- When Warners Brought Broadway to Hollywood, 1923-1939 by Martin Shingler
Martin Shingler's book transcends the promise of its title, which suggests a focused historical studio study. Not that Warner Brothers between 1923 and 1939 is not a rich area of inquiry. The studio has long fascinated scholars as the most technologically inventive and socially conscious studio of classical era Hollywood. Its output represents revolutions in sound technology through Vitaphone and boundary pushing subject matter through genres such as the gangster film, backstage musical, and women's picture. As the title suggests, Shingler's book examines this history as indicative of a rapidly evolving entertainment industry built upon a confluence of Broadway and Hollywood talent. It repositions the studio's history through a look at its underexamined output of "prestige pictures," films featuring major stage stars in, often, acclaimed stage adaptations.
Beyond serving its purpose as an informative studio history, though, When Warners Brought also proves essential as a historical acting study, covering a period rarely considered by scholars in this subdiscipline. Shingler's work contributes to a growing area of film scholarship reconsidering American film history as intrinsically tied to the history of American acting. In this regard, the book serves as a fitting companion to Cynthia Baron's Modern Acting: The Lost Chapter of American Film (Palgrave, 2016), an important investigation of the untold histories of acting training, often originating from the stage, in 1930s to 1940s Hollywood.
Shingler's previous scholarship on Bette Davis makes him a natural to write on Warners' prestige productions and actor performance. Not surprisingly, Davis is a major figure here, serving as the subject of chapter 8. Yet the book's greatest contribution to acting studies is its focus on rarely considered production units at the studio which created star vehicles influential in how they showcased acting. These include units for acclaimed stage stars John Barrymore, George Arliss, and Ruth Chatterton, all of whom were given lucrative multipicture contracts with the studio. Shingler employs different labels for a variety of overlapping acting styles, building off Baron's distinction of the era's "modern acting" style that proved more naturalistic and subtler than previous generations. All the actors examined in Shingler's book employ forms of naturalism in their performances, though some also evocate older "pictorial" and "histrionic" modes of expression. Through detailed scene analysis, Shingler examines gestures and line readings as illustrating the stage and screen's exchange of aesthetics, narratives, and economic models. Warner Brothers from 1923 to 1939 serves as the author's testcase for charting the evolution of acting during a transitional period that incorporated classical, expressionistic, realist, and other performance styles.
While classifiable as an acting study, Shingler never strays far from the history of the industry, meaning that the book also should be of interest to historians of the studio era. In chapter 2, Broadway producers David Belasco and Charles Frohman emerge as major figures by developing models for the theater industry later emulated by studio moguls. The chapter also marks the adaptation of The Gold Diggers (1923) as an archetype for how stage and screen practitioners worked toward a mutual financial advantage, contradicting previous claims of contentious rivalries. Chapter 3 examines the shifting acting styles of the 1900s to the early 1920s through an examination of Ernes Lubitsch's silent era stock company, focusing particularly on Marie Prevost and Monte Blue's performances in The Marriage Circle (1924). Chapter 4 covers John Barrymore [End Page 97] as a transitional figure in the history of film acting, adopting three distinctive styles of classicism, naturalism, and expressionism in his lucrative series of silent and sound films for the studio, and providing a detailed analysis of 1924's Beau Brummel. The chapter places the transition to sound in the context of acting and stage histories, considering how Barrymore and Broadway star Al Jolson were employed to launch Vitaphone in the late 1920s.
The second half of the book recontextualizes sound era Warner Bros., removing it from previous genre studies that focus primarily...