Jack Leonard "J.L." Warner (August 2, 1892 – September 9, 1978), born Jacob Warner in London, Ontario, Canada, was the president and driving force behind the successful development of Warner Brothers Studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Warner's 45-year career was lengthier than that of any other traditional Hollywood studio mogul.
As co-head of production at Warner Bros. Studios, he worked with his brother, Sam Warner, to procure the technology for the film industry's first talking picture. After Sam's death, Jack clashed with his surviving older brothers, Harry and Albert Warner. He assumed exclusive control of the film production company in the 1950s, when he secretly purchased his brothers' shares in the business after convincing them to participate in a joint sale of stocks.
Although Warner was feared by many of his employees and inspired ridicule with his uneven attempts at humor, he earned respect for his shrewd instincts and toughmindedness. He recruited many of Warner Bros.' top stars and promoted the hard-edged social dramas for which the studio became known. Given to quick decision making, Warner once commented, "If I'm right fifty-one percent of the time, I'm ahead of the game."
Throughout his career, he was viewed as a contradictory and enigmatic figure. Although he was a staunch Republican, Warner encouraged film projects that promoted the agenda of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. He speedily grasped the threat posed by European fascism and criticized Nazi Germany well before America's involvement in World War II. During the postwar era, however, Warner supported an anti-Communist crusade that culminated in the "blacklisting" of Hollywood directors, actors, screenwriters, and technicians. Despite his controversial public image, Warner remained a force in the motion picture industry until his retirement in the early 1970s.
Benjamin Warner's decision to move to Canada in the early 1890s was inspired by a friend's advice that he could make an excellent living bartering tin wares with trappers in exchange for furs. In Canada, two more children were born, including Jack. After two arduous years in Canada, Benjamin and Pearl Warner returned to Baltimore, bringing along their growing family. In 1896, the Warners relocated to Youngstown, Ohio, following the lead of Harry Warner, who established a shoe repair shop in the heart of the emerging industrial town. Benjamin Warner worked with son Harry in the shoe repair shop, until he secured a loan to open a meat counter and grocery store in the city's downtown area. During this period, two more children "were added to the cramped quarters" of the Warner household.
Jack Warner, who spent much of his youth in Youngstown, observed in his autobiography that his experiences there molded his sensibilities. Warner wrote: "J. Edgar Hoover told me that Youngstown in those days was one of the toughest cities in America, and a gathering place for Sicilian thugs active in the Mafia. There was a murder or two almost every Saturday night in our neighborhood, and knives and brass knuckles were standard equipment for the young hotheads on the prowl." Warner claimed that he briefly belonged to a street gang based at Westlake's Crossing, a notorious neighborhood located just west of the city's downtown area. Meanwhile, he received his first taste of show business in the burgeoning steel town, singing at local theaters and forming a brief business partnership with another aspiring "song-and-dance man". During his brief career in vaudeville, he officially changed his name to Jack Leonard Warner. Jack's older brother, Sam, disapproved of these youthful pursuits. "Get out front where they pay the actors," Sam Warner advised Jack. "That's where the money is."
The enterprising brothers screened a well-used copy of The Great Train Robbery throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania before renting a vacant store in New Castle, Pennsylvania. This makeshift theatre, called the Bijou, was furnished with chairs borrowed from a local undertaker. Jack, who was still living in Youngstown at the time, arrived on weekends "to sing illustrated song-slides during reel changes". In 1906, the brothers purchased a small theater in New Castle, which they called the Cascade Movie Palace. They maintained the theater until moving into film distribution in 1907. That year, the Warner brothers established the Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Amusement Company, a distribution firm that proved lucrative until the advent of Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company (also known as the Edison Trust), which charged distributors exorbitant fees. In 1909, Harry agreed to bring Jack into the family business; he sent his younger brother to Norfolk, Virginia, where Jack assisted Sam in the operation of a second film exchange company. Later that year, the Warners sold the family business to the General Film Company for "$10,000 in cash, $12,000 in preferred stock, and payments over a four-year period for a total of $52,000".
Warner Bros. followed up the success of My Four Years in Germany with a popular serial titled The Tiger's Claw in 1919. That same year, the studio was less successful in its efforts to promote Open Your Eyes, a tract on the dangers of venereal disease that featured Jack Warner's sole screen appearance. During this period, the studio earned few profits, and in 1920, the Warners secured a bank loan to settle outstanding debts. Shortly thereafter, the Warners relocated their production studio from Culver City, California, to Hollywood, where they purchased a lot on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Bronson Avenue. The new location and upgraded facilities did not significantly improve the studio's image, which remained defined by its low-budget comedies and racy films on declining morality.
