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What's Up, Doc? Cass Warner Chronicles Her Legendary Hollywood Family

By Tamara Krinsky

Left to right: Sam, Harry, Jack and Albert Warner -- the four Warner Brothers. Courtesy of Cass Warner

When Cass Warner squeezed her beloved grandfather's hand on his deathbed, she didn't realize she was making an implied promise that would follow her through the rest of her artistic career. The hand belonged to Warner Bros. founder Harry Warner, and Cass has become a chronicler of the family history, determined to tell the real story of the four Warner brothers from a personal point of view. She wrote Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story, which is now in its sixth printing, and is in the process of turning the book into a documentary, tentatively titled The Promise.

Warner's original intent was to use the book to whet someone's appetite to make a film. She started collecting stories to write Hollywood Be Thy Name, but stopped when her second cousin, Jack Warner Jr., said he was writing a book about the family history. Jack Jr.'s book came out in 1986, and according to Cass, three-quarters of it was fictionalized because he was afraid that his father would sue him. Says Cass, "His father did worse: He took it off the market! So in 1986 I picked up the pieces and started putting my book together."

Hollywood Be They Name came out in 1993, but the subsequent road from print to screen has been a long one. Warner first explored writing a dramatized, feature film version of the story, but then realized the in-depth material might be better suited for a mini-series. Dissatisfied with a spec script that emphasized the salacious aspects of the family, she realized that a documentary "would be best because you'd get the truth. I've always been a documentary film lover, so to now be doing my own is really exciting."  

Warner plans on using a combination of archival photographs, filmed and taped interviews and audio recordings to tell the inspirational rags-to-riches story. Luckily, from doing the research on her book, she is fortunate enough to have interviews with Ruby Keeler, Ronald Reagan, Jack Warner's long-time secretary and a variety of family members. She is currently in the process of raising funds for the film, while at the same time collecting, cataloguing and scanning the family's archival materials. IDA and ACE Award honoree Kate Amend has signed to edit the film.

The transition from acting and screenwriting to documentary filmmaking has been challenging, yet educational. "I look at documentaries at being visual haiku," Warner notes. "With screenplay writing, you have the characters to use, to add colors and messages. In this documentary, you use history, pictures and the stories people tell. It's different in that way; it's more about getting creative with visuals and the stories of others. It's been a very interesting journey and there are things I've learned from doing this that are just invaluable."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.