Warner, Sam

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Warner, Sam

Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc.


Samuel Louis Warner founded one of the largest motion picture and entertainment companies in the United States and had a major influence on the course of the U.S. entertainment industry. One of his most celebrated innovations was his 1927 release of the first movie with sound, The Jazz Singer, in spite of skepticism from his peers. Though he died the same year at age 40, Warner's business lives on as part of the present-day media conglomerate Time Warner Inc.

Personal Life

Samuel Louis Warner was born August 10, 1887, in Baltimore, Maryland. However, he grew up and attended public schools in Ohio. His parents, Benjamin and Pearl, were hard-working Jewish immigrants from Krasnashiltz, Poland, an area then controlled by czarist Russia. The family name "Warner" is believed to be an anglicization of "Varna." Warner's two older brothers were born in Poland before the family emigrated in the mid-1880s. The elder Warners expected Samuel and his brothers, Harry, Albert, and Jack, and his sister, Rose, to work hard to help support the family, which eventually settled in Ohio.

In 1903, Warner began his first job at a Sandusky, Ohio, amusement park. Warner grew fascinated with the park's movie theater. It was there he saw his first movie, The Great Train Robbery. Warner was hooked and 20 years later, in 1923, he and his brothers established their own movie company—Warner Brothers Pictures, Incorporated. In 1925, Warner married Lina Basquette and they had one child, a daughter, Lita.

Career Details

Warner's first experience with movies, other than being an enthusiastic fan, was being a traveling movie exhibitor. Warner pawned a gold watch—a special birthday gift from his father—to buy a film projector. With his brother Albert, Warner toured Ohio's small towns to show just one movie—The Great Train Robbery. Warner and his brother, with what could be called their movie theater on wheels, traveled for a long six months before finally opening their own permanent movie theater—the Cascade Motion Picture Theatre—in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. Soon all of Warner's siblings joined the motion picture business. Warner ran the projector, Harry and Albert organized the advertising, Jack sang before the movie to warm up the audience, and danced after the movie to give the rest of the family a chance to rewind the film, and Rose ran the ticket window and accompanied Jack on piano.

In 1904, after selling the theater for $40,000, all four brothers established the Duquesne Amusement and Supply Company. This new company, located in Pittsburgh, distributed and exchanged motion pictures—much like how video stores today rent out copies of films on tape. Over the next six years, the Warner brothers struggled with their new business because film producers raised their film rental rates and delivered damaged or incorrect film prints. Warner and his brothers did, however, continue to distribute films until 1912, when they sold their business to the General Film Company to become motion picture producers.

After moving to New York City in 1912, Warner and his brothers began showing what they called "Warner Features" at the Vitagraph studios. During this period, Sam, the second youngest, assumed a leading role in the fledgling business. He was credited with making the family business a more serious contender in the emerging entertainment industry. In 1917, the brothers had their first million-dollar grossing hit movie, My Four Years in Germany , which was based on James W. Gerard's book about World War I. This film established the Warner brothers as filmmakers who made important pictures about current events. That year, Warner and his brothers moved their production business to California and in 1923 renamed it to Warner Brothers Pictures, Incorporated.

However, over the next two years, Warner Brothers Pictures faced two challenges. First, they were still selling their films through independent distributors. These independent distributors never advanced enough money to Warner to make his films. This meant that the firm was strapped for cash when making its movies. Second, the 1920s grand movie palaces—like the single, one-show movie theaters of the 1970s—were losing their popularity, forcing many to close.

Yet, in 1925, Warner and his brothers were saved from bankruptcy when investor Waddill Catchings, who believed in movies and in the Warners, helped them raise $500,000. With this money, Warner, who had a growing curiousity in the idea of making films with sound, pushed his brothers to buy the rights to Western Electric's vitagraph, an invention Warner believed could add sound to movies. Others in the industry didn't think it would work. In 1927, Warner formed, in partnership with Warner Brothers Pictures, the Vitaphone Corporation. This early technology employed a separate sound disc that needed to be synchronized with the film. Later enhancements would place a sound track directly on film.

The brothers released a few minor films and demonstrations with the new Vitaphone technology before the historic release of The Jazz Singer, which would become the first commercially significant movie with sound. They hoped to not only transform the end product of the movie studio by adding sound, but also to capture a lucrative monopoly on the technology needed to produce movies with sound. In the latter effort they failed, as the sound-disc technology was cumbersome and less appealing than later innovations. Nonetheless, The Jazz Singer proved to be a huge success and launched Warner Bros. toward industry dominance.

However, Sam Warner didn't live to see the success of his company's greatest early achievement—a "talkie" or sound movie—in its first public showing. He died suddenly from cerebral hemmorrhage in the fall of 1927 at the age of 40. His untimely death occurred just one day before the commercial debut of The Jazz Singer.

Chronology: Sam Warner

1887: Born.

1903: Opened Cascade Motion Picture theater.

1904: Founded Duquesne Amusement & Supply Co.

1910: Produced first movie Perils of the Plains.

1917: Released My Four Years in Germany and made $1 million.

1923: Founded Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. with his siblings.

1925: Married Lina Basquette.

1927: Purchased Vitagraph rights for "talking" picture.

1927: Released The Jazz Singer.

1927: Died at the age of 40.

Social and Economic Impact

Although Sam Warner's early death meant he never saw the extent of his company's achievements, he set the innovative course the company followed to reach national prominence. His own work is best remembered for pioneering films with sound, but the company he left behind was perhaps a more significant accomplishment. Warner Bros. grew quickly to become first a top motion picture production house, releasing 100 films a year by 1930, and movie theater operator. Later, it became an important media conglomerate with a successful audio recording unit, a major television studio and network, and multimedia publishing concerns. After his death, Sam's brothers guided the business until the 1960s, when it was sold. It subsequently changed hands a few times, and in 1990 the successor company, Warner Communications Inc., merged with Time Inc. to form Time Warner Inc., the world's largest entertainment company.

Sources of Information


Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. New York: James T. White & Co., 1931.

Sadoul, Georges. Dictionary of Film Makers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.

Sperling, Cass Warner, and Cork Millner. Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1994.

"Warner Brothers." Biography. Available from http://www.biography.com.