The studio discovered a trained German Shepherd named Rin Tin Tin in 1923. The canine made his debut in Where the North Begins, a film about an abandoned pup who is raised by wolves and befriends a fur trapper. According to one biographer, Jack Warner's initial doubts about the project were quelled when he met Rin Tin Tin, "who seemed to display more intelligence than some of the Warner comics." Rin Tin Tin proved to be the studio's most important commercial asset until the introduction of sound. Screenwriter Darryl F. Zanuck produced several scripts for Rin Tin Tin vehicles and, during one year, wrote more than half of the studio's features. Between 1928 and 1933, Zanuck served as Jack Warner's right-hand man and executive producer, a position whose responsibilities included the day-to-day production of films. Despite the success of Rin Tin Tin and other projects, however, Warner Bros. was unable to compete with Hollywood's "Big Three" – Paramount, Universal, and First National studios.
In 1925, the studio expanded its operations and acquired the Brooklyn-based theater company, Vitagraph. Later that year, Sam Warner urged his brother, Harry, to sign an agreement with Western Electric to develop a series of talking "shorts" using the newly developed Vitaphone technology. Sam died of pneumonia in 1927 (just before the premiere of the first feature-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer), and Jack became sole head of production. Sam's death left Jack unconsolable. One biographer writes, "Throughout his life, Jack had been warmed by Sam's sunshiny optimism, his thirst for excitement, his inventive mind, his gambling nature. Sam had also served as a buffer between Jack and his stern eldest brother, Harry. In the years to come, Jack ran the Warner Bros. Burbank studio with an iron hand. Following his brother's death, he became increasingly difficult to deal with and inspired the resentment of many of his employees.
As the family grieved over Sam's sudden passing, the success of The Jazz Singer helped establish Warner Bros. as a major studio. While Warner Bros. invested only $500,000 in the film, the studio reaped $3 million in profits. Hollywood's five major studios, which controlled most of the nation's movie theaters, initially attempted to block the growth of "talking pictures". In the face of such organized opposition, Warner Bros. produced 12 "talkies" in 1928 alone. The following year, the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Warner Bros. for "revolutionizing the industry with sound".
During this period, Warner took an active role in recruiting talent. To furnish Warner Bros. with much needed "star power", he raided contract players from rival studios, in some cases offering to double their salaries. This strategy yielded three leading stars from Paramount Studios – William Powell, Kay Francis, and Ruth Chatterton. In 1929, Warner persuaded British stage and screen actor George Arliss to play the title role in a remake of the 1921 United Artists film, Disraeli, a project that turned out to be a box-office hit. Then, in 1930, he spotted future stars James Cagney, Joan Blondell, and Frank McHugh in the cast of a New York play called Penny Arcade. Although Cagney turned out to be Warner's greatest prize, he was also the studio executive's biggest professional challenge. During his frequent arguments with Warner, Cagney often resorted to screaming the Yiddish obscenities he learned during his upbringing in the Hell's Kitchen district of New York City. According to a 1937 Fortune magazine article, Warner's most intense contract disputes involved Cagney, "who got sick of being typed as a girl-hitting mick and of making five pictures a year instead of four."
The studio's executive producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, resigned during a contract dispute with Harry Warner in 1933. According to a 1933 letter Jack Warner wrote to the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America Will H. Hays, Zanuck called for a higher salary and, "indicated his desire to raise the salaries of the actors and personnel in the motion pictures we were producing." That year, Zanuck established 20th Century Studios, which merged with Fox Film Corporation in 1935. Longtime director for the studio, Hal B. Wallis, took over as the studio's executive producer. Warner, however, denied Wallis the sweeping powers enjoyed by Zanuck, and the result was a decentralization of creative and administrative control that often created confusion at the studio. Under the new system, each picture was assigned a supervisor who was usually plucked from the ranks of the studio's screenwriters. Although Warner Bros. maintained a high rate of production throughout the 1930s, some pictures showed an uneven quality that reflected "not only the difficulty of shifting to a supervisory system but also the consequences of dispersing authority into the creative ranks".
Meanwhile, Jack Warner's role in production became somewhat limited. After acquiring a creative property, he often had little to do with a film's production until it was ready for preview. Nevertheless, Warner could be heavyhanded in his dealings with employees, and he was "merciless in his firings." Film director Gottfried Reinhardt claimed that Warner "derived pleasure" from humiliating subordinates. "Harry Cohn was a sonofabitch," Reinhardt said, "but he did it for business; he was not a sadist. [Louis B.] Mayer could be a monster, but he was not mean for the sake of meanness. Jack was."
