s most successful and acclaimed star actors was part of this bigger project, I decided to tell that story. And in telling it, I hoped to produce a very different impression of Warner Bros. in the 1920s and 1930s from the one that is usually conveyed in the standard history books. This particular Hollywood studio is typically described as a producer of cheap genre films based on newspaper headlines and a specialist in gangster movies, prison pictures and backstage musicals far removed from the smart and sophisticated films being produced at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount at the same time.

The typical face of Warners in the 1930s, James Cagney in tough gangster mode.

My research quickly confirmed that Warner Bros. was a major producer of biopics, historical costume dramas and romances – many of which were adapted from novels and stage plays – and that the company hired the best of broadway talent in order to produce lavish and costly ‘photoplay,’ many of what were presented under the heading of ‘Classics of the Screen.’

A caricature of Mr George Arliss as the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a role for which he won an Oscar in 1930 for his star performance in Disraeli (Green 1929).

What resulted was a book that explored the wider links between Broadway and Hollywood, between acting for the stage and the screen, one that charted the movement of some of America’s top theatre stars from the New York stage to silent movies and then on to ‘Talking Pictures’ in the mid to late Twenties. Working on this project, not only transformed my understanding of Warner Bros. during the 1920s and 1930s but also the nature of film acting, the multiple and deep links between the theatre and the cinema in the United States and the pioneering work of some rather neglected actors, not only John Barrymore and George Arliss but also Marie Prevost, Monte Blue, Louise Fazenda, Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Frank McHugh and Leslie Howard.

Blurb on the back cover

This book offers a different take on the early history of Warner Bros., the studio renowned for introducing talking pictures and developing the gangster film and backstage musical comedy. The focus here is on the studio’s sustained commitment to produce films based on stage plays. This led to the creation of a stock company of talented actors, to the introduction of sound cinema, to the recruitment of leading Broadway stars such as John Barrymore and George Arliss and to films as diverse as The Gold Diggers (1923), The Marriage Circle (1924), Beau Brummel (1924), Disraeli (1929), Lilly Turner (1933), The Petrified Forest (1936) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).

Copies of When Warners Brought Broadway to Hollywood, 1923-1939, including an eBook, can be purchased from here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1057/978-1-137-40658-3

An in-depth review of the book can be found here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/732502/pdf