The Warner Brothers – The First Dynasty of Hollywood
Harry Warner (born Hirsz Wonskolaser (1881—1958) ), Albert Warner (born Aaron Wonskolaser (1883—1967)), Sam Warner (born Szmul Wonskolaser (1887—1927)), and Jack Warner (Itzhak or to some sources Jacob Wonskolaser (1892—1976)).
The Warner brothers were born to a large Jewish family Wonskolaser in a small town of Krasnosielc, not far from Warsaw, then in the Russian Empire. Their father Benjamin, a shoemaker who barely scraped enough for a living, immigrated into the United States in 1883, bringing his extensive family to the New World in 1889. The family moved to Canada, where the brothers tried their luck in multiple trades, including selling tin and buying furs from trappers in Ontario, repairing shoes and operating a meat shop in a mining town in Ohio, and even selling bicycles…
None of the trades the brothers undertook were successful in feeding the ever-growing family, so in 1905 they sold all their assets and invested into the new and fledgling movie industry, buying an old building in New Castle (Pennsylvania), making it into the Cascade theater and exhibiting “The Great Train Robbery”. This idea was so successful that by 1907 they purchased fifteen (!) theaters across the state.
An interesting fact: being short on money to purchase new equipment for some of their new theaters, but eager to start exhibitions as soon as possible, the Warner brothers borrowed black velvet-covered chairs from the local undertaker’s office.
Soon, however, their bustling movie business was threatened by the notorious Edison Trust, which today would be rightfully called a “patent troll” – the trust charged movie companies exorbitant patent fees, which forced Warner brothers to sell the business and create the independent Warner Features company. In 1918 the newly established company secured enough capital to produce its first picture: “My Four Years In Germany” based on Ambassador James W. Gerald’s bestseller book.
The next obstacle Warner brothers had to overcome was the monopoly of the Big Three: Paramount, Universal, and First National, that basically controlled the distribution of movies in the 20s. In 1925 the brothers led a “rebellion” by independent film-makers and, with the help of the few bankers that were not anti-semitic, carried out a massive newspaper advertising campaign that helped them push back the Big Three and secure their own place under the sun.
After initial doubts, Harry accepted the idea of sound in films, actively promoted by Jack. And again, they had to deal with anti-semitic sentiments at the Western Electric company that held the patents to the necessary technologies.
It is said that Sam’s wife Lina wore a large gold cross on her neck at a dinner with Western Electric executives, which allowed Warner brother to secure a deal and use sound in some of their most successful films: The Jazz Singer, The Lights of New York, The Singing Fool and The Terror.
Despite great difficulties the company faced during the Great Depression, the Warner brothers managed to preserve their business. Even more, Harry took an active part in politics, supporting FDR with his New Deal – despite the fact that Harry Warner was a stark Republican supporter. In the late 30s and early 40s Warner became the main supporter of the anti-Nazi movement, producing a host of propaganda films, including: “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937), “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” (1939), “The Sea Hawk” (1940), “You’re in The Army Now” (1941), as well as some classics such as “Casablanca”. Their effort was appreciated by the state to such a degree, that one of the US Navy battleships was named Benjamin Warner – after the brothers’ father.
In the 50s, the state of affairs inside the company started to worsen because of the personal feud between Harry and Jack, with latter often neglecting his duties and preferring to stay in France, enjoying women, gambling and partying.
Witnesses later disclosed that after one especially unfavorable deals concluded in secret by Jack, Harry chased him through the offices , holding a lead pipe in his hand and screaming “I’ll get you for this, you son of a bitch!”
In 1956, after a string of bad deals and a mostly failed attempts to adapt to the coming of television, the Warner brothers announced their plan to sell the company and retire.