In time Warner's would certainly make its share of socially significant dramas. In the beginning there were those musicals, with musical sequences mostly directed by Busby Berkeley. Where the studio truly distinguished itself was in the crime (gangster) movies, which includes an astonishing number of prison films.
A great many of its actors would add that is was a crime how they were treated. They certainly wouldn't be confused with the crowd at MGM that could usually be found in the lap of luxury. Warner's famously did not want to spend a lot of money on salaries or productions. Actors at other studios who had troubles there could often hear... hey, you wanna be working for Warner?
Warner Bros was run like a factory and the paucity of pay and cheer was perhaps, in part, due to the fact that it was a family operation. The family was royalty and its only real job was to make sure others knew it and made money for them. It was considered for years the ugly duckling stepchild of the industry... no glamour, no money, everyone bring your own clothes from home for filming, little sentiment, rudeness, cynicism. One knew someone was gonna get smacked around in a WB film with its bare-bulb lighting.
Harry, Albert and Sam were all born in Poland and younger brother Jack was born in London, Ontario, after the family emigrated there. The three elder brothers ran movie theaters in several American cities. By 1904 they were into movie distribution. In 1918 they opened their first studio on Sunset Blvd in L.A. Sam and Jack (who were the closest of the bunch) handled producing the movies while Harry and Albert handled the money and distribution in New York. They used 1923 as their founding year because it's when they became incorporated. These days, I believe they like to claim 1905 as its founding date... older is better.
The Warners, like almost all of the studio moguls, were Jewish. In this case, they were working-class Jews, something they never forgot. Whereas most of the other moguls drifted or steered away from expressing their Jewishness in their work, the Warners embraced it. They seem to feel some responsibility to their background. Many of their stars were Jewish. If one were looking to a major studio for a decidedly Jewish identity, it would be Warner Bros.
In 1924 they acquired their first major star... and it had four legs. Rin Tin Tin was from France and would enable the brothers to label themselves as successful during the silent era, starring as he did in 27 pictures. From 1925 Harry and Sam had been tinkering with sound, especially after acquiring Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn. In 1927 they produced the world's first talking picture (not to be confused with the first sound picture, mainly music, the year before). It was called The Jazz Singer which made a movie star out of singer Al Jolson. The movie was really Sam's baby and he was worked to death on it since he died at 40, the night before its premiere. The studio was on its way to the top.
Darryl F. Zanuck came aboard as chief of production and there is no doubt that the acclaim WB acquired in those days was due to his creative genius. Through a wage dispute (duh) Zanuck left and became the head of the studio that would one day become 20th Century Fox. Zanuck is known as the only truly creative head of the big studios while the rest were chiefly businessmen. After Zanuck left Hal Wallis assumed many of his duties.
In 1928, after partnering with First National Pictures, WB bought a huge property in Burbank, California, where it is still housed to this day. Once cash-rich, the brothers acquired a movie theater chain and then another and another to showcase its films.
|The Burbank property circa 1928|
By 1930 it was swimming with talent... both on the screen and behind it. Ernst Lubitsch was one of its first contract directors, followed by Mervyn LeRoy, Michael Curtiz, Raoul Walsh, William Wellman and others. WB hired the most manly of directors. There were few feminine touches around the lot (as opposed to, again, MGM). This was just one large man cave.
After Rin Tin Tin and Jolson came John Barrymore and ultimately a slew of some of the most famous and talented people in the business. Zanuck hired Busby Berkeley as musical director in the early 30s. BB was responsible for those overhead shots of hordes of dancers in various patterns that gives the illusion of looking through a kaleidoscope. It was most impressive and extremely popular. Dames, 42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade made Jack Warner (who installed himself as numero uno once brother Sam died) very happy. It made stars out of Ruby Keeler (Mrs. Al Jolson), Bebe Daniels, Warner Baxter, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell and others. I am not likely to be able to distinguish one of these films from another, so similar were they. Usually it was a backstage musical that might not see the light of day because the money was tight. The more I think about it, WB did seem to have about 10 basic plots that it rewrote, recast and refilmed, whether musicals or not
A pair of actors that must be singled out are James Cagney and Bette Davis, not only two of WB's biggest stars but two of the biggest ever. He was a triple threat because he was one of the studio's top musical stars and also head gangster. Personally, I thought both his singing and dancing was pretty iffy but what he lacked in skill he certainly made up for in personality. As a gangster, however, they didn't come much better.
