Issue: Spring 2013

Warner Bros: 90 Years of Innovation

by Brittany Knupper

Warner Bros. is one of Hollywood’s great success stories—overcoming insurmountable odds, adapting with changing times and revolutionizing an industry with sound and color along the way. The industriousness of the four Warner brothers, Polish immigrants escaping religious persecution, changed Hollywood forever.

1903–25: Rin Tin Tin and the Founding of Warner Bros.

The four founding Warner brothers, Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack entered a fledgling new business when they acquired a movie projector and began showing “flickers” in the mining towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, opening their first theater New Castle Pennsylvania in 1903. They founded the Duquesne Amusement & Supply Company to distribute films and, by the start of World War I, they began producing films.  In 1918, the brothers opened Warner Bros. studio on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood and released their first nationally syndicated film, My Four Years in Germany. On April 4, 1923 they formally incorporated as Warner Brother Pictures, Inc.

The first important deal for the company was the acquisition of the rights to the 1919 Broadway play The Gold Diggers by David Belasco. However, what really put Warner Bros. on the Hollywood map was canine legend Rin Tin Tin. Brought from France after World War I by an American soldier, Rin Tin Tin debuted in the feature Where the North Begins (1923). The movie was so successful that Jack Warner agreed to sign the dog to star in more films for a whopping $1,000 per week.

Still, despite the success of Rin Tin Tin, Warners struggled to achieve star power. But when Sam and Jack offered Broadway actor John Barrymore the lead role in Beau Brummel (1924) the film’s huge success resulted in a generous long-term contract for Barrymore. By the end of 1924, Warner Bros. was arguably the most successful independent studio in Hollywood, but it still competed with “The Big Three” studios: First National, Paramount Pictures, and MGM.

1925-35: “Talkies”

In 1925, at Sam’s urging, the Warners expanded their operations by adding synchronized sound, pioneering the process. Harry initially opposed it, famously wondering “Who the heck wants to hear actors talk?” But in 1926, after suffering major monetary losses, Harry agreed to the use of synchronized sound—as long as it was for background music only.  The success of Don Juan, (the first feature-length film with synchronized Vitaphone sound effects and a musical soundtrack) encouraged the making of the groundbreaking The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. This revolutionized the industry and marked the beginning of the “talkies” era and the end of silent films.

Thanks to the success of The Jazz Singer, Warner Bros. became one of the top studios in Hollywood. They left “Poverty Row” (now the location of Sunset Bronson Studios) acquired land and built a large studio in Burbank.

Warner Bros. lifted audiences’ spirits during the Great Depression with On With The Show (1929), the first all-color, all-talking feature and The Gold Diggers of Broadway which was so popular it played in theatres until 1939. The success of these two color pictures caused a color revolution (just as the first all-talkie had created for sound.)

1930: Birth of Warner's Cartoons

1930 saw the birth of another game changer for Warner Bros—animation. Warner’s cartoon unit had its roots in the independent Harman and Ising studio. In 1931, the first “Looney Tunes” cartoon was produced ( Sinkin’ in the Bathtub), starring “Bosko” which lead to a sister series, “ Merry Melodies.” By the end of the decade a new production team was formed, consisting of Fritz Freleng, Tex Avery, Robert Clampett and Chuck Jones. They developed a fast-paced, irreverent style that made their cartoons immensely popular worldwide. In 1936 the world met Porky Pig and he became Warner Bros. Cartoons’ first bona fide star. In addition to Porky, Warner Bros. cartoon characters Daffy Duck (who debuted in the 1937 short Porky’s Duck Hunt) and Bugs Bunny (who debuted in the 1940 short A Wild Hare) also achieved star power. By 1942, Warner Bros. Cartoons had surpassed Walt Disney Studios as the most successful producer of animated shorts in the United States.

1931–1935: The “Gangster Studio”

With an ebb in the popularity of musicals, Warner Bros. turned to more socially realistic story lines, “torn from the headlines” pictures that many in the media said glorified gangsters. With box office hits like Little Ceasar and The Public Enemy, Warner Bros. soon became known as a “gangster studio.”  The Public Enemy launched the career of one of Hollywood’s most notorious gangsters, James Cagney, who became the studio’s new top star.

