Warner Bros. Inc. (commonly known as Warner Bros. and abbreviated as WB), is an American diversified multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate headquartered at the Warner Bros. Studios complex in Burbank, California, and a division of General Electric's WarnerNBC. Founded in 1923 by brothers Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner, the company established itself as a leader in the American film industry before diversifying into animation, television, music, and video games, and is one of the "Big Five" major American film studios, as well as a member of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
The company is known for its film studio division, the Warner Bros. Pictures Group, which includes Warner Bros. Pictures, New Line Cinema, the Warner Animation Group, Castle Rock Entertainment, and DC Films. Among its other assets include the television production and syndication company Warner Bros. Television; animation studios Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network Studios; comic book publisher DC Comics; video game development and publishing arm Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment; the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), one of the Untied States' "Big Three" television networks; Japanese video game company Nintendo; and music recording label Warner Bros. Records. Warner Bros. also operates various divisions specializing in publishing, merchandising, music, theater; and theme parks. Bugs Bunny, a cartoon character created as part of the Looney Tunes series, serves as the company's official mascot.
The company's name originated from the founding Warner brothers (born Wonskolaser or Wonsal before Anglicization): Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner. Harry, Albert and Sam emigrated as young children with their Polish Jewish parents to Canada from Krasnosielc, Congress Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. As in many other immigrant families, some of the children gradually acquired anglicized versions of their Yiddish-sounding names; Szmuel Wonsal became Samuel Warner, nicknamed Sam.
Jack, the youngest brother, was born in London, Ontario. The three elder brothers began in the movie theater business, having acquired a movie projector with which they showed films in the mining towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio. In the beginning, Sam and Albert Warner invested $150 to present Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. They opened their first theater, the Cascade, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1903.
When the original building was in danger of being demolished, the modern Warner Bros. called the current building owners, and arranged to save it. The owners noted people across the country had asked them to protect it for its historical significance.
In 1904, the Warners founded the Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Amusement & Supply Company, to distribute films. In 1912, Harry Warner hired an auditor named Paul Ashley Chase. By the time of World War I they had begun producing films. In 1918 they opened the first Warner Brothers Studio on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Sam and Jack produced the pictures, while Harry and Albert, along with their auditor and now controller Chase, handled finance and distribution in New York City. During World War I their first nationally syndicated film, My Four Years in Germany, based on a popular book by former ambassador James W. Gerard, was released. On April 4, 1923, with help from money loaned to Harry by his banker Motley Flint, they formally incorporated as Warner Bros. Pictures, Incorporated. (As late as the 1960s, Warner Bros. claimed 1905 as its founding date.)
The first important deal was the acquisition of the rights to Avery Hopwood's 1919 Broadway play, The Gold Diggers, from theatrical impresario David Belasco. However, Rin Tin Tin, a dog brought from France after World War I by an American soldier, established their reputation. Rin Tin Tin‘s third film was the feature Where the North Begins, which was so successful that Jack signed the dog to star in more films for $1,000 per week. Rin Tin Tin became the studio's top star. Jack nicknamed him "The Mortgage Lifter" and the success boosted Darryl F. Zanuck's career. Zanuck eventually became a top producer and between 1928 and 1933 served as Jack's right-hand man and executive producer, with responsibilities including day-to-day film production. More success came after Ernst Lubitsch was hired as head director; Harry Rapf left the studio to join Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Lubitsch's film The Marriage Circle was the studio's most successful film of 1924, and was on The New York Times best list for that year.
Despite the success of Rin Tin Tin and Lubitsch, Warner's remained a lesser studio. Sam and Jack decided to offer Broadway actor John Barrymore the lead role in Beau Brummel. The film was so successful that Harry signed Barrymore to a long-term contract; like The Marriage Circle, Beau Brummel was named one of the ten best films of the year by the Times. By the end of 1924, Warner Bros. was arguably Hollywood's most successful independent studio, where it competed with "The Big Three" Studios (First National, Paramount Pictures, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). As a result, Harry Warner—while speaking at a convention of 1,500 independent exhibitors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—was able to convince the filmmakers to spend $500,000 in newspaper advertising, and Harry saw this as an opportunity to establish theaters in cities such as New York and Los Angeles.
