From small beginnings, four brothers turned their film production company into one of the most successful the world has ever seen, writes Tom McParland.
In Essaouria square in Morocco the tourists sip coffee and watch the world go by as they’ve done for well over a century. Inside the main café there’s a wall poster on which Baleful Bogart, cheek-to-cheek with Bergman, advertises the magic title Casablanca. Even though real Casablanca is less than 190 miles up the coast. But for Moroccans too, their reality is the Warner Brothers movie.
Warner Brothers from small beginnings had success that could only happen in early 20th century America. Careful calculated risk-taking, which competitors tended to miss, was how Russian-born brothers without English became czars and taste arbiters, doling out fame to people like Cagney, Bogart, Davis, and Crawford.
Three of the founding Wonsal brothers were born in Poland, becoming, after their Americanisation, Harry, Albert and Sam Warner. Jack, the youngest brother, was born in Ontario, Canada in 1896, during the family’s brief residence there.
When the movie business was still a nickel-and-dime affair, the three elder brothers acquired a movie projector and showed films in the mining towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio. With the profits of $150 from showing the Edison-made silents, Life Of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery (the first Western) – they opened their first movie theatre, the Cascade, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1903.
By 1904 they’d founded Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Amusement & Supply Company to distribute films and in 1912 Harry Warner hired an auditor named Paul Ashley Chase. During World War I they’d begun making films.
By 1918 they’d opened the first Warner Brothers Studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood with Sam and Jack producing movies, while Harry, Albert and Chase their auditor handled finance and distribution from New York City.
The Warner Bros. logo changed over the years after its first ‘A Warner Brothers Classic of the Screen’ (1923-24) to the shield-typed ‘WB A First National Picture’ (1925-1936) after they’d taken over 600 theatre-distribution chain, First National. Eventually becoming the lone paired WB letters in monochrome, then yellow, then blue, the briefest way to public instant recognition.
Bigger budgets made bigger 1920 movie stars like Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Monty Blue, Clara Bow, Delores Costello, Ernst Lubitsch, ‘Baby’ Priscilla Moran, Harry Myres, Marie Prevost Norma Shearer and Sophie Tucker – household names then, but faded memory now.
Between January 1st 1920 and September 27th 1927 Warners released 133 movies, an average of over 19 per year – a breathtaking output, particularly since between March 1918 and November 1919 their releases had numbered only four. On January 1, 1920 Warners released The Lost City, a 15-part African serial, and by August 1921 released their most expensive movie to date, School Days costing $133.000 grossing $578,000 worldwide but the only one to make a profit in 1921.
The American cat’s (competition) absence during World War I had enabled aspiring Warners mice to release their first nationally syndicated film, My Four Years In Germany. (1918), based on a popular book by former ambassador James W. Gerard. This and other movie successes like A Dangerous Adventure (costing an astronomical $175,000) written by Sam and directed by Jack, meant greater investment from their bankers. They formally established Warner Bros. Pictures Incorporated by April 4, 1923.