WB’s newfound success in the late 1920s led them to buy film distributor Vitagraph which would allow them to compete with the other major studios on a large scale. 1927’s The Jazz Singer led to the The Singing Fool (1928) which was an even bigger vehicle for star Al Jolson. Lights of New York (1928) was WB’s first all-talking feature film, and it practically made sound the norm overnight, with all the other major studios making sound films exclusively by 1929, which was also the year WB bought and merged with First National Pictures.
WB went from colorful musicals in the early 1930s to Errol Flynn swashbucklers in the late 1930s, while also becoming known for its gritty gangster films and, by World War II, its patriotic war films. Some of the notable and most famous WB films in the golden age of Hollywood’s studio era include Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), 42nd Street (1933), Baby Face (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Casablanca (1942), To Have and Have Not (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and White Heat (1949).
The films at Warner Bros., like all the major film studios in these days, were produced at a rapid pace, as if on a conveyor belt. Every once in a while you got a film that stood out as a classic like The Adventures of Robin Hood or Casablanca, but the large amount of films WB made per year meant that most of their output was very formulaic. But the formula was an interesting one. WB’s films were often the most gritty, moody, dark and fearless in their depictions of crime and violence, while also having a lot of style, a lot of fast-talking “wise guys” and “dames” (as well as a lot of narrow views about manhood and womanhood). Plus they were the most politically outspoken in their denouncement of Nazis and their clear leftist bent, which you could see in films like Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940) and Sergeant York (1941). Their films had just as much of a personality as their stars, which in that period included Joan Blondell, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Bugs Bunny.
Some of WB’s most highly acclaimed and enduring films were the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. This hugely popular series of animated films was first created as WB’s answer to Disney’s Silly Symphonies and were meant to advertise WB’s music library as a way to boost record sales, but they became much more than a Disney copycat when producer Leon Schlesinger hired some of the best animators, writers and directors in animation history to work on them. Thanks largely to the creative forces of people like Tex Avery, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, those films took on a life of their own and have become well-respected by the animation and film community for their dated yet timeless gags and the strong personalities of characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Sylvester and Tweety, the Tasmanian Devil, Foghorn Leghorn, Wile E. Coyote, Road Runner and more. So popular were these characters that even after the series of films ended in the late sixties, they endured in film and television long after, thanks to The Bugs Bunny Show and the founding of Warner Bros. Animation in 1980, which would produce similarly looney successors like Animaniacs (starring those other “Warner Brothers”).
In the 1950s, WB had some successful films like A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Searchers (1956) and Giant (1956), but overall that was not a fruitful decade. In fact all the film studios were struggling that decade as television entered people’s lives for the first time, but the establishment of Warner Bros. Television largely made up for that, thanks to the success of WB’s TV Westerns Maverick (1957-62), Sugarfoot (1957-61), Bronco (1958-62), Lawman (1958-62), The Alaskans (1959-60) and Colt .45 (1957-62), all airing on NBC. Warner Bros. Television would continue to have success in the following decades with shows like The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77), Kung Fu (1972-75), Wonder Woman (1975-79), The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85), Night Court (1984-92), Full House (1987-95) and dozens of other successful sitcoms and dramas.
However the success with Warner Bros. Television did not stop the Warners from selling off their shares of the studio. Due to the decrease of success in the late fifties amidst the changing tide of the studio era, Jack convinced his brothers to sell the Warner Bros. studio, cash out with their hard-earned money and retire, with Jack choosing his old ally, a Boston banker named Serge Semenenko, to buy them out. However…Jack Warner hatched a scheme with Semenenko to secretly repurchase his shares plus Harry Warner and Albert Warner’s shares after they sold theirs, making Jack the new president of Warner Bros. Harry found out the same way the public found out: in the newspaper. And this betrayal by Harry’s own brother was such a devastating blow to Harry that some in the Warner family say the series of strokes that followed and led to Harry’s eventual death in 1958 was Jack’s fault. It might have seemed like a drama straight out of a movie, but Harry and Jack had a deep dislike for each other going back years. Harry always disapproved of Jack’s drinking, womanizing and freewheeling lifestyle, while Jack openly admitted that he didn’t care at all about Harry. Jack did not attend Harry’s funeral.
WB has success in the 1960s with The Music Man (1962), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), My Fair Lady (1964), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969), but Jack Warner decided to sell Warner Bros. to Seven Arts in 1966, at the same time Arthur Penn was making Bonnie and Clyde which came out guns blazing with a vigor emblematic of the attitude of the New Hollywood of the sixties and seventies. Jack Warner was from a different era and he didn’t understand that film. That, plus the fact that his last major production for WB, the musical fantasy Camelot (1967), failed to take the world by storm might have been what told Jack that now was the time to sell WB and retire. Jack Warner died in 1978, taken out by a series of strokes just like his brother Harry and his brother Albert in 1967.
As I said, film and television distributor Seven Arts Productions acquired WB from Jack Warner in 1967 and merged the two companies into Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, but that organization lasted shortly because in 1969, DC Comics publisher Kinney International got ahold of the newly merged company and rebranded it Warner Bros. Inc., later changing the name to Warner Communications in 1972 and branching out into video games by buying Atari and theme parks by buying Six Flags.
