This Day in Jewish History

1978: Hardnose Hollywood Movie Mogul Jack Warner Dies

Warner Bros introduced talkies and brought the world classics from Casablanca to Loony Tunes, but Jack Warner's own family wasn't smiling.

Wikimedia Commons

On September 9, 1978, movie tycoon Jack L. Warner, who had brought the world 'talkies,' died, aged 86. The pioneering Warner Bros. Studios, which he founded with three of his brothers, not only broke ground with voice in movies: it also produced some of the twentieth century’s most enduring screen classics, from Casablanca to Looney Tunes.

This was not achieved with coddling and candy: Warner was a tough nut, feared and respected in Tinseltown, who wound up ousting his brothers from the family business that they had founded together and severing ties with his son. 

Sam buys a projector

Jacob Warner was born on August 2, 1892, in Ontario, Canada to a Polish Jewish immigrant family. His parents, Benjamin, a cobbler, and Pearl Warner, had 12 children. After his birth, the Warners moved to Baltimore and then in 1896, to Youngstown, Ohio. That was where Jack got a taste for the limelight, embarking on a short-lived vaudeville career - and changing his name to Jack Leonard Warner.

It was also in Youngstown that Jack’s older brothers, Harry, Albert, and Sam, put down the cornerstone of their future multi-million studio. Using family funds, Sam bought a projector and screened the 1903 silent movie “The Great Train Robbery” around Ohio and Pennsylvania. This earned the three boys enough to buy a number of small movie theaters and move into distribution; Jack joined the business in 1909.

That year, they sold their firm, Duquesne Amusement Company, and in 1910, got started in production.

Saved by a dog

Their first big success came in 1918 with an adaptation of the bestselling novel “My Four Years in Germany.” That year, they opened a Los Angeles studio and in 1923, they incorporated Warner Bros.

Their first movies were flops - but they were saved from insolvency by Rin Tin Tin, the iconic German Shepherd, who became their biggest star.  Then in 1925, they signed a deal to produce talking shorts. That first “talkie,” “The Jazz Singer,” came out in 1927, establishing Warner Bros. as a major player.

Warner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

But Sam died before the premiere. Jack was bereft, and, without the gentle influence of his big brother, he began earning a reputation for ruthlessness. 

The studio survived the Depression and by the 1940s, was releasing dozens of pictures a year. Their string of hits included the 1931 movies “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy.” In the 30s, they started producing Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.

The 40s and 50s saw more classics:  “Casablanca,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, and “The Maltese Falcon,” both made in 1942; Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” in 1954; and the James Dean cult classic “Rebel Without a Cause” in 1955, to name just a few. In 1954, they started producing television, too.

New Deal, old pay

Warner, a Republican, supported Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in the 1930s. His support for the social program notwithstanding, he often clashed with staff over pay, and was notorious for being strict about costs. He even fell out with big studio stars, such as James Cagney. Still, many were deeply indebted to him for making – or saving - their careers, from Errol Flynn to Joan Crawford.  

His reportedly ruthless side was not reserved for budgets. In 1947, during his appearance as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee he accused some of his staff of being Communists, ruining their careers. 

Nor did he spare his family. He cut ties with his son, Jack Jr., over a slight against his second wife Anne Page, with whom he had two daughters. In 1957, the brothers agreed to sell the company – but Jack surreptitiously bought out his brothers and named himself president of the firm. His brothers never spoke to him again.

Warner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

Warner’s last big hits were “My Fair Lady” in 1964 and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” released in 1966, both Oscar-winning pictures. He officially retired in 1969, though he continued working as an independent producer – but by the early 70s his age was showing. A stroke in 1974 left him blind, and he died of a pulmonary edema in 1978. He left most of his $15 million estate to his wife, and $200,000 to Jack Jr, whom he never forgave for insulting his wife.