Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (formerly Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.), commonly referred to as Warner Bros., is an American entertainment company headquartered in Burbank, California. A subsidiary of AT&T’s WarnerMedia, it is one of the “Big Six” major American film studios.
The company was initially founded in 1905 by Polish brothers Harry (1881–1958), Albert (1884–1967), Sam (1887-1927), and Jack (1892–1978) Warner (born Wonskolaser or Wonsal before Anglicization). Warner Bros was officially created in 1923.
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 MGM).
During the 30s, many of the studio’s employees were having problems with Jack Warner but considered Albert and Harry to be fair. Many Warners stars felt they should be paid more but Jack would veto wage increases and higher production costs, often suspending or firing people.
- April 29, 1918: My Four Years in Germany is an American silent war drama film that is notable as being the first film produced by the Warner Brothers. It was directed by William Nigh, later a director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and was based on the experiences of real life U. S. Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard as described in his book. The film was produced while World War I was still raging and is sometimes considered a propaganda film.
- April 4, 1923: Although initially founded in 1905, Warner Brothers Pictures, Incorporated officially formed.
- July 1, 1923: Rin Tin Tin, a dog brought from France after World War I by an American soldier, established the Warner brothers’ reputation. Rin Tin Tin’s first starring role was in the feature Where the North Begins (his third picture), which open on this date.
- September 22, 1923: Their first important deal had been the acquisition of the rights to Avery Hopwood’s 1919 Broadway play, The Gold Diggers. On this date, Warner Bros’ film version opened in the US.
- March 30, 1924: Broadway actor John Barrymore took the lead role in Beau Brummel, which opened on this date. The film was so successful that Barrymore was signed to a long-term contract.
Warner Bros. was a pioneer of films with synchronised sound (then known as “talking pictures” or “talkies”). In the early 1920s, Western Electric was developing both sound-on-film and sound-on-disc systems. Warner Bros acquired Western Electric’s Bell Laboratories in New York City in April 1925.
- August 5, 1926: Warner Bros. introduced their new sound system, Vitaphone, with the premiere of their silent feature Don Juan, which had been retrofitted with a symphonic musical score and sound effects. There was no spoken dialog.
- February 19, 1927: Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, went on general release. It did not recoup its costs.
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.
- October 5, 1927: Sam Warner died. As a result, the Warner brothers were not able to attend the premiere of The Jazz Singer the following day.
- October 6, 1927: The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson was released. The movie contains a very small amount of sound dialogue, but did feature sound segments of Jolson singing, and was a sensation, making the studio cash-rich. It signalled the beginning of the era of “talking pictures” and the twilight of the silent era.
- July 18, 1928: Lights of New York, the first all-talking feature, goes on general release. Due to its success, the movie industry converted entirely to sound almost overnight.
- September 13, 1928: In a bidding war with William Fox (Fox Film Corporation), Warner Bros. bought more First National shares. The success of The Jazz Singer had allowed the brothers to acquire the Stanley Corporation, a major theatre chain, which gave them Stanley’s one-third share in rival First National Pictures.
- July 13, 1929: On with the Show!, the first all-colour all-talking feature went on general release and caused a colour revolution.
Warner’s cartoon unit had its roots in the independent Harman & Ising studio, producing musical cartoons (Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies) for Leon Schlesinger, who sold them to Warner.
- April 19, 1930: Harman & Ising introduced their character, Bosko, in Sinkin’ in the Bathtub, Warners’ first cartoon short, and the first of the Looney Tunes series, which went on general release on this date. Bosko went on to appear in 39 Looney Tunes shorts
- January 25, 1931: The studio’s first gangster movie, Little Caesar (1931), starring Edward G. Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., went on general release and was very successful.
- May 15, 1931: The Public Enemy (1931) went on general release and made James Cagney arguably the studio’s new top star, leading Warner Bros. to start producing more gangster films.
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. In 1934, Harry officially purchased the Teddington Studios.
- February 19, 1932: The Man Who Played God (1932) went on general release, promoted as an example that studios could produce motion pictures of social and moral value without the oversight of non-industry agents. Following its success, Bette Davis became a top star.
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. Warner Bros. had a contract with Technicolor to produce two more pictures in that process.
- August 27, 1932: The first horror film in colour, Doctor X (1932), starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, went on general release.
- February 18, 1933: The last dramatic fiction film made using the two-colour Technicolor process, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, went on general release.
- March 11, 1933: hit musical 42nd Street went on general release. A very successful film, and others that followed (mostly directed by Busby Berkeley), saved the company from bankruptcy.