WB had a lot of success in the 1970s with stars like Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and from its collaborations with Martin Scorsese on Mean Streets (1973) and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) as well as its collaborations with DC Comics, not just on television with Wonder Woman but on the big screen with Superman (1978). Other great films included McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Exorcist (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Barry Lyndon (1975) and All the President’s Men (1976), and success continued into the blockbuster era of the 1980s and 1990s with classics like Blade Runner (1982), The Right Stuff (1983), Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), The Color Purple (1985), Lethal Weapon (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Goodfellas (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Free Willy (1994), Space Jam (1996) and The Matrix (1999).
Warner Communications merged with magazine publisher Time, Inc. in 1989 to form Time Warner, which brought cable network HBO under the Warner umbrella for the first time, and in 1995, Warner Bros. teamed up with TV station owner Tribune to launch TV network The WB, which primarily aired teen programming like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek and Smallville (and continuing to do so after Paramount’s UPN merged with The WB to form The CW in 2006), with the network’s Saturday morning block Kids’ WB airing many animated series from Warner Bros. Animation like Animaniacs, The Sylvester & Tweety Mysteries, Freakazoid!, Pinky and the Brain, shows based on the comics of DC like Superman, Batman, Batman Beyond and Static Shock and other shows like What’s New, Scooby-Doo?, Xiaolin Showdown, Johnny Test and Tom and Jerry Tales as well as a lot of anime like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!
The other big development happening with WB and television in the nineties came when Turner, the owner of CNN, TCM, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, as well as the studios New Line and Castle Rock, was bought by Time Warner in 1996. This also meant that Warner now owned the broadcasting rights to the things that Turner had the broadcasting rights to, including the MGM and RKO classic film library (including films like The Wizard of Oz and King Kong) and the Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears TV library.
The 21st Century brought WB a lot of success at the movies with blockbuster franchises like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Matrix, Batman and the Ocean’s trilogy along with many crowdpleasers like Training Day (2001), Happy Feet (2006), 300 (2007), The Hangover (2009), Inception (2010), Gravity (2013), The Lego Movie (2014), Sully (2016), It (2017) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018).
While I enjoy a lot of Warner’s content, given that they own many of my favorite IPs, I’m less a fan of the way the company has operated behind the scenes, which has notoriously been messy in the past, ever since AOL bought the company and right up to the point when they merged with Discovery.
Back in 2001, AOL bought Time Warner, which proved to be an unsuccessful partnership, with the “AOL Time Warner” moniker being dropped the following year and AOL’s stock value continually falling. Time Warner later positioned AOL as an independent company in 2009 and AOL was bought by Verizon in 2015. Another company would buy Time Warner in 2018, this time AT&T, which led to Time Warner’s name change to WarnerMedia and the dissolve of Turner as a media company. The following year, WarnerMedia turned HBO’s streaming website HBO Now into a streaming service for WB-owned content called HBO Max featuring many quality original shows and films, but in 2022, WarnerMedia merged with Discovery, the media company that owns Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, TLC, Food Network, HGTV and Travel Channel, to form Warner Bros. Discovery upon AT&T’s divestment.
With the initial plan to merge HBO Max with Discovery’s pre-existing streaming service Discovery+ in 2023, and to alleviate the high expenses from the cost of the merger which left WB Discovery in huge debt, the company cut a lot of costs by cancelling near-completed films like Batgirl, Scoob! Holiday Haunt, a Scooby-Doo spin-off starring the Hex Girls and more, all while stripping a lot of HBO Max content from the service completely (including HBO Max originals like Close Enough), selling a heavy stake in The CW to Nexstar, cutting scripted programming orders for TBS and TNT, merging together Cartoon Network Studios and Warner Bros. Animation, and cancelling many shows. These controversial moves have received a lot of contempt from film, television and animation fans as well as the artists who worked on the removed or cancelled shows, but WB Discovery has slowed down on the extreme cost measures in 2023. Although the plan to fully merge Discovery+ and HBO Max has apparently been cancelled this year in order not to upset Discovery+ subscribers who are happy with the way the service is, but WB Discovery still plans to integrate Discovery programming into a new service with a new name that is expected to remove the “HBO” from “HBO Max” and possibly just be called “Max” but that is yet to be officially announced. WB also plans to roll out a FAST (Free Ad Supported TV) service in the vein of Fox’s Tubi and Paramount’s Pluto TV in the coming months as well, which will hopefully alleviate the subscription price raise for HBO Max and the extreme cuts, as cancelled HBO shows like Westworld are expected to be found there.
This entire experience with HBO Max has me a bit nervous about who is steering the ship at WB right now, because, as I just wrote for the past two blogs, this company has an incredible legacy that deserves to be handled with care and in a way that does not upset viewers or disrespect the artists responsible for the films and shows that are responsible for all the money that makes these corporations so rich. When I hear the name “Warner Bros.” it still fills me with jubilation! Because it reminds me of movies like Casablanca, TV shows like Animaniacs, fictional characters I love like Batman and Bugs Bunny, and creators I love like Chuck Jones and Genndy Tartakovsky. A lot of these films and shows and the artists behind them reflect the Warners’ bold spirit (at least in my mind) and I hope they continue to keep WB’s legacy of bold, sophisticated and purposeful storytelling alive.