Jack Leonard "J.L." Warner (August 2, 1892 – September 9, 1978), born Jacob Warner in London, Ontario, Canada, was a Canadian-born American film executive who was the president and driving force behind the Warner Bros. Studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. Warner's 45-year career was longer 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 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.
Jack Warner was born to a Yiddish-speaking family of Jewish immigrants from Poland, in London, Ontario, in 1892. He was the fifth surviving son of Benjamin Warner – perhaps originally named "Wonsal" or "Wonskolaser" – a cobbler from Krasnosielc, then located in the Russian Empire, and his wife, the former Pearl Leah Eichelbaum. Following their marriage in 1876, the couple had three children in Poland, one of whom died at a young age. Their surviving children included Jack's eldest brother, Hirsch (later Harry). The Warner family had occupied a "hostile world", where the "night-riding of cossacks, the burning of houses, and the raping of women were part of life's burden for the Jews of the 'shtetl'". In 1888, in search of a better future for his family and himself, Benjamin made his way to Hamburg, Germany, and then took a ship to America. Upon arriving in New York, Benjamin introduced himself as "Benjamin Warner", and the surname "Warner" remained with him for the rest of his life. Pearl Warner and the couple's two children joined him in Baltimore, Maryland, less than a year later. In Baltimore, the couple had five more children, including Abraham (later known as Albert) and Sam Warner.
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, Jack and David Warner. After two arduous years in Canada, Benjamin and Pearl Warner returned to Baltimore, bringing along their growing family. Two more children, Sadie and Milton, were added to the household there. In 1896, the family 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 worked with his 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.
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."
In Youngstown, the Warner brothers took their first tentative steps into the entertainment industry. In the early 1900s, Sam Warner formed a business partnership with another local resident and "took over" the city's Old Grand Opera House, which he used as a venue for "cheap vaudeville and photoplays". The venture failed after one summer. Sam Warner then secured a job as a projectionist at Idora Park, a local amusement park. He convinced the family of the new medium's possibilities and negotiated the purchase of a Model B Kinetoscope from a projectionist who was "down on his luck". The purchase price was $1,000, and Jack Warner contributed $150 to the venture by pawning a horse, according to his obituary.
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".
The Warner brothers pooled their resources and moved into film production in 1910. Then, in 1912, they lent their support to filmmaker Carl Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company, which challenged the monopolistic control of the Edison Trust. That same year, Jack Warner acquired a job as a film splicer in New York, where he assisted brother Sam with the production of the film, Dante's Inferno. Despite the film's success at the box office, Harry Warner remained concerned about the economic threat presented by the Edison Trust. He subsequently broke with Laemmle and sent Jack to establish a film exchange in San Francisco, while Sam did the same in Los Angeles. The brothers were soon poised to exploit the expanding California movie market. In 1917, Jack