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The evil Warner brother

Warner Bros. was founded by four brothers: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack. Jack was the evil one.

Jack Warner
Press photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I grew up thinking of the Warner Brothers as Yakko, Wakko, and Dot thanks to the 1990s TV show Animaniacs, but the famous film, television, and animation studio was actually founded by four brothers back in 1923. The three older brothers – Harry, Albert, and Sam – had started out as movie theatre owners, but soon moved into film production and distribution, by which point their youngest brother Jack had joined in the family business.

Now, I am one of four brothers myself, so I know how difficult it is for siblings to agree on anything. Warner Bros. was at the forefront of film history, but behind the scenes the brothers’ disagreements were legendary. Sam and Harry argued over whether they should pursue synchronised sound in their films; when Harry finally relented Warner Bros. made The Jazz Singer and a ridiculous amount of money. Sam did not live to see its success – he died the day before opening night.

Jack was the most ruthless of the family. That ruthlessness served the studio well but it also got him a reputation as a mean boss. He liked to fire actors, including some of the studio’s most popular stars: Rin Tin Tin the dog, for example, because Jack believed that dogs wouldn’t work in talking films, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., because he refused to take a pay cut during the Great Depression.

He wasn’t all bad – he was a fervent anti-Nazi before and during World War II – but he was also a friendly witness for the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, accusing several of his former screenwriters of being communists and effectively ending their careers. When the studio’s film Casablanca won the 1943 Academy Award for Best Picture Jack rushed onto the stage to accept the award while his brothers blocked the producer (and actual winner) from leaving his seat. Classy, Warners, real classy.

Despite the studio’s clear successes (The Jazz Singer, Casablanca, Captain Blood, Little Caesar) Jack also made some awful missteps: he once sold the entire Warner Bros. pre-1950s back catalogue for a paltry $21 million, and all the pre-1948 Warner Bros. cartoons for $1.2 million – believing, apparently, that his company made Micky Mouse.

Does all of this make him evil? Well, so far this is pretty much par for the course in classic Hollywood. What made Jack Warner the evil Warner brother was the 1956 betrayal of his siblings. In that year, all of the surviving Warner brothers agreed to finally sell their studio – it was losing money and they wanted out. Except for Jack. While he told them that he was selling too, he secretly joined a syndicate – a front company which bought all his brothers’ shares.

Once the deal was finalised, Jack revealed his deception and appointed himself president. His oldest brother Harry was so furious that he never spoke to Jack again; when Harry died, Jack skipped his funeral and went on vacation instead.

Categories: Arts & recreation History Modern history North & Central America Places Screen & stage

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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