After Schlesinger parted company with Harman & Ising, he founded Leon Schlesinger Productions in 1933. Although Harman & Ising took the Bosko character to MGM, Schlesinger continued to produce Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons for Warner.
Porky Pig was the studio’s first animated star. Daffy Duck (who debuted in 1937’s Porky’s Duck Hunt), Elmer Fudd (1940-), Bugs Bunny (1940-), and Tweety (1942-) would also achieve star power. By 1942, the Schlesinger studio had surpassed Walt Disney Studios as the most successful producer of animated shorts.
- March 2, 1935: Porky Pig debuts in I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935).
- December 28, 1935: Errol Flynn swashbuckler, Captain Blood (1935) went on general release and made huge profits. By the end of 1935, people again tired of Warner Bros. musicals and the company shifted its focus to Errol Flynn swashbucklers.
By 1936, the contracts of musical and silent stars were not renewed, replaced by tough-talking, working-class types who better fit these pictures. The studio was one of the most prolific producers of Pre-Code pictures and had a lot of trouble with the censors once they started clamping down on what they considered indecency (around 1934).
The studio was forced to abandon this realistic approach in order to produce more moralistic, idealised pictures. The studio’s historical dramas, melodramas (or “women’s pictures”), swashbucklers, and adaptations of best-sellers avoided the censors. Unfortunately, many actors and actresses were not suited to the new trend and began to disappear.
In 1936, Humphrey Bogart was signed to a studio contract but he was not considered star material and he was cast in infrequent roles as a villain opposite either James Cagney or Edward G Robinson over the next five years.
Bette Davis, by now arguably the studio’s top star and even dubbed “The Fifth Warner Brother”, was unhappy with her roles. She travelled to England and tried to break her contract. Davis lost the lawsuit and returned to America.
During the Second World War, the studio made Casablanca, Now, Voyager, Yankee Doodle Dandy (all 1942), This Is the Army, and Mission to Moscow (both 1943). By the middle of 1943, however, audiences had tired of war films, but Warner continued to produce them, losing money.
In 1943, newly released MGM actress Joan Crawford, a former top star who found her career fading, was signed up. Crawford’s first role with the studio was in 1944’s Hollywood Canteen. but her first starring role at the studio, in the title role as Mildred Pierce (1945), revived her career and earned her an Oscar for Best Actress
In 1944, Schlesinger sold his animation studio to Warner Bros., who continued to operate it as Warner Bros. Cartoons, Inc. until 1963.
- January 5, 1948, Warner offered the first colour newsreel, covering the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl Game.
In 1948, Bette Davis, still their top actress and now hostile to Jack, became a big problem after she and others left the studio after completing the film Beyond the Forest.
- June 13, 1952: Carson City, starring Randolph Scott was the studio’s first made in “Warnercolor”, the studio’s name for Eastmancolor, which had replaced Technicolor.
In the early 1950s, the threat of television emerged. In 1953, Jack decided to copy United Artists successful 3D film Bwana Devil, releasing his own 3D films beginning with House of Wax. However, 3D films soon lost their appeal among moviegoers.
- April 25, 1953: Warner’s first 3D movie and the first in colour, horror film House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price, opened in cinemas.
- September 26, 1953: The first Warner Bros. cartoon short produced in 3D, Lumber Jack-Rabbit, featuring Bugs Bunny is released. Jack Warner ordered the animation unit to be closed, believing that all cartoons hence would be produced in the 3D process but he eventually relented and reopened the cartoon studio.
- March 21, 1955: The studio engaged in television through the successful Warner Bros. Television unit run by Jack Warner’s son-in-law. Warner Bros. Television provided ABC with a weekly show, Warner Bros. Presents. It was not a success.
- September 20, 1955: The studio’s next television effort was first broadcast in the form of the first hour-long TV western, Cheyenne (1955-1963) starring Clint Walker, based on the 1947 film of the same name. Two episodes were placed together for feature film Gold, Glory and Custer (1964), released outside the United States. In the tradition of its B movies, the studio followed up with a series of rapidly produced popular Westerns, such as the critically lauded Maverick. The success of these series helped to make up for losses in the film business. As a result, Jack decided to emphasise television production.
- February 13, 1956: The studio was losing money so Jack Warner sold the rights to all of his pre-1950 films to Associated Artists Productions (which merged with United Artists Television in 1958, and was subsequently acquired by Turner Broadcasting System in early 1986 as part of a failed takeover of MGM/UA by Ted Turner).
