And You Think YOU Have a Dysfunctional Family? ( The Story of Warner Brothers)

by Susie Hodgson

I’ll bet you’ve probably driven by Warner Brothers (WB) studios a thousand times. It’s a beautiful campus and quite large. And they’re growing even! World-famous architect Frank Gehry is in charge of the new campus.

But who were these Warner Brothers? Were they really brothers? Oh yes, indeed!

Once upon a time, Benjamin Wonskolaser and his wife fled the persecution and pogroms of Poland/Russia and immigrated to the United States where, like so many others, they “anglicized” their surname to Warner. They had 12 children. (Really – 12!)

Four of their sons would later change their last names to Warner Brothers. The eldest, originally called Hirsch, became Harry. Next was Abraham, re-named Albert. Then there was Shmuel, who came to be known as Sam, and finally came Jacob, or Jack. The brothers opened a nickelodeon, showing the Edison silent The Great Train Robbery and the four were hooked. Movies became their thing and soon the brothers made their way to the west coast. After all, in L.A., there were a lot more sunny days for filming!

Harry was stern, Sam was a peacemaker, Albert was quiet (and liked playing the horses) and Jack was mean and cocky. Jack and Harry had a terrible relationship filled with bad blood and plenty of anger. Only Sam -- who Jack adored -- was able to buffer that acrimonious relationship.

Meanwhile, success struck -– and it did so on four legs. Rin Tin Tin was Warner Brothers’ first big star! In fact, the notoriously tight Jack arranged to pay the dog $1,000 a week. But eventually the public grew weary of Rin Tin Tin and silents in general, but no worries. Talkies were the next big thing!

Harry didn’t like “talking pictures” at all. But Sam sure did and he pushed to make a grand, expensive talkie (it cost $500,000 to make – which is nearly $8 million today!) called The Jazz Singer. Jack, of course, sided with Sam, and Harry fought it all the way. The movie was supposed to feature George Jessel, who had starred in the play, but Jessel felt he was pushed out of the way for the singing sensation Al Jolson. (Jessel never forgot the slight. However, others contend Jessel asked for too much money.)

But the night before the posh premiere of the 1927 groundbreaking talkie, out of nowhere, a young Sam Warner died at age 40. Exhausted from working night and day on The Jazz Singer, Sam succumbed to pneumonia caused by a sinus infection aggravated by abscessed teeth. (Catch all that?!) It was said Sam died for the talkies. No one was more hurt than heartbroken Jack (1892 – 1978). Guess the good do sometimes die young!

But the movie went on to make a mint! It made so much money that the Warner Brothers studio was able to move out of crowded Hollywood, bought land in spacious Burbank in 1930, and merged with First National Pictures in 1934. Later, WB also took over the Columbia Ranch. Harry bought himself a large homestead in the west San Fernando Valley (Warner Center). Harry and Jack continued to fight for control of the studio. With Sam gone, people noticed that Jack got even worse: tougher, nastier, and even more stingy.

Speaking of things not nice, gangster films became popular when WB picked up James Cagney (Public Enemy, 1931) and Edward G. Robinson. The Depression turned out to be good for the studios as they lifted Americans’ (Depression-filled) morale. Next, WB took up glamorous, showgirl-filled musicals, such as those made by Busby Berkeley (e.g., 42nd Street, 1933). WB had a good run of these often-similar musicals until 1935 when Busby Berkeley was arrested for a drunk driving accident that he caused, killing three people. (He got away with it, by the way.)

In 1936, a movie was being made with British star Leslie Howard who refused to star if WB did not hire who he wanted as co-star. Leslie Howard, a big British star, insisted that WB use Howard’s choice for The Petrified Forest – an odd-looking, so-called leading man named Humphrey Bogart. (Leslie Howard, whom you may remember as Ashley in Gone With the Wind, died during World War II in 1943.)

Soon came everyone’s favorite WB swashbuckler, Errol Flynn. He was often partnered with the demure-seeming Olivia de Havilland who actually was anything but demure as she sued WB over a contract dispute and won. De Havilland virtually destroyed the contract system of its day. Unlike her sweet on-screen persona, she was a real fighter!

Bette Davis was another great WB star (e.g., Now Voyager>) but she disliked Warner Brothers – especially Jack!. At the end of the 1930s, WB signed up a good-looking Midwestern radio announcer for whom they had high hopes: a guy named Dutch – also known as Ronald Reagan. He starred in Knute Rockne: All American and later King’s Row. But he never achieved the movie stardom that Jack Warner had banked on.

WB made a name for itself as devoted to the war effort (WWI and II) by making such anti-German films as Sergeant York, Casablanca, Hollywood Canteen and even the talented dancer George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

But another trait you could bet on with Jack Warner was his controlling, cold-heartedness. It is said he kept binoculars and a telescope in his office where he could keep an eye on his actors, especially when they meandered off set, say for lunch or dinner. He’d keep an eagle eye on them to make sure they didn’t drink -- or fool around. He was also infamous for firing people “mercilessly.” He was even known for passing pink slips to his people during the company’s annual Employee Christmas Party!

And he talked, as in “blabbed,” to Joe McCarthy during the “Red Scare.” He “named names” such as Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, Jr., Clifford Odets and many more. Many a blacklisted writer and star hated Jack Warner.

But as all too many late-night infomercials love to shout, “But wait, there’s more!” Jack Warner was a nonstop womanizer. (No, today’s Harvey Weinstein was by no means first!) Jack cheated incessantly on his first wife, Irma, with whom he had a son, and then married one of his long-term mistresses (Ann) on whom he also cheated continuously. Jack’s extended family hated the second wife and would have nothing to do with her. At one point in the 1950s, Jack, who had a serious car accident, was in a coma for a while. During that time (when no one expected him to live) his grown son, Jack Junior, spoke ill of Ann (just like everyone else did). When Jack woke up, he immediately cut off all ties to his son and had no relationship with him ever again.

It was also in the 50s when Jack pulled another dastardly deed. He set up a deal whereby he sold WB, but in truth it was a complete scam and Jack took over. Brother Harry died soon thereafter and Harry’s wife always swore that Jack killed Harry.

Yet Jack made My Fair Lady even when others berated him for casting the unlikely Audrey Hepburn, who was not a singer. Julie Andrews, a known singer originated the role on Broadway. And it was Jack who let Mike Nichols film a controversial, intense, depressing play called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It was another smash hit – despite or perhaps in part because it was filmed in black and white.

But Jack also chose to film Camelot, which was not a hit, and 1776, another flop which Jack had “chopped up” where President Nixon told him to. Meanwhile, the studio was sold, Jack was outraged, and in 1978, Jack died from heart complications, which some thought couldn’t be possible. After all, what heart?

Warner Brothers remains a successful, iconic studio today and is no longer known for the fraternal ills that once haunted it. But it makes you think. What if they all got along…? Is it possible they wouldn’t have been so successful? Or more successful?

And don’t forget to enjoy your families!!

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