I’ve been fortunate to visit at least two movie studios in my life: Universal (where I’ve been in the theme park, on the backlot, and in a screening room) and the Warner Bros. lot. You can even read my review of the Warner Bros. tour. For combination entertainment value and genuine classic film history the Warner Bros. studio is the best. If my spiel hasn’t enticed you enough, you can always read Steven Bingen’s tome, Warner Bros.: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot. This combination history text and studio guide gives readers literally everything they could ever think to ask about the Warner brothers (and the Warner sister, Dot…sorry), their studio and the famous films that were filmed there.
Bingen’s book acts as studio guide with a subsection of biography to it. He details the lives of the four Warner brothers and their entry into Hollywood, as well as the eventual founding of their studios. The whole thing amounts to little more than a chapter, none of which is delved into significantly, but that’s not the purpose of reading. One of the first facts you’ll learn – in a book chock-full of things you probably didn’t know – is that the studios as we know them weren’t always located in Burbank. In 1918 the Warners opened their first studio on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. The Burbank studio was purchased in 1926 from First National. In fact, both First National and Warners would share the lot, with First National – which was the bigger studio at the time – being the studio listed on Warners’ productions.
Once studio facts are established the book transitions to discussing every facet of the Warners lot. This is where the entire book becomes a must-read as you learn about the secret break-room – littered in pin-up photos going back to the ’30s – behind Brownstone street, how the scene dock is the equivalent of a set graveyard; Bingen himself includes a fantastic photo of a UFO from the miniseries V baking in the sun next to an out-of-place mechanical whale from Free Willy. The various fires that have ravaged the studios are charted, along with their destruction of various sets. The massive costume department is highlighted. In fact, every department in the studios is given time to shine, including the location where just the lighting fixtures hang out. A third section goes into detail about the various satellite lots Warners owns and the films made there. The entire overview is breathtaking and provides a fantastic supplement to the already impressive and personalized Warner Studios tour.
As a former employee of the studios Bingen does feel the need to inject himself into the story often. This isn’t a flaw, more of a pet peeve for those seeking a more historical approach to the material. I also had issues with some of Bingen’s assertions. He mentions how more people have seen Marilyn Monroe’s face than have watched her movies before elaborating that her films aren’t good. Now I don’t disagree with Monroe’s face being ubiquitous, but the snarky disparagement of her work never rises beyond petty, especially in a book that will be read by classic film fans. Maybe it’s because Marilyn wasn’t a Warners star?
Regardless of a few pet peeves Warner Bros: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot is a must-read for fans of classic Hollywood. If you’ve been on the fence about traveling to L.A. to see the studio itself this should be a great way to whet your appetite.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.