In May 1956, the brothers announced they were putting Warner Bros. on the market. Jack secretly organised a syndicate to purchase 90% of the stock. After the three brothers sold, Jack—through his under-the-table deal— bought back all his stock. Shortly after the deal was completed in July, Jack—now the company’s largest stockholder—appointed himself its new president. Shortly after the deal closed, Jack announced the company and its subsidiaries would be “directed more vigorously to the acquisition of the most important story properties, talents, and to the production of the finest motion pictures possible.”
- September 22, 1957: Maverick, an American Western television series with comedic overtones originally starring James Garner first aired.
Within a few years, the studio provoked hostility among their TV stars such as Clint Walker and James Garner, who sued over a contract dispute and won. Jack was angered by their perceived ingratitude, who evidently showed more independence than film actors, deepening his contempt for the new medium. Many of Warner’s television stars appeared in the casts of Warner’s cinema releases. In 1963 a court decision would force Warner’s to end contracts with their television stars, engaging them for specific series or film roles.
While he slowly recovered from a car crash that occurred while vacationing in France in 1958, Jack returned to the studio and made sure his name was featured in studio press releases.
- March 19, 1958: The studio launched Warner Bros. Records. Warner Bros. was already the owner of extensive music-publishing holdings, whose tunes had appeared in countless cartoons and television shows. Initially, the label released recordings made by their television stars—whether they could sing or not—and records based on television soundtracks.
- July 25, 1958: Harry Warner died.
From 1961-63, the studio’s annual net profit was a little over $7 million. Warner paid an unprecedented $5.5 million for the film rights to the Broadway musical My Fair Lady in February 1962. In 1963, the studio’s net profit dropped to $3.7 million. By the mid-1960s, motion picture production was in decline. Few studio films were made in favour of co-productions (for which Warner provided facilities, money and distribution), and pickups of independent pictures.
In 1963, Warner agreed to a “rescue takeover” of Frank Sinatra‘s Reprise Records, giving Sinatra US$1.5 million and part ownership of Warner Bros. Records. In 1964, upon seeing the profits record companies made from Warner film music, Warner decided to claim ownership of the studio’s film soundtracks but, in its first eighteen months, Warner Bros. Records lost around $2 million.
- December 25, 1964: My Fair Lady (1964) went on general release. With its success, as well as its soundtrack, Warner Bros. Records became a profitable subsidiary.
- June 22, 1966: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was released and was a huge success.
In November 1966, Jack gave in to changing times, selling control of the studio and music business to Seven Arts Productions for $32 million. The company, was renamed Warner Bros.-Seven Arts.
- October 25, 1967: The musical comedy-drama, Camelot (1967) was released. When it failed at the box office, Jack Warner gave up his position as president.
With the 1967 success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Warner Bros. was again profitable.
From 1971 until the end of 1987, Warner’s international distribution operations were a joint venture with Columbia Pictures. In some countries, this joint venture distributed films from other companies (such as EMI Films and Cannon Films in the UK).
In 1972, Warner Communications was formed. It was the parent company for Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner Music Group and, during 1984, Turner Broadcasting System. It also owned DC Comics and Mad magazine. Warner made (and later lost) considerable profits with Atari, Inc., which it owned from 1976 to 1984.
Warner ended the venture with Columbia Pictures in 1988 and partnered with Walt Disney Pictures.
- January 11, 1989: Warner Communications acquired Lorimar-Telepictures and gained control of the former MGM studio lot in Culver City, and that same year, Sony bought Columbia Pictures.
- March 4, 1989: Warner Communications and Time Inc. were merged as announced two years earlier. The merger was almost derailed when Paramount Communications (formerly Gulf+Western, later sold to Viacom), launched a hostile takeover bid for Time Inc. Paramount responded with a lawsuit to break up the merger. Paramount lost and the merger proceeded.
- January 10, 1990: Time Warner is formed, becoming WarnerMedia after its 2018 acquisition by AT&T. The Warner Communications name was still credited on releases from Elektra Records and its sister labels until 2004.
In 1992, Warner Bros. Family Entertainment was established to produce various family-oriented films.
Warner’s joint venture with Walt Disney Pictures lasted until 1993, when Disney created Buena Vista International.
- November 2, 1993: The WB Television Network was launched, seeking a niche market in teenagers.
In 1998, Warner Bros. celebrated its 75th anniversary. The same year, Warner obtained rights to the Harry Potter novels and released feature film adaptations of the first in 2001.