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The Warner Brothers:
Albert, Harry, Jack, and Sam Warner

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?
 
   — Harry Warner in 1927

 
Book
Celluloid Soldiers tells the story of WB's pioneering anti-Nazi stance in the 1930s.

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The Warner Brothers studio was founded by the four Warner brothers in 1923. Harry (Hirsch, 1881-1958), Albert (1884-1967), Sam (1888-1927), and Jack (Jacob) Warner (1892-1978) were members of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish family from Krasnashiltz, Poland (then in czarist Russia). Their father, a cobbler named Benjamin Warner (probably Varna), had married Pearl Leah Eichelbaum in 1876. The couple had three children, one of whom died at age four. Desiring a better future for his family and himself, in 1883 Benjamin made his way to Hamburg, Germany and then took a ship to America. The two surviving children, Hirsch (later Harry) and Anna, and wife Pearl joined him in Baltimore less than a year later. The rest of the Warner brothers (and two sisters) were born in the US, except for Jacob (later Jack), who was born in London, Ontario, Canada in 1892.

The brothers learned to work together for family survival. They were living in Youngstown, Ohio when Harry Warner decided to hock the family's beloved delivery horse to buy a used Edison Kinetoscope projector. (Harry would always be the level-headed, business-minded factor in the Warner Brothers' equation.) It was the year 1904 and the beginning of the Warner brothers' venture into the movie business. At first the brothers used the Kinetoscope for a traveling movie show in small towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but soon set up a permanent nickelodeon in New Castle, Pennsylvania. The brothers' modest hole-in-the-wall cinema with the imposing name “Cascade Theater” opened in May 1905 with seats borrowed from a neighboring funeral parlor.

Ufatone lighter
How did this German lighter end up with Harry Warner's name on it? > More...
Photo: © Hyde Flippo

 WARNER BROS. LANDMARKS

First canine star: Rin Tin Tin, aka "Rinty" (1923). Rinty, a German shepherd, had 18 doubles.

• Hired the famous German director Ernst Lubitsch in 1923.

First successful “talkie” - The Jazz Singer (1927) was actually not a sound movie in the sense we use today. Like many early talkies, Jazz Singer had little dialogue and used intertitles along with recorded music. The Warner Vitaphone disc sound system soon gave way to superior sound-on-film systems (optical sound track).

• First Hollywood studio to make an anti-Nazi movie (Confessions of a Nazi Spy, 1939). Also see the book Celluloid Soldiers.

• First studio to hire a future president as an actor (Ronald Reagan in 1937).

Casablanca released in 1942.

• First studio to sell part of its film library to television (1956).
 
 
The difficulties of obtaining good films at a good price drove the brothers into the film distribution business. They discovered the real money was in distribution rather than exhibition. They sold the Cascade Theater for $40,000 and jumped into film distribution full time – until they ran into the Edison Trust (Patents Company) which cut off films to distributors who did not pay a royalty. By 1912 the brothers were out of the distribution business, but almost forced into the film production business. “Warner Features” set up a studio in an old St. Louis steel foundry, but the two low-budget films produced there were unmarketable. Two of the brothers headed west to California to start a new film exchange. Before long the Warner Brothers studio was also producing films.

By 1925 the Warner brothers' business acumen (thanks mostly to Harry) had brought them to the point of taking over both the First National and Vitagraph film companies. The Warner Brothers' sound-on-disc subsidiary Vitaphone was formed in 1926. Warner would release one of the first “talkies” in 1927. The Jazz Singer helped push the studio quickly into the forefront. In the classic Hollywood era of 1930-1950 Warner Brothers was a movie powerhouse, producing film icons such as Captain Blood (1935), Now Voyager (1942), and Casablanca (1942). In the 1950s and '60s the studio also produced critical successes such as Mister Roberts (1955), Giant (1956), Auntie Mame (1958), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Sam Warner died young of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1927 at the age of only 39. Jack Warner ran the studio and sometimes ran over stars and directors. He was the last to leave the company in 1967 to become an independent producer. The other brothers, particularly Harry as president, were involved in running the business end. In 1956 Harry and Albert sold out most of their interest in Warners.

Warner Bros. Studio Store The day of the movie czar—Jack Warner being the last of that breed—was long gone when Warner Brothers was taken over by Seven Arts Productions Ltd. of Canada in 1967. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, as the new company was known, was just the beginning of Warners' metamorphosis into just one more corporate film company. In 1971 the holding company became Warner Communications, Inc. or WCI. In addition to movies, WCI owned record companies, television studios, and a variety of other businesses. In the early 1980s the Seven Arts name was dropped to return to just plain Warner Brothers. But the biggest change would come with the giant 1989 merger of Time, Inc. and WCI, creating one of the world's largest media concerns: Time Warner, now the media conglomerate AOL Time Warner. For a film studio that started out as a family-run business, it has been a truly dramatic transformation.

Next: Take a virtual tour of the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank.