Warner, Jack Leonard

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Pioneering motion picture executive and producer, Jack L. Warner (18921978), along with his three brothers, created Warner Brothers Pictures and turned it into one of the largest film studios in the United States. When Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer in 1927, as the first "talking picture," it revolutionized the entertainment industry and initiated the movie's modern era. Aggressive, and at times crude and difficult, Warner epitomized the classic movie mogul during Hollywood's studio era.

Jack L. Warner was born in London, Ontario, on August 2, 1892, the ninth and youngest boy of the 12 Warner children. His Polish parents, Benjamin and Pearl Eichelbaum, emigrated from Poland in 1890 to live in Canada for a time before moving in 1894 to Youngstown, Ohio. Jack, whose original surname was Jacob, and his three brothers, Harry, Albert, and Sam, were expected to help at an early age with the family's finances. Harry worked as a cobbler's apprentice, then as a meat packer. Albert and Sam held a succession of odd jobs before they began exhibiting movies after they obtained a projector by pawning Sam's prized birthday gift from his father, a gold watch and chain.

A poor student, Jack Warner longed to be a stage performer. He took his middle name, Leonard, from a minstrel performer he admired. Warner's love of the limelight would continue throughout his career. At age 12 he had earned money as a singer in minstrel shows and operettas. In their fledgling movie business, Sam handled the projector, Harry and Albert supervised the advertising and tickets, and Jack Warner sang and danced before and after the picture.

From their humble start the Warner brothers would steadily mount their assault on the young motion picture business, incorporating their holdings as Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. in 1923. During World War II (19391945) Jack Warner served as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Force where he organized the first motion picture unit.

The Warner brothers' family movie business started in Youngstown, Ohio, but it was moved to Newcastle, Pennsylvania, where the brothers opened their first theater. In 1903 they converted an empty store with a seating capacity of 99, one seat short of 100 to prevent the theater from being subject to local and state fire regulations. Distribution of films was a problem during these early years of the movie business, and theater owners could not depend on deliveries. To remedy this situation Harry Warner decided to form collaboration with exhibitors and theater owners to exchange films. This eventually became the Duquesne Amusement Supply Company, the first such organization in the country. It was short lived since film producers did everything possible to discourage the arrangement as a threat to their profits. The Warners finally sold the film supply company in 1912. The experience convinced the brothers that if they were to be sure of having movies to show they must make them themselves. They began to make what the trade called "Warner Features" at the old Vitagraph Studios in New York.

Their first blockbuster occurred when they bought the rights to the 1917 book by Ambassador James W. Gerard, My Four Years in Germany. The resulting film grossed almost a million dollars. The profits allowed the Warners to shift their operations to California, joining Jack who had earlier established a studio in Santa Paula, California. Now the brothers built a large studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood and incorporated their business as the Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. However, in 1923 they were still selling their pictures through independent distributors who advanced them money to make their films. The brothers set out to obtain control of a nationwide distributing system.

Jack Warner married Irma Solomon in 1914 and they had one son, Jack L. Warner, Jr. The couple divorced and Warner married actress Ann Page in 1936. Warner accepted her daughter from a previous marriage, Joy, as his own and the couple adopted a two-year-old girl whom they named Barbara.

In 1925 they borrowed enough money to buy the Vitagraph Company, which had a nationwide distribution system. Success was still precarious, however, and Warner Brothers was close to bankruptcy when the brothers decided to experiment with sound films. In 1926 they released Don Juan, starring John Barrymore with a completely synchronized musical score, although Barrymore's voice and that of the rest of the cast were not recorded. Its success encouraged Warner Brothers to make other sound films while improving the sound tracks. In 1927 The Jazz Singer became the first true "talking picture." The effect of film speech was electrifying to its first audience; the era of the silent film had reached its conclusion. By 1928 Warner Brothers was a $16 million corporation and within two years they were worth $230 million. In 1929 Warner Brothers acquired the Stanley Company with some 250 theater outlets nationwide, which insured audiences for Warner Brothers' movies.

With a head start over their competitors in sound, Warner Brothers became one of the dominant film studios during Hollywood's Golden Era. Warner Brothers' contract players included such stars as George Arliss, Leslie Howard, Paul Muni, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Joan Crawford. Jack Warner, as production chief, oversaw such classic films as Little Caesar (1930), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942), The Corn is Green (1945), Mildred Pierce (1945), A Streetcar Named Desire (1952), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and My Fair Lady (1964). Although it produced films in all the genres Warner Brothers' specialty became social issue films. During World War II Warner Brothers became the first studio to direct its resources toward the war effort.

One of the keys to Warner Brothers' success was Jack Warner's intimate and scrupulous attention to detail and his constant economizing. He looked upon the movie industry as any other kind of factory production. Every economy was employed, including repeated use of material, reassembled sets, and a minimum of wasted time and space. Warner personally supervised the selection of story material, the assignment and supervision of producers and directors, and the discovery and assignment of acting talent.

In the late 1940s Warner Brothers became the first of the Hollywood studios to go into television production. In 1956 the Warners relinquished financial control of their company, although Jack Warner remained President and largest single shareholder. In 1966, when Warner finally sold his interest in the studio, he received $25 million after taxes.

Warner lived the life of the stereotypical Hollywood movie mogul in great splendor in his Hollywood mansion. Difficult to work with and often rude, Warner had a reputation for arbitrary firings and feuds with his brothers and son. Like other movie titans such as Louis B. Mayer and Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack L. Warner defined the role of the movie executive during the studio era when individual personalities could dominate every aspect of the making and marketing of movies and their stars.

As the cofounder of Warner Brothers Pictures Jack Warner helped shape the direction of U.S. entertainment through the infancy of the film industry and into its Golden Age, creating some of most important and significant U.S. cultural exports. Images of our society have been so dramatically affected by film portrayals that it is difficult to imagine areas of modern life untouched by film's influence. By exploiting the technical innovation of sound recording, Warner Brothers' created film's modern era.

As studio production chief Jack Warner contributed significantly to the production of many film masterpieces and he helped define the studio system for the production of films that was directly related to their creation. His dominating personality and tight control also helped to set in motion the reaction against the studio system and the wrestling away of ultimate control over films to individual directors and actors, which has had both positive and negative impacts on the industry. In today's Hollywood it is difficult to imagine the power of a studio executive like Jack Warner, who was one of the last of his breed of visionary businessmen who helped create the influential mass entertainment industry. Jack L. Warner has contributed in significant ways to Hollywood legend and its unprecedented success as our culture's dominant artistic medium. Jack L. Warner died in Los Angeles on August 2, 1978.

See also: Entertainment Industry, Movies


Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Inside Warner Bros. (19351951). New York: Viking, 1985.

Spellng, Cass Warner. Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story. Rollin, CA: Prima, 1994.

Thomas, Bob. Clown Prince of Hollywood: The Antic Life and Times of Jack L. Warner. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.

Warner, Jack L. Jack of All Trades: An Autobiography. London: W.H. Allen, 1975.

Warner, Jack L. My First Hundred Years in Hollywood. New York: Random House, 1965.