Davis was strictly a dramatic actress and while I thought she had a dozen or so exquisite roles, I also found her to be a bit hammy and over-the-top from time to time. She caused her directors pure hell but the good ones who could stand up to her formidable personality got some fabulous performances out of her.
What Davis and Cagney had in common (other than two films... 1934s Jimmy the Gent and 1941s The Bride Came C.O.D.) is that they were arguably Jack Warner's two biggest headaches. I suspect most contractees were intimidated by Warner but these two took him on at every opportunity, particularly over pay and roles. She caused Warner grief when she accused him of being cheap with the salary and cheap on productions. Warner liked to say... I don't want it good, I want it Tuesday. One time Davis sued to get out of her contract and Warner won. Warner claimed he never liked her. Funny thing is, I saw Davis as perfect for WB. A hard, edgy control freak working for one. They each needed the other to bring some sense of balance and order to things. Can one imagine Davis at MGM or MGMs Fred Astaire at Warner's?
In the late forties, ingénue Joan Leslie sued to get better roles or get out of her contract and Warner arranged the latter and essentially
had her black-balled from the industry. Her subsequent roles were certainly not the stellar parts she had at WB.
The template for WBs gangster films was set with 1930s Little Caesar. It made a star of Edward G. Robinson, who seemed, for any number of reasons, destined to play a hood. Cagney rose to the top of the gangster rolls in 1931s Public Enemy while his best work in this genre would have to wait until 1949 and White Heat. Stardom came to Paul Muni in Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, both 1932.
Like Cagney, George Raft was also a dancer who easily slid into gangster roles, but unlike Cagney, Raft wasn't a very good actor. He was on the edge of thugdom in real life which probably made Warner think he'd be a good actor. He also made some unsound decisions regarding his roles. Imagine turning down High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. I know someone who owed Raft his thanks.
Humphrey Bogart knocked around at Warner's for a number of years and even worked with most of the aforementioned gents but he never clicked. Not until Raft turned down High Sierra. From then on, he never looked back. Thanks to a unique acting style, getting the best of scripts, directors and costars, and film noir, he became more of an asset to the studio than most of them.
Cagney, Muni, Robinson, Raft and Bogart were smart to include John Garfield in the club. Another actor destined to work at the factory. He, Claude Rains and The Dead End Kids made 1939s They Made Me a Criminal, a title that certainly sounds like it should be made at WB. The revolution of the underdog, the disenfranchised, the take-no-prisoners types was complete. In the 30s, it seemed like the characters of all its leading men needed to be somebody.
In addition to the gangster films, which blissfully turned into noir in the 40s, WB was the maker of gritty films. They liked it real and they usually liked it in black and white. Over the years the studio was involved in several battles over censorship. When Barbara Stanwyck slept her way to the top in Baby Face (1930), it (and other films) was considered so scandalous that it lead to the 1934 birth of the Production Code which sanitized American movies for decades to come. The studio would test the same waters in 1951 with A Streetcar Named Desire and again in 1966 with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Bravo to WB. In the mid 30s, the studio branched out into cartoons. What's up, Doc?
We mustn't neglect the swashbuckling and adventure movies and the contribution that handsome, athletic, randy, troubled and trouble-making Errol Flynn brought to the studio. He fought Warner and thumbed his nose at the studio and how it was run at every opportunity. Warner was always threatening to fire Flynn (particularly after he had to bail the actor out of some embarrassing public scrapes) but knew Flynn brought riches to the studio. The actor would do battle royal with director Michael Curtiz whom Flynn worked with the most. They hated one another and Warner delighted in making them work together time after time.
Flynn worked nine times with Olivia de Havilland. I suspect she was a little bit in love with him despite the fact that they were distantly related. She was another one who had a tumultuous relationship with the studio and like several of her fellow actors, she would sue WB... and would win.
It would become known as the de Havilland decision. Oddly enough most of her best work was done at other studios. When she returned to WB she felt she was given inferior projects and she refused to do them. Warner's, in turn, put her on suspension. That meant she could not work anywhere for as long as that film was in production. When her contract date was up and she was prepared to move on, she was surprised to learn that it was not up, that all that suspension time had been added to lengthen her contract. Irate, she ditched her Melanie Wilkes persona for that of Scarlet O'Hara and sued. The decision was that seven-year contracts would be seven-year contracts. Period. Actors could still be put on suspension for refusing roles but the time of the suspension would no longer be added to the contract. Every actor in Hollywood was grateful.