In 1933, relief for the studio came after Franklin D. Roosevelt stimulated the economy with the New Deal. Also in that year, Harry Warner brought newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan films into the Warner Bros. fold. Hearst had been struggling to help his long standing mistress, Marion Davies, achieve box office success. Thanks to his partnership with Hearst, Warner signed Davies to a studio contract and received generous funding from Hearst to build their biggest sound stage, Stage 16. It would later go on to be used for major blockbusters like Jurassic Park and The Perfect Storm.

The studio, one of the most prolific producers of Pre-Code pictures, had a lot of trouble with what the censors considered indecency.  To avoid confrontation,  Warner Bros. turned out a number of historical pictures like The Petrified Forest . Following its success, Jack Warner signed Humphrey Bogart to a studio contract. Harry, however, did not think Bogart was star material and only cast him in infrequent roles as a villain opposite either James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson over the next five years.

Once the Hayes Code was enforced, the studio abandoned their “gangster” films and produced more moralistic, idealized pictures. During this time, Bette Davis, who in spite of her tumultuous working relationship with Jack Warner,  had arguably become the studio’s top star counting Dark Victory, The Old Maid, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, to name a few of her 38 film roles from 1932-1940. 

World War II

Among its WWII films were , Now Voyager, Yankee Doodle Dandy (all 1942), and Mission to Moscow (1943). At the premiere of Yankee Doodle Dandy, audiences purchased $15.6 million in war bonds. To honor the studio’s contribution to the war effort, a Liberty Ship was named after the brothers’ father, Benjamin Warner. In 1944 Jack Warner signed newly released MGM actress Joan Crawford. Her first starring role at the studio was 1945’s Mildred Pierce, which revived her career and earned her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Changing Hands

The record attendance figures of the World War II years made Warner Bros. extremely profitable. The gritty Warner image of the 1930s gave way to a glossier look, especially in women’s pictures starring Davis and Crawford. The 1940s also saw the rise of Bogart. In the post-war years, Warner Bros. continued to create new stars, like Lauren Bacall and Doris Day.

In the early 1950s, the threat of television had grown, but Warner Bros. rebounded by specializing in adaptations of popular plays like The Bad Seed (1956), No Time for Sergeants (1958), and Gypsy (1962). In 1962 Warner paid an unprecedented $5.5 million for the film rights to the Broadway musical My Fair Lady. With its success of these films and their accompanying soundtracks, Warner Bros. Records became a profitable subsidiary.  Another Broadway play adaptation, Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf (1966), won them five Oscars, including Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor, and was a huge box office success.

In November 1966, Jack Warner gave in to advancing age and the changing times, selling control to Seven Arts Productions. Although movie audiences were shrinking, Warner Bros. still believed in the drawing power of stars, signing co-production deals with the biggest names of the day, among them Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Barbara Streisand and Clint Eastwood, carrying the studio through the 1970s and 1980s. DC Comics was also a subsidiary of Warner Bros. allowing them to build film franchises around popular comic book characters like Superman and Batman.


In 1995, Warner Bros. launched The WB Network, targeting the teen demographic. Their early programming, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, helped bring The WB into the spotlight, along with popular animated children’s shows like The Animaniacs. In 2006, Warner Bros. and CBS joined forces and launched The CW Television Network. 

Meanwhile in 2001, Warner Bros. began releasing the film adaptations of the Harry Potter novels that have become the highest grossing film series of all time. In 2009, Warner Bros. became the first studio in history to gross more than $2 billion domestically in a single year. The studio also leases its various lots to fellow studios, television networks and independent projects. Shows like HBO’s True Blood use its outdoor set, nicknamed “the jungle,” as the setting for Merlotte’s Bar.  Friends, one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, called Warner Bros. home for 10 years.

You can see “the jungle,” visit the sets used to create Warners’ iconic film history, and current TV sitcoms at their famed Burbank studio. The two-and-a-half-hour VIP Studio Tour takes you through their famous sound stages and outdoor lots. You’ll visit Main Street and New York facades, “Central Perk,” from Friends, the automobile museum with all of the Batmobiles to date, and the mini cooper used by Michael Caine in Austin Powers: Goldmember.  At the Studio Museum you’ll see the original piano from Casablanca and costumes for stars Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, among others, and a whole floor devoted to the costumes and props of the Harry Potter universe.  A walk through their prop department will take you from the 1930’s to the present.

This year Warner Bros. celebrates its 90th birthday by continuing to lead the film industry with its innovation and resourcefulness.  It may no longer be within the city limits of Hollywood, but there’s no doubt that it has had a lasting impact on Hollywood and the entertainment industry.