One of the original pantheon of moguls who shaped Hollywood into the global leader in filmed entertainment, Jack L. Warner was the co-founder of Warner Bros. Studios, and led the company over the course of a four-decade career that saw him earn a reputation as one of the industry's most successful - and despicable - figures. Warner entered the business with his brothers Harry, Sam and Albert, and collectively launched Warner Bros. in 1923. He quickly established himself as the dominant force among the family through a combination of shrewd negotiations and unbridled ruthlessness. Though he would oversee some of the most acclaimed films of the 20th century, including the first "talking picture," "The Jazz Singer" (1927), as well as "The Public Enemy" (1931), "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), "Casablanca" (1942) and "Giant" (1956), he dismissed anyone who displeased him, from top actors and screenwriters to his own brothers, whom he would ouster from their own company. When he was himself removed from Warner Bros. in 1969, Jack Warner was among the last of the great Hollywood movers and shakers, the men who helped to create the Hollywood dream, and who ruled it with an iron fist.
Born Jacob Warner in the city of London in Southwestern Ontario, Canada on Aug. 2, 1892, he was one of 12 children by Benjamin and Pearl Warner, Jewish immigrants from Poland who fled the violence and poverty of shtetl life for North America. After Jack's birth, the family relocated to Baltimore, MD and then Youngstown, OH, where Benjamin opened a grocery store. Son Jack became involved in the entertainment business at an early age, singing at local theaters, where he was billed as Jack Leonard Warner. Meanwhile, older brothers Harry, Sam and Albert Warner were making their own tentative inroads into show business. Sam had taken a job as a projectionist at a local amusement park, and convinced his family to invest in a Kinetoscope, an early movie viewer. Jack invested $150 in the device, and the brothers began showing a well-worn print of "The Great Train Robbery" (1903) throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania. The success of this venture allowed them to purchase several small theaters and later launch their own distribution company, the Duquesne Amusement Company, which they sold in 1909 for $52,000. The following year, Jack and his brothers began their careers as producers.
In 1917, Jack was dispatched to Los Angeles to gain a foothold in the booming film industry. The brothers purchased the film rights to "My Four Years in Germany" (1918), a best-selling novel about German war atrocities, which became their first major hit. Warner Brothers West Coast Studios was established in 1918, with a formal incorporation as Warner Bros. Pictures in 1923. Jack and Sam shared head of production duties, and launched a series of low-budget comedies, serials and exploitation titles based around various social ills. The studio's initial diet of films proved unsuccessful with moviegoers, and they teetered on the edge of bankruptcy until discovering a trained German Shepherd named Rin Tin Tin. The dog soon became Warner's biggest star thanks to a series of silent adventure films, several of which were written by Darryl F. Zanuck, who later became Jack Warner's executive producer and right-hand man.
In 1925, the company began to expand, first purchasing the Vitagraph Theater Company, and later, at the urging of Sam Warner, investing in the new Vitaphone film sound process. The company soon began production on "The Jazz Singer" (1927), a melodrama that would become the world's first full-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. Sam Warner would not live to see the film's success, which would boost Warner Bros. from second-string studio to a major alongside Universal, Paramount and First National. Following Sam's death, Jack Warner became the studio's sole head of production. For years, he had lived in Sam's shadow, benefitting from both his sunny outlook and his role as peacekeeper between his younger brother and older sibling Harry, who had earned a reputation as a taskmaster. Without Sam's positive influence, Jack soon adopted Harry's business model of cutting costs and, when necessary, jobs for the sake of the bottom line. In doing so, he earned a reputation as one of Hollywood's most unpleasant moguls.
Unlike many studios, Warner Bros. survived the stock market crash of 1929 and continued to produce a broad range of films at a steady rate of 50 pictures a year. Though Warner brought in audiences with its costume dramas and biopics, its real draw was its social dramas, which took pains to depict the lives of the criminal underworld with realism. Among its biggest successes were "Little Caesar" (1931), starring Edward G. Robinson, and "The Public Enemy" (1931), starring Warner's personal discovery, James Cagney, who became the studio's biggest star in the 1930s and early '40s. Warner also devoted considerable attention to the growing threat of Nazism in Europe with such films as "Sergeant York" (1941), Best Picture winner "Casablanca" (1942), "Now, Voyager" (1942) and "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (1942) all delivering powerful anti-German and anti-Fascist sentiments. The turn towards social and political dramas reflected Warner's own personal political affiliations; a longtime Republican, he switched loyalties to the Democratic Party with the arrival of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "New Deal." In doing so, Warner made his studio attractive to many liberal-minded writers.