The 1940s was a good time for the studio... and most studios. War films, women's pictures, film noir and musicals proliferated. Warner's had a most impressive roster of stars. In addition to those already mention, let's recall Ida Lupino, Joan Crawford, Jane Wyman, John Garfield, Ann Sheridan, George Brent, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Alexis Smith, Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Eddie Albert, Dane Clarke, Patricia Neal, Ronald Reagan, Eleanor Parker, Ruth Roman, Virginia Mayo, Gordon MacRae, Gene Nelson, Steve Cochran, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day, Dorothy Malone, Natalie Wood, Tab Hunter, James Garner, Carroll Baker, Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Troy Donahue. How about wonderful character actors like Frank McHugh, Pat O'Brien, S.Z. (Cuddles) Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet, Raymond Massey, Guy Kibbee, Monty Woolley, Allen Jenkins, Alan Hale and Regis Toomey?
For a major studio, WB has won surprisingly few Oscars for best picture. But one of them occurred in 1943 with Casablanca. It is probably the most beloved film in the entire WB archives and many consider it to be the best film ever made or at least in the top three. Since we are doing a long segment on the 1940s, it's only right that we mention some of WBs top films of that decade... Yankee Doodle Dandy, Sergeant York, Knute Rockne All American, Jezebel, The Man Who Came to Dinner, The Male Animal, The Fountainhead, Night and Day, The Hard Way, King's Row, Now Voyager, Johnny Belinda, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Watch on the Rhine, A Stolen Life and Mildred Pierce, to name just a few. All four of the Bogart-Bacall films were made at WB (they're coming up soon).
After the war, Warner Bros revived musicals in a fairly big way. It continued into the early 1950s when they again began to fade as a popular genre. I suspect the revival was chiefly due to the hiring of Day. She was paired with singer Gordon MacRae in a series of sweet-natured films that raked in the coins at the studio. She also danced in a number of films with Gene Nelson who, in turn, danced in several films with Virginia Mayo. All four of them appeared with Cagney in 1950s The West Point Story. Like all studios, if a pair registered at the box office, one could be guaranteed they'd make more movies together.
In 1946, Jack Warner still refused to meet the Screen Actors Guild salary demands and in September all employees of the studio went on a month-long strike. In retaliation, Warner testified before Congress that numerous WB employees had ties to communism. At the end of the 1940s, the five major studios were dealt a mighty blow when an anti-trust case brought on by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission declared the studios had to divest themselves of their large theater chains. The claim was it restrained competition.
Jack had clashed with his brothers over the years. Studio employees were certainly aware of the problems as were most of the movers and shakers in Hollywood. In the 1950s all the brothers agreed to sell their interests in the studio but old Jack secretly bought his brothers shares through a consortium and he was then solely in charge of the entire studio. The brothers never forgave him.
By the 1950s, the so-called Golden Age was a bit tarnished. Most studios suffered setbacks of some sort and the chief culprit, of course, was television. WB established Warnercolor, its new color process designed to keep folks buying tickets. They also tried 3D (starting with 1952s rather good House of Wax) but the new process nearly ruined them. The studio agreed to partner with John Wayne's Batjac Productions and make some good films (The Searchers, 1956, among them). They would do the same a couple of decades later with Clint Eastwood's Malpaiso Company.
Despite decreases in ticket sales for all studios, Warner's managed to turn out some very good films in the 50s. Consider A Star Is Born, Dial M for Murder, Mister Roberts, Hondo, Sayonara, Auntie Mame, Strangers on a Train, Battle Cry, The Bad Seed, The Nun's Story and A Summer Place. The studio struck gold by producing all three of James Dean's starring films, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant.
It also had the good sense to diversify. Despite an initial reluctance to accept television, it was one of the first of the majors to jump in with both feet. It hired a whole new bumper crop of actors and actresses, none of whom was ever a threat to Cagney or Davis. It also went full steam ahead into the music business.
In 1967 Jack Warner stepped down. It was said the poor reception of the musical Camelot finally did him in. He had served longer as a studio head than any of his contemporaries. In all the biographies I have read over the years, both from WB stars and others, I don't think I've ever heard anyone say a kind thing about Jack Warner. In fact, along with Harry Cohn at Columbia, I think he was the most reviled.
Over the years since then, the studio has been bought, sold and partnered with too many to mention but it survives to this day.