Warner's management style frustrated many studio employees. Comedian Jack Benny, who once worked at Warner Bros., quipped, "Jack Warner would rather tell a bad joke than make a good movie;" Warner frequently clashed with actors and supposedly banned them from the studio's executive dining room, with the explanation, "I don't need to look at actors when I eat." The studio executive did, however, win the affection of a few film personalities. Among these was Bette Davis, one of the studio's leading stars, who once fled to England to secure release from her contract. In later years, Davis defended Warner against rumors of sexual impropriety when she wrote: "No lecherous boss was he! His sins lay elsewhere. He was the father. The power. The glory. And he was in business to make money." Davis revealed that, after the birth of her child, Warner's attitude toward her became warm and protective. "We became father and child, no question about it." she said. "He told me I didn't have to come back to work until I really felt like it. He was a thoughtful man. Not many nice things were said about him." Warner also earned the gratitude and affection of Errol Flynn. In 1935, the studio head personally selected Flynn for the title role of Captain Blood, even though Flynn was an unknown actor at the time. In 1936, following the success of another costume epic, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Warner tore up Flynn's contract and signed him to a long-term deal that doubled his weekly salary.
As the 1930s came to an end, both Jack and Harry Warner became increasingly alarmed over the rise of Nazism. As Bernard F. Dick observed, the Warners, "as sons of Polish Jews who fled their homeland because of anti-Semitic pogroms. . .had a personal interest in exposing Nazism." Moreover, the attraction to films critical of German militarism had a long history with the Warners that predated their production in 1918 of My Four Years in Germany. In 1917, while still in distribution, the Warners had secured the rights for War Brides, a film that featured Alla Nazimova as "a woman who kills herself rather than breed children for an unidentified country whose army looks suspiciously Teutonic."
Beyond this, Jack Warner was shaken by the 1936 murder of studio salesman Joe Kaufman, who was beaten to death by Nazi stormtroopers in Berlin. Warner later described the incident in the following terms: "Like many an outnumbered Jew he was trapped in an alley. They [Nazi hoodlums] hit him with fists and clubs and then kicked the life out of him with their boots and left him dying there." Hence, while other Hollywood studios sidestepped the issue, fearing domestic criticism and the loss of European markets, Warner Bros. produced films openly critical of Germany's fascist government. In 1939, the studio released Confessions of a Nazi Spy, starring Edward G. Robinson. The film project, which was recommended to Jack Warner by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, drew on the real-life experiences of agent Leon Turrou, who had worked as an undercover agent. Despite legal ramifications preventing the use of actual names, the studio aimed for an "aura of authenticity", and Hall Wallis initially recommended eliminating credits to give the film "the appearance of a newsreel." Upon its release, Confessions of a Nazi Spy created a firestorm. Critic Pare Lorentz wrote, "The Warner brothers have declared war on Germany with this one." The German ambassador responded by issuing a protest to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and German dictator Adolf Hitler, who screened the film at Berchtesgaden, was outraged and threatened to bomb Warner's French villa, theaters, and also kill his studio crew too. Meanwhile, the studio received stern warnings from U.S. lawmaker Martin Dies about defaming a "friendly country.
Initially, the studio bowed to pressure from the Roosevelt Administration, the Hays Office, and isolationist lawmakers to desist from similar projects. Jack Warner announced that the studio would release no more "propaganda pictures" and promptly ordered the shelving of several projects with an anti-Nazi theme. In time, however, Warner Bros. produced more films with anti-Nazi messages, including Underground and All Through the Night; Warner had also reportedly banned the use of the German language throughout the Warner Bros. Burbank studio as well. In 1940, the studio produced shorts that dramatically documented the devastation wrought by the German bombing raids on London. Meanwhile, the studio celebrated the exploits of the Canadian Air Force, with films such as Captains of the Clouds. In 1941, Warner also produced the successful, anti-German film Sergeant York.
In 1943, Warner, at the advice of President Roosevelt, produced a film adaption of the controversial book Mission to Moscow; a film intended to inspire public support for the uneasy military alliance the United States had with the Soviet Union. Later, while testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee on October 27, 1947, Warner dismissed Cold War allegations that the film was subversive, arguing that Mission to Moscow was produced "only to help a desperate war effort and not for posterity. After the film's lackluster release, the Republican National Committee accused Warner of releasing the film as "New Deal propaganda."