On the subject of money, however, Warner was unyielding to the point of obstinacy and, as some employees later claimed, sadism. Darryl F. Zanuck fled the studio over battles with Harry Warner regarding his own salary and that of studio personnel. He moved over to the fledgling 20th Century Studios, which became 20th Century Fox in 1935. Zanuck's replacement, Hal B. Wallis, was given a significantly smaller role in production than his predecessor, and a cadre of supervisors culled from the writing staff was employed to oversee each picture. The result was a roster of films whose quality varied often wildly; a fact that was not lost on critics and audiences. Wallis would eventually quit Warners over his humiliation at the 1942 Oscars, where Warner accepted the Best Picture award instead of him. Other stars would clash with Warner's hardnosed policies, most notably James Cagney, who filed a breach of contract suit against the studio for allegedly forcing him to make more films than his contract required. Other talent who fought with Warner included producer Bryan Foy, who handled the studio's B-picture division, and actors Bette Davis, George Raft, Jack Benny, Olivia De Havilland and Humphrey Bogart, who became Warner's biggest star after Cagney's brief departure. Foy abandoned ship for 20th Century Fox, while de Havilland successfully sued Warner for sending out warnings to other studios that she was difficult. Warner's notorious cheapness also got the better of him, most notably when his niece Doris attempted to produce a film version of "Gone with the Wind" (1939). Warner nixed the idea on the grounds that its battle scenes and period setting would be too expensive. MGM gladly and famously took on the production.
Warner's disregard for his employees landed him in hot water on several occasions. In 1946, he refused to meet Screen Actors Guild salary demands, prompting a month-long walkout. However, that callousness paled before his actions the following year, when he was required to give testimony before Congress regarding his 1942 "Mission to Moscow." Produced at the suggestion of President Roosevelt, the film, with Walter Huston as Joseph E. Davies, the second American ambassador to Russia, was intended to bolster public support for U.S.-Soviet relations. But in 1947, as Cold War tensions fanned the flames of Communist paranoia, the film was labeled as propaganda. In his testimony, Warner not only defended his film, but also openly labeled many of his employees as card-carrying Communists, including writers Clifford Odets, Dalton Trumbo, Irwin Shaw and Alva Bessie. They were subsequently placed on the Hollywood blacklist, and their careers were ruined for decades. Warner even held his animated stars in contempt. He saw little use for the Warner animation department, which produced the acclaimed Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons and gave the world such hand-drawn superstars as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd. In a meeting with his animation staff, Warner once admitted that the sum total of his knowledge about their efforts was that they produced Mickey Mouse - a galling blow for his artists who did no such thing. Warner later sold all 400 pre-1948 cartoons made by Warner Bros. for the miserly sum of $3,000 apiece, which cut the studio out of the millions generated by the shorts in subsequent decades.
Warner's insensitive nature extended beyond the gates of Warner Bros. He abandoned his wife and only son, Jack Warner, Jr. for another woman, Ann Page, in 1935, appalling his brothers and their families. Warner later severed ties with Jack Jr., who initially headed his television department after the younger man insulted Page, and told security guards to deny him entrance to the studio. In later years, Warner would also carry on a series of affairs with other women while still involved with Page. His most combative relationship, however, remained with his brother Harry. Their decades-long animosity came to a head in 1956 when Jack Warner sold the rights to the studio's entire library of films made before 1950 to Associated Artists Production for a modest sum of $21 million. Two years later, when the Warners decided to put the studio on the market, Jack secretly organized a syndicate with Boston banker Serge Semenenko to purchase 90 percent of the company's stock. Once the purchase was completed, Jack re-purchased the stock he had sold, which effectively made him the studio's largest stockholder. He quickly appointed himself president, which enraged Harry and Albert Warner. Employees reported that after learning about Jack's involvement in the sale, Harry allegedly chased him through the studio, threatening to kill him. Whatever the case, Harry and Jack Warner never spoke again, and Jack refused to attend his brother's funeral in 1958.
Despite his reputation, Warner still had his supporters. He elevated Errol Flynn from relative obscurity to stardom with "Captain Blood" (1935) and a series of popular adventures including "The Sea Hawk" (1940), "They Died with Their Boots On" (1941) and "Objective, Burma!" (1945). They even stood by their swashbuckling star after Flynn was accused of statutory rape in the early 1940s (he was subsequently acquitted). Warner also rescued Joan Crawford - after the aging star was kicked to the curb by her longtime studio MGM - by making her the lead in the Warner production of "Mildred Pierce" (1945), which not only earned her an Oscar but resuscitated her career. And in addition to discovering Cagney and making Bogart one of his top stars of the 1940s, he championed or supported such performers as William Powell, Lauren Bacall, Ann Sheridan, Doris Day and Joan Blondell.
