The Warner Brothers Story

We’ve already had occasion to talk about the founding of several of the major Hollywood studios of the classic era (RKO, MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, United Artists, Walt Disney), mostly because most of their origins bore some relation to vaudeville. Today we add another important one which also had a connection, Warner Brothers.


There were four Warner Brothers: Sam (1887-1927), Albert (1884-1967), Harry (1881-1958), and Jack (1892-1978). There were seven other siblings in the family besides, but these were the four that became movie moguls. The family came from Poland; the original surname was Wonskolaser, or Wonsal. The father worked at a succession of small businesses and trades (shoe repair, butcher, grocery) and the family moved around from Baltimore, to London, Ontario, to Youngstown, Ohio. It was in Youngstown that Sam, with another partner, acquired and managed the Old Grand Opera House, presenting vaudeville and silent movies around the turn of the century (he was still a teenager). While that venture quickly went belly up, Warner was bitten by the bug. He got a job as a projectionist at a nearby amusement park, then convinced his family to invest in a projector of their own. Brother Al joined Sam in the enterprise. Sam ran the film, Al ran the box office. In 1905, Harry sold his bicycle shop, and used the money to set all three brothers up in the next venture, the Cascade Movie Palace, in New Castle, Pennsylvania. This led to the brothers running a regional film exchange out of Pittsburgh and another in Norfolk. Jack joined the business. By 1912 they were producing movies, although the Warner Brothers studio wasn’t officially started until 1923. Gold Diggers (1923) was their first big hit, although their biggest star in the early years was the German Shepherd Rin Tin Tin. 


We mentioned that Sam’s first venture was in part a vaudeville theatre. The other major vaudeville connection was of course Vitaphone. At Sam’s bidding, Warner Brothers led the way in the industry’s conversion to sound, with hits like The Jazz Singer (1927). From the late ’20s through well into the ’30s, Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone division made scores and scores of talking film shorts that preserved countless vaudeville acts, both major and minor (we wrote about that some here), a distinct threat to vaudeville itself, but an enormous boon to us who now get to watch them nearly a century later. This ferment also contributed to the fact that Warner Brothers was also a major center for early Hollywood musicals directed by the likes of Busby Berkley, and featuring stars like Dick Powell, James Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, etc.


In the late ’30s and ’40s the Warner Brothers “stock company” included Cagney, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, and many others.


And Warner Brothers’ cartoon division, featuring characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, etc, joined Disney’s as the gold standard of the industry. Decades of subsequent development followed, including a 1990 merger with Time Inc and the founding of the TV network the WB (1995-2006), which later major merged with UPN to become the CW. Today Warner Brothers is part of WarnerMedia.