In line with the Warner brothers' early opposition to Nazism, Warner Bros. produced more pictures about the war than any other studio, covering every branch of the armed services. In addition, the studio produced patriotic musicals such as This is the Army and Yankee Doodle Dandy. At the close of the war, Jack Warner was drafted by the U.S. armed forces and made a lieutenant colonel.
During this period, Warner showed little foresight in his treatment of the studio's cartoon operation. Animated characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, while embraced by cartoon lovers, "were always stepchildren at Warner Bros." As biographer Bob Thomas wrote, "Jack Warner...considered cartoons no more than an extraneous service provided to exhibitors who wanted a full program for their customers." In 1953, during a rare meeting between the Warners and the studio's cartoon makers, Jack confessed that he didn't "even know where the hell the cartoon studio is", and Harry added, "The only thing I know is that we make Mickey Mouse," a reference to the flagship character of a competing company, Walt Disney Productions. Several years later, Jack sold all of the 400 cartoons Warner Bros. made before 1948 for $3,000 apiece. As Thomas noted, "They have since earned millions, but not for Warner Bros."
Jack Warner's tumultuous relationship with his brother, Harry, worsened in February 1956, when Harry learned of Jack's decision to sell the Warner Bros.' pre-1949 films to Associated Artists Productions (soon to merge with United Artists Television) for the modest sum of $21 million. "This is our heritage, what we worked all our lives to create, and now it is gone," Harry exclaimed, upon hearing of the deal. Things would also worsen between Jack and Harry around as Jack shortly afterwards took a long vacation in southern France. The breach between Jack and Harry widened later that year. In July of 1956, Jack, Harry, and Albert announced they were putting Warner Bros. on the market. Jack, however, secretly organized a syndicate that purchased control of the company. By the time Harry and Albert learned of their brother's dealings, it was too late. Jack, as the company's largest stockholder, appointed himself as the new company president. Shortly after the deal was closed, Jack Warner announced that 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". The two brothers had often argued, and earlier in the decade, studio employees claimed they saw Harry chase Jack through the studio with a lead pipe, shouting, "I'll get you for this, you son of a bitch" and threatening to kill him. This subterfuge, however, proved too much for Harry; he never spoke to Jack again. When Harry Warner died on July 27, 1958, Jack avoided the funeral and departed for his annual vacation at Cap d'Antibes. Asked to respond to his brother's death, Jack said, "I didn't give a shit about Harry." At the same time, Jack took pride in the fact that U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent him a letter of condolence.
In 1965, Warner surprised many industry observers when he purchased the rights to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee's searing play about a destructive marriage. From the beginning, the project was beset by controversy. Ernest Lehman's script, which was extremely faithful to Albee's play, stretched the U.S. film industry's Production Code to the limit. Jack Valenti, who just assumed leadership of the Motion Picture Association of America, recalled that a meeting with Warner and studio aide Ben Kalmenson left him "uneasy". "I was uncomfortable with the thought that this was just the beginning of an unsettling new era in film, in which we would lurch from crisis to crisis without any suitable solution in sight," Valenti wrote. Meanwhile, Lehman and the film's director, Mike Nichols, battled with studio executives and exhibitors who insisted that the film be shot in color rather than black and white. These controversies soon faded into the background. Upon its release, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was embraced by audiences and critics alike. It secured 13 nominations from the Academy and won the best-picture award for 1966.
In light of these achievements, Jack eventually got tired of making films, and sold a good large amount of his stock to Seven Arts Productions on November 14, 1966. Some observers believed that Ben Kalmenson, Warner Bros.' executive vice president, persuaded Warner to sell his stock so that Kalmenson could assume leadership of the studio. Warner, however, had personal reasons for seeking retirement. His wife, Ann, continually pressured him to "slow down", and the aging studio head felt a need to put his affairs in order. Warner sold his 1.6 million shares of studio stock shortly after producing the film adaptation of Lerner & Loewe's Camelot. The sale yielded him about $24 million, after capital gains taxes. Eight months after the sale, Warner quipped, "Who would ever have thought that a butcher boy from Youngstown, Ohio, would end up with twenty-four million smackers in his pocket?" At the time of the sale, Warner had earned the distinction of being the second chief to also serve as company president, after Columbia Pictures' Harry Cohn.