And though he ruled his studio with ham-fisted and antagonistic business techniques, Warner understood audience trends and tastes, and oversaw some of the most critically acclaimed and popular films of the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to the immortal "Casablanca," a casual list of Warner titles from these decades included William Wyler's "The Letter" (1940), Frank Capra's "Meet John Doe" (1941) and "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), John Huston's ""High Sierra" (1941), The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948), "The Glass Menagerie" (1950), Alfred Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" (1951) and "Dial M for Murder" (1954), the pioneering 3-D film "House of Wax" (1953), Howard Hawks' "Rio Bravo" (1959), and "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956), both of which established the legend of James Dean. Warner also struck box office gold by distributing the earliest efforts from England's Hammer Films like "The Curse of Frankenstein" (1957) and Japan's Toho Studios, which gave the world "Godzilla Raids Again" (1959).
Warner entered the 1950s with a skeptical eye on the growing medium of television. He initially resisted participation, but eventually caved in 1954 by appointing his son-in-law, William T. Orr, as head of Warner Bros. Television. The new division soon struck gold with Westerns like "Cheyenne" (ABC, 1955-1963), which was the first one-hour Western on television, as well as "Maverick" (ABC, 1957-1962) and youth-oriented programs like "77 Sunset Strip" (ABC, 1958-1964) and "Hawaiian Eye" (ABC, 1959-1963). However, as before, Warner's dismissive nature generated dissention among his television stars, whom Warner disliked even more than movie actors. A series of well-publicized legal battles with James Garner, Clint Walker and Edd Byrnes soon forced Warner Bros. to abandon their style of television contracts.
While other studios struggled to keep afloat as television grew in influence and popularity, Warner's decisions helped to buoy his feature film department in the 1950s and 1960s. He waged winning battles to secure the rights to two Broadway smashes: the musical "My Fair Lady" (1964) and Edward Albee's devastating drama "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966). Industry insiders regarded both efforts as dismal failures in the making; Warner gave CBS director William Paley 50 percent of the distributor's gross profits on "Lady," as well as the rights to the original negative. And "Woolf" offered a direct assault on the Hollywood Production Code with stark language and themes, while director Mike Nichols appeared to defy common sense by presenting the film in black and white. Warner defended all of these choices - all of which helped earned both films Best Picture Oscars, as well as considerable box office rewards.
The twin victories would be the last significant successes of Warner's career as a studio executive. Advancing age, a sharp decline in studio productions, and pressure from his wife to curtail his duties contributed to Warner selling control of his studio and its music business, which included Warner Bros. Records, to Seven Arts Productions, a Canadian production company which promptly named the new entity Warner Bros-Seven Arts. He remained as studio president while pocketing a cool $24 million for his share of studio stock. However, his tenure as Warner's leader emeritus was short-lived. By 1969, Warner was largely considered by his new bosses to be a dinosaur, part of a dying breed of old moguls that included Louis B. Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, and who had all been pushed out by the 1950s or early '60s. The death knell for Warner came with a series of failed maneuvers, including an attempt to block the release of "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) and the inability to land Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, who starred in the Broadway run of "Camelot," for his 1967 screen version. The former was a massive hit that signaled the beginning of the new, independent Hollywood vision, while the latter was a resounding failure. A defeated Warner officially retired from the studio he helped to create in 1969.
Warner remained active, though peripherally, with Warner Bros. in the early part of the 1970s, working largely as an independent producer and assisting with distribution and exhibition. One of his final film efforts was a screen adaptation of the popular Revolutionary War musical "1776" (1972). Among the first to see the film prior to release was then-President Richard Nixon, whom Warner supported in his run for the Oval Office in 1960. The two men had remained friendly in the ensuing decades, and after watching the film, Nixon suggested that Warner remove two songs from the production, which he perceived as thinly veiled criticisms of the Vietnam War. Without consulting director Peter Hunt, Warner removed the numbers, as well as nearly 20 minutes of the film itself. The film was subsequently dismissed by audiences who were too embroiled in national and world politics to embrace a picture with a positive view of the government. Warner attempted to take to the airwaves to publicize the film, but frequently did more harm than good, with comments about "pinkos" underscoring his obsolescence.
However, such comments may have been borne out of physical impairment than outdated politics. By 1973, Warner was showing signs of encroaching senility, including an incident where he lost his way in his own office building. The following year, he suffered a stroke that left him blind and precipitated a slow decline over the next few years. On Sept. 9, 1978, Warner died of heart edema, prompting tributes throughout the Hollywood community. The University of Southern California hosted a tribute that saw many of his old employees and adversaries pay their respects; a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame soon followed. However, Warner remained stubborn and impassable even in death; his will bequeathed most of his $15 million estate to Ann Page, while son Jack Jr. received $200,000.
By Paul Gaita