We all know Warner Brothers as one of the major film studios that has produced thousands of pictures including Argo, The Dark Knight trilogy and the Harry Potter series. But, Warner Brothers has many subsidiary companies involved in television, interactive entertainment, animation, home video and music. Now known as Time Warner, Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. was once an independent and thriving production company started by four brothers named, you guessed it, Warner. So, how did four brothers from Pittsburgh break into the movie business in Hollywood and later become a major force in television with The WB and the CW television networks? Let’s find out.
The Warner brothers were actually four in number; Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack. Their real name was Wonskolaser, changed to Warner after the family immigrated to North America from Poland following the take-over by Russia of their home region. Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, the three older brothers (Jack was the youngest) got their hands on a movie projector and traveled around the mining towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, showing films to the miners. One of the first pictures they showed was The Great Train Robbery, the first motion picture to tell a definite story.
With the profits from their traveling movie show, in 1907 they converted a small store into a nickelodeon movie house in New Castle, Pennsylvania which they named the Cascade Theatre. The brothers did everything; sold the tickets, ran the hand-crank projector, and even got their sister, Rose, to play piano and sing songs during the intermissions. Within a year, the Warner brothers had opened two more theaters in New Castle. In a short amount of time they had acquired about 200 different film titles and began to distribute films around the Ohio River Valley under their newly formed company, the Duquesne Film Exchange. As business grew, they expanded their distribution network to include Norfolk, Virginia and Atlanta, Georgia.
Not satisfied just to show movies, or even distribute them, Harry Warner (the oldest) decided to get the brothers into the movie making business; a bold move for immigrant brothers from Poland. He established a film production company, which he called Warner Features, and the brothers were off to Hollywood. Their first full-scale picture premiered in 1918, a film called My Four Years in Germany, which was based on the best-selling book by America’s German ambassador. The film grossed an amazing $1.5 million (around $30 million today).
Over the next decade, Warner Brothers expanded and established itself as a complete film company, showcasing both successful commercial and artistic properties. They produced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, and hired Fitzgerald to adapt his novel for the screen. They also produced Beau Brummel, which starred the great stage actor John Barrymore. In 1924, they created the world’s first animal superstar, Rin Tin Tin, whose popularity would always bring money into the studio. They also hired the famous German director Ernst Lubitsch as head director, and his movies The Marriage Circle and Kiss Me Again brought critical acclaim to the studio.
Despite all of these successes, the Warners were still unable to be seen as equals to the other Hollywood powerhouse studios. That all changed when they produced The Jazz Singer. Released in 1927 and starring Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer was the first “talking picture” to be released to the public, and was an instant blockbuster, playing to standing-room-only crowds throughout the country. The Warners quickly followed up with the first “all-talking” movie and their first “talking” gangster film, The Lights of New York. By late 1928, all of the other studios were scrambling to get in on the sound craze, and the Warner Brothers were well out in front.
Warner Brother’s television story began in 1955 when the studio decided that they had to be in the new arena and debuted a show called Warner Bros. Presents; which featured a rotating series of shows based on three of the studio’s film successes, Kings Row, Casablanca and Cheyenne. The company expanded Cheyenne into a one hour TV show and began the era of television Westerns with such later hits as Maverick, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Colt .45, and Lawman. By the 1960’s Warner Brothers television began producing a series of popular private detective shows beginning with 77 Sunset Strip, followed by Hawaiian Eye, Bourbon Street Beat and Surfside Six.
By the 1970’s, Warner Brothers created another innovative concept when they were at the fore-front of a new genre of television programming–the mini-series. The studio produced some of television’s most-watched and most-honored productions, including Roots, The Thorn Birds, North & South and Alex Haley’s Queen. In the late 1980’s, Warner acquired entertainment powerhouse Lorimar Studios, a highly regarded production company that had created such Emmy Award-winning series as The Waltons and Dallas, as well as a number of other noteworthy series, including Knots Landing, Falcon Crest; Eight is Enough, Full House, and Family Matters. The new consolidated network went on to produce such giant hits as ER, Friends and The Drew Carey Show.
The 1990s were critical for the Studio, starting with the 1990 merger of Warner Communications, Inc. and Time Inc. to form Time Warner, Inc., one of the world’s largest communications and entertainment companies. In 1995, Time Warner launched The WB Network, finding a niche market in teenagers. The WB’s early programming included an abundance of teenage fare like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Dawson’s Creek, and One Tree Hill. The WB also helped launched the careers of such writer/producers as Joss Whedon, who was able to get Buffy on the air because the fledgling WB network was eager for innovative programming.
Two dramas produced by Spelling Television, 7th Heaven and Charmed also helped bring The WB into the spotlight, with Charmed lasting eight seasons and “7th Heaven” surviving eleven seasons and being the longest running family drama and longest running show for The WB. In 2006, Warner and CBS Paramount Television decided to close The WB and CBS’s UPN and jointly launch The CW Television Network.
So, the company that began one hundred years ago became a dominant force in the production of movie megahits and first-run syndicated programming. Adding to the innovations that Warner brought to light was the early adoption of the internet as a promotional tool and outlet for original content, and they led the development and the launch of both DVD format and now Blu-ray. Pretty amazing accomplishments for four Polish immigrant brothers who started with a movie projector in Pittsburgh.