Warner's decision to sell came at a time when he was losing the formidable power that he once took for granted. He had already survived the dislocations of the 1950s, when other studio heads – including Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn – were pushed out by stockholders who "sought scapegoats for dwindling profits". Structural changes that occurred in the industry during this period ensured that studios would become "more important as backers of independent producers than as creators of their own films", a situation that left little room for the traditional movie mogul. By the mid 1960's, most of the film moguls from the Golden Age of Hollywood had died, and Warner-as noted from the 1993 television special Jack Warner: The Last Mogul- was regarded as "the last mogul" in Hollywood. Evidence of Warner's eroding control at Warner Bros. included his failure to block production of Bonnie and Clyde, a film project he initially "hated". Similarly, as producer of the film adaptation of Camelot, Warner was unable to persuade director Joshua Logan to cast Richard Burton and Julie Andrews in the leading roles. Instead, Logan selected Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, a move that contributed to the project's critical – and commercial – failure. Warner officially retired from his studio in 1969.
In the late 1950s, the elder Warner was almost killed in a car accident that left him in a coma for several days. On August 5, 1958, after an evening of baccarat at the Palm Beach Casino in Cannes, Warner's Alfa Romeo roadster swerved into the path of a coal truck on a stretch of road located near the seaside villa of Prince Aly Khan. Warner was thrown from the car, which had burst into flames upon impact. Shortly after the accident, his son, Jack Jr., joined other family members in France, where the unconscious studio head was hospitalized. In an interview with reporters, Jack Jr. suggested that his father was dying. Then, during a visit to his father's hospital room, the young man offended Ann Warner, whom he largely blamed for his parents' divorce. When Warner regained consciousness, he was enraged by reports of his son's behavior, and their "tenuous" relationship came to an end. On December 30, 1958, Jack Jr. was informed, by Jack Sr.'s lawyer Arnold Grant, that the elder Warner had released him from the company. When he attempted to report for work, studio guards denied him entry. The two men never achieved a reconciliation, and Jack Jr. is not mentioned in his father's 1964 autobiography.
Warner made no pretense of faithfulness to his wife, Ann, and kept a series of mistresses throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The most enduring of these "girlfriends" was an aspiring actress named Jackie Park, who bore a "startling" resemblance to Warner's second wife. The relationship was in its fourth year when Ann Warner pressured her husband to terminate the affair. Although aware of his many infidelities, Ann remained loyal to Warner, though she did once have an affair with studio actor Eddie Albert in 1941. In the 1960s, she insisted that, despite his reputation for ruthlessness, Jack Warner had a softer side. In a note to author Dean Jennings, who assisted Warner on his 1964 autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, Ann Warner wrote: "He is extremely sensitive, but there are few who know that because he covers it with a cloak."
Warner publicly supported Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election and paid for full-page ads in The New York Times "to proclaim why Nixon should be elected". In the wake of Nixon's loss to John F. Kennedy, however, the studio head made arrangements to attend a fundraiser at Los Angeles' Palladium in honor of the president-elect. Several weeks later, Warner received a phone call from the new chief executive's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, and within a short time, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights for Robert Donovan's novel, PT 109, a bestseller concerning John Kennedy's exploits during World War II. "I don't think President Kennedy would object to my friendship with Dick Nixon," Warner said later. "I would have voted for both of them if I could. You might think this is a form of fence-straddling, but I love everybody." In the late 1960s, he emerged as an outspoken critic of those who opposed the Vietnam War.
Jack Warner left behind an estate estimated at $15 million. Much of the Warner estate, including property and memorabilia, was bequeathed to his widow, Ann. Warner, however, left $200,000 to his estranged son, Jack Jr., perhaps in an effort to discourage him from contesting the will. In the days following Warner's death, newspaper obituaries recounted the familiar story of "the four brothers who left the family butcher shop for nicklelodeons" and went on to revolutionize American cinema. A front-page story in Warner's adopted hometown of Youngstown featured accounts of the family's pre-Hollywood struggles in Ohio, describing how Jack Warner drove a wagon for his father's business when he was only seven years old. The late movie "mogul" was widely eulogized for his role in "shaping Hollywood's 'Golden Age'".
Several months after Warner's death, a more personal tribute was organized by the Friends of the Libraries at the University of Southern California. The event, called "The Colonel: An Affectionate Remembrance of Jack L. Warner", drew Hollywood notables such as entertainers Olivia de Havilland and Debbie Reynolds, and cartoon voice actor Mel Blanc. Blanc closed the event with a rendition of Porky Pig's famous farewell, "A-bee-a-bee-a-bee–that's all, folks." In recognition of his contributions to the motion picture industry, Jack Warner was accorded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard. He is also represented on Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto, which honors outstanding Canadians from all fields.