I have written articles about the history of major Hollywood studios like 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount and Disney in the past but I have yet to discuss the history of Warner Bros. in depth. Of course the studio is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year so what better time to discuss it than now? I have been itching to write about WB for years because that studio has perhaps the most intriguing history of all the major studios and it had a distinct personality. As much as people associate MGM with musicals or Disney with princesses and talking animals, the name WB was synonymous with dark and gritty gangster films, tough guys, sexy women and bold politics. And it wasn’t just their movies that were full of drama. There was drama behind the scenes too. The kind that only comes when four brothers are running a film studio together.
Although the Warner family was large with ten siblings total, the ones who became the moguls known as the “Warner Brothers” were Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack. The children of Jewish immigrants born under the name Wonsal, their father Benjamin Wonsal changed their last names to Warner upon the family’s immigration to America from Germany in 1889. Benjamin Warner was a shoemaker back when the family lived in Europe, but that wasn’t enough to provide for the family in Baltimore, Maryland, so they moved around a lot. Although Harry, the oldest Warner Brother, found success in the shoe repair business in the young industrial town of Youngstown, Ohio, and his father earned money working with Harry there until opening a downtown grocery store.
All the Warner Brothers tried to get by with various odd jobs, including bike shops, bowling alleys, selling soap and even vaudeville when Jack began singing at local theaters, but the second-to-youngest Warner Brother Sam, the gadget wizard of the family, is the one who first introduced the family to the brand new art form known as movies when he managed to obtain a film projector and a film reel of The Great Train Robbery (1903), which was the most popular American film of its time and an early precursor to the Westerns and action films that would later dominate the film industry. The film, which was about a group of bandits who successfully rob a train, would serve as the main inspiration for the Warners’ venture into filmmaking, and seemingly the basis for the style of movies that made the studio famous: gangster and crime films.
The Warners made money in the emerging film industry by playing films for audiences in their own theater but they would play them at any hall or parlor that would let them. Although once everyone got bored of watching one film like The Great Train Robbery, the Warners had to obtain more films, and the lack of available movies to show made the Brothers consider producing their own movies instead. This happened around 1915 and at that time many well-established film studios had already existed, but in one early Warner success story, the Brothers decided to pursue a deal for a film adaptation of U.S. Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard’s best-selling memoir My Four Years in Germany. The Warners actually convinced Gerard to pass on a $75,000 check from Fox because Harry Warner did such a good job impressing Gerard with his patriotic and sincere understanding of what the book was about and the importance of letting as many Americans who cannot read witness the story as possible. The 108-minute war drama My Four Years in Germany was released in theaters in 1918 and was the first film that the Warner Brothers produced, although the Warners were uncredited and the distribution was handled by First National. As for the quality of the film itself, it was clear propaganda but it did good business, and the year it came out was the year that the Warners pursued film production full-time.
But what really elevated the Warner Brothers and set them on the career path to become Hollywood moguls was Rin Tin Tin.
Upon his return to America after serving in World War I, Darryl F. Zanuck (who would later co-found 20th Century Studios) was a young writer who managed to sell scripts to such producers as Irving Thalberg and Mack Sennett, but after Zanuck discovered the German Shepherd who was rescued by American soldier Lee Duncan from a WWI battlefield and who Duncan later trained to perform tricks in front of audiences to huge success, Zanuck wrote a script as a vehicle for the canine and produced a series of Rin Tin Tin films which Zanuck sold to the Warner Brothers in the early 1920s. They were cheaply produced but hugely popular, which was great for a rising film producer like WB. Rin Tin Tin was such a box office star that he not only boosted the status of the Warners as producers but he also elevated Darryl F. Zanuck’s career from writer to producer, serving as Jack Warner’s right-hand man between 1928 and 1933.
1923, the year that Rin Tin Tin’s hugely successful Where the North Begins was released, was the year that Warner Bros. Pictures was officially founded, and by 1924 WB was one of the most successful independent film studios around, but they were well on their way to rivalling existing major studios like First National, Paramount and MGM thanks to the star power of WB leading man John Barrymore and the financially unsuccessful but artistically impressive films of Ernst Lubitsch. Some of WB’s early successes aside from the Rin Tin Tin films were School Days (1921), The Sea Beast (1926) and Don Juan (1926), but an especially significant year for WB was 1927 when the sound film The Jazz Singer came out. That film was the first golf swing that made the film industry start seriously talking about sound as less of a gimmick and more of a possible future for film, although it would take a few more years before the golf ball sank into the hole and sound became the norm.
Sam Warner, who I earlier called the gadget wizard of the family, was the Warner most responsible for getting The Jazz Singer onto the screen. His enthusiasm and desire for bringing sound to film and changing the movie landscape propelled its production forward while also propelling WB into a new era of film that it helped pioneer and making a box office hit out of The Jazz Singer. While many people who watch that film today from a modern perspective see it as sentimental and pedestrian (not to mention an ironic feat of showcasing a whitewashed version of jazz that is sung by a man in blackface), the film’s impact was huge.
Unfortunately Sam Warner died the day before The Jazz Singer’s premiere due to pneumonia at the age of 40. Although the huge undertaking and constant struggle of producing the first synchronized sound picture in Hollywood history caused Jack Warner to remark that The Jazz Singer was really the true cause of Sam’s death.
In my next blog I’ll point out all the great films WB released through the years. Plus I’ll discuss how the WB of the past became the WB that we know it as today and how things like DC Comics and HBO got brought into the fold of the Warner conglomerate.