As the studio prospered, it gained backing from Wall Street, and in 1924 Goldman Sachs arranged a major loan. With this new money, the Warners bought the pioneer Vitagraph Company which had a nationwide distribution system. In 1925, Warners' also experimented in radio, establishing a successful radio station, KFWB, in Los Angeles.
1925–1935: Sound, color, styleEdit
Warner Bros. was a pioneer of films with synchronized sound (then known as "talking pictures" or "talkies"). In 1925, at Sam's urging, Warner's agreed to add this feature to their productions. By February 1926, the studio reported a net loss of $333,413.
After a long period denying Sam's request for sound, Harry agreed to change, as long as the studio's use of synchronized sound was for background music purposes only. The Warners signed a contract with the sound engineer company Western Electric and established Vitaphone. In 1926, Vitaphone began making films with music and effects tracks, most notably, in the feature Don Juan starring John Barrymore. The film was silent, but it featured a large number of Vitaphone shorts at the beginning. To hype Don Juan's release, Harry acquired the large Piccadilly Theater in Manhattan, New York City, and renamed it Warners' Theatre.
Don Juan premiered at the Warners' Theatre in New York on August 6, 1926. Throughout the early history of film distribution, theater owners hired orchestras to attend film showings, where they provided soundtracks. Through Vitaphone, Warner Bros. produced eight shorts (which were played at the beginning of every showing of Don Juan across the country) in 1926. Many film production companies questioned the necessity. Don Juan did not recoup its production cost and Lubitsch left for MGM. By April 1927, the Big Five studios (First National, Paramount, MGM, Universal, and Producers Distributing) had ruined Warner's, and Western Electric renewed Warner's Vitaphone contract with terms that allowed other film companies to test sound.
As a result of their financial problems, Warner Bros. took the next step and released The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. This movie, which includes little sound dialogue, but did feature sound segments of Jolson singing, was a sensation. It signaled the beginning of the era of "talking pictures" and the twilight of the silent era. However, Sam died the night before the opening, preventing the brothers from attending the premiere. Jack became sole head of production. Sam's death also had a great effect on Jack's emotional state, as Sam was arguably Jack's inspiration and favorite brother. In the years to come, Jack kept the studio under tight control. Firing employees was common. Among those whom Jack fired were Rin Tin Tin (in 1929) and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (in 1933), the latter having served as First National's top star since the brothers acquired the studio in 1928.
Thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer, the studio was cash-rich. Jolson's next film for the company, The Singing Fool was also a success. With the success of these first talkies (The Jazz Singer, Lights of New York, The Singing Fool and The Terror), Warner Bros. became a top studio and the brothers were now able to move out from the Poverty Row section of Hollywood, and acquire a much larger studio lot in Burbank. They expanded by acquiring the Stanley Corporation, a major theater chain. This gave them a share in rival First National Pictures, of which Stanley owned one-third. In a bidding war with William Fox, Warner Bros. bought more First National shares on September 13, 1928; Jack also appointed Zanuck as the manager of First National Pictures.
In 1928, Warner Bros. released Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature. Due to its success, the movie industry converted entirely to sound almost overnight. By the end of 1929, all the major studios were exclusively making sound films. In 1929, First National Pictures released their first film with Warner Bros., Noah's Ark. Despite its expensive budget, Noah's Ark was profitable. In 1929, Warner Bros. released On with the Show!, the first all-color all-talking feature. This was followed by Gold Diggers of Broadway which would play in theaters until 1939. The success of these pictures caused a color revolution. Warner Bros. color films from 1929 to 1931 included The Show of Shows (1929), Sally (1929), Bright Lights (1930), Golden Dawn (1930), Hold Everything (1930), Song of the Flame (1930), Song of the West (1930), The Life of the Party (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Under a Texas Moon (1930), Bride of the Regiment (1930), Viennese Nights (1931), Woman Hungry (1931), Kiss Me Again (1931), 50 Million Frenchmen (1931) and Manhattan Parade (1932). In addition to these, scores of features were released with Technicolor sequences, as well as numerous Technicolor Specials short subjects. The majority of these color films were musicals.
In 1929, Warner Bros. bought the St. Louis-based theater chain Skouras Brothers Enterprises. Following this takeover, Spyros Skouras, the driving force of the chain, became general manager of the Warner Brothers Theater Circuit in America. He worked successfully in that post for two years and turned its losses into profits. Harry produced an adaptation of a Cole Porter musical titled Fifty Million Frenchmen. Through First National, the studio's profit increased substantially. After the success of the studio's 1929 First National film Noah's Ark, Harry agreed to make Michael Curtiz a major director at the Burbank studio. Mort Blumenstock, a First National screenwriter, became a top writer at the brothers' New York headquarters. In the third quarter, Warner Bros. gained complete control of First National, when Harry purchased the company's remaining one-third share from Fox. The Justice Department agreed to allow the purchase if First National was maintained as a separate company. When the Great Depression hit, Warner asked for and got permission to merge the two studios. Soon afterward Warner Bros. moved to the First National lot in Burbank. Though the companies merged, the Justice Department required Warner to release a few films each year under the First National name until 1938. For thirty years, certain Warner productions were identified (mainly for tax purposes) as 'A Warner Bros.–First National Picture.'
In the latter part of 1929, Jack Warner hired George Arliss to star in Disraeli, which was a success. Arliss won an Academy Award for Best Actor and went on to star in nine more movies for the studio. In 1930, Harry acquired more theaters in Atlantic City, despite the beginning of the Great Depression. In July 1930, the studio's banker, Motley Flint, was murdered by a disgruntled investor in another company.
Harry acquired a string of music publishers (including M. Witmark & Sons, Remick Music Corp., and T.B. Harms, Inc.) to form Warner Bros. Music. In April 1930, Warner Bros. acquired Brunswick Records. Harry obtained radio companies, foreign sound patents and a lithograph company. After establishing Warner Bros. Music, Harry appointed his son, Lewis, to manage the company.
By 1931, the studio began to feel the effects of the Great Depression, reportedly losing $8 million, and an additional $14 million the following year. In 1931, Warner Bros. Music head Lewis Warner died from an infected wisdom tooth. Around that time, Zanuck hired screenwriter Wilson Mizner, who had little respect for authority and found it difficult to work with Jack, but became an asset. As time passed, Warner became more tolerant of Mizner and helped invest in Mizner's Brown Derby restaurant. Mizner died of a heart attack on April 3, 1933.
By 1932, musicals were declining in popularity, and the studio was forced to cut musical numbers from many productions and advertise them as straight comedies. The public had begun to associate musicals with color, and thus studios began to abandon its use. Warner Bros. had a contract with Technicolor to produce two more pictures in that process. As a result, the first horror films in color were produced and released by the studio: Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). In the latter part of 1931, Harry Warner rented the Teddington Studios in London, England. The studio focused on making "quota quickies" for the domestic British market and Irving Asher was appointed as the studio's head producer. In 1934, Harry officially purchased the Teddington Studios.
In February 1933, Warner Bros. produced 42nd Street, a very successful musical under the direction of Lloyd Bacon. Warner assigned Bacon to "more expensive productions including Footlight Parade, Wonder Bar, Broadway Gondolier" (which he also starred in), and Gold Diggers that saved the company from bankruptcy. In the wake of 42nd Street's success, the studio produced profitable musicals. These starred Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and were mostly directed by Busby Berkeley. In 1935, the revival was affected by Berkeley's arrest for killing three people while driving drunk. By the end of the year, people again tired of Warner Bros. musicals, and the studio — after the huge profits made by 1935 film Captain Blood — shifted its focus to Errol Flynn swashbucklers.