Only 4 Warner children became active in the film business: Harry (1881–1958), Albert (1883–1967), Sam (1884–1927) and American-born Jack (1892–1978). The brothers began as travelling exhibitors, moving across Ohio & Pennsylvania with their portable projector. Recognising the potential of films, the Warners converted a vacant shop in New Castle Pennsylvania into a cinema. They began buying cinemas and soon owned a film distribution company as well.
As their enterprise prospered, they opened more theatres. Due to strict patent laws and the high cost of securing films, they started producing their own films. By 1912, Sam became the studio's technical chief, Albert did distribution, Harry was business head, and Jack was the showman in charge of production. Just for historical context, Paramount and Universal Studios were both founded in 1912.
Warner Bros was originally founded on Sunset Boulevard. In 1918 Warner Brothers scored a coup with My Four Years in Germany, from the book by the US Ambassador who’d been ordered home from Berlin. It was an important picture.
The brothers gave Rin Tin Tin his very successful debut in a short film, Where the North Begins. The dog dominated the silent screen in the 1920s, almost won an Oscar for Best Actor and helped make Warner Bros financially successful.
Al Jolson always worked, doing a tour of his own show, then vaudeville and a Sunday theatre series. Finally he went to Hollywood to make films. But it took till 1927 before the Warners produced their first talkie, The Jazz Singer. It only had 2 minutes of talking, but it earned a very special Oscar at the Academy Awards! Sadly Sam Warner died in 1927.
The remaining brothers built a studio on farmland in Burbank and this new facility enabled Warner Bros to produce movies rapidly; 86 feature films in 1929 alone! The Studio’s contract players became some of the greatest stars ever, including Bette Davis, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G Robinson and Errol Flynn.
The times were good, following the financial and critical success of The Jazz Singer. They now had the money to buy two of the most popular backlot sets shortly after: New York St and Brownstone St.
During the 1930s the Warners acquired the Stanley Co. which had controlled 250 cinemas, guaranteeing them outlets for all their films. They set the standard for film musicals with the lavish Gold Diggers series (1933); real news films like G-Men (1935) and China Clipper (1936); and big films like A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). They also presented social issues such as The Life of Emile Zola (1937) and The Black Legion (1937), which involved racial or religious bigotry.
Read Lara Jacobson for a discussion about film-making once the 1939 war started. It was a contentious topic in a terrible era. The Brothers were not advocates for violence, nor was Confession of a Nazi Spy (1939) made to elicit declaration of war against Germany, but they wanted to inform their audiences of the threats overseas. Clearly Confession made an impact; it was unlike any other film being produced and set the stage for change in the film industry. In 1939, they also released Wings of the Navy and Espionage Agent, continuing to focus on American patriotism and depictions of Germany as the enemy. Then Harry Warner declared the company’s goal of aiding the European war in 1940.
In 1951 the Co was forced to divest itself of its theatres after the film industry lost a 13-year suit brought by the US Government on anti-trust charges. And later, during the McCarthy witch hunts sweeping Hollywood, the brothers fiercely defended their actors.
Backlots - Brownstone St (above);
- Midwest (below)
A falling out within the brothers in the 1950s led to an on-going family division. In May 1956, the three brothers announced they were putting Warner Bros. on the market and sold their stock. However in a tricky deal, Jack bought back all the stock and became the new company president. In 1958, aged 76, Harry died.
Great successes in the 50s included A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and A Star Is Born (1954) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955). The exterior residential set next to Midwest St was built for the Ronald Reagan film King’s Row. With its store fronts, grass lawns, church and central gazebo, the set also served as home to launch the career of James Dean in East of Eden (1953), Robert Preston in The Music Man (1962) and John Wayne in The Shootist (1976).
But the boldest move was into television which most Americans had in their homes by the middle 1950s. Warner Bros quickly produced a wide variety of sitcoms and action series, debuting with the western adventures Cheyenne (1955) and Sugarfoot (1957). Also launched that decade with now-classic series Maverick (1957), 77 Sunset Strip (1958) and Hawaiian Eye (1959) many of which were filmed on the Studios’ former Western backlot. Like many Australians of my age, my parents had tv by 1960 and these western adventures by Warner Bros. were our favourites.
Above - James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Footlight Parade, 1933
Edward G Robinson, Little Caesar, 1931
The Jungle Lot was to resemble any wooded area and lagoon that Warner films or tv programmes would need. And adjacent to the Main Lot, a circle of residential houses was built, hosting television sitcoms like Dennis the Menace (1959), Bewitched (1964), I Dream of Jeannie (1965) and The Partridge Family (1970). Unlike the action series, this Australian teen thought these 1960s sitcoms were awful.
Warner Brothers Company was one of Hollywood’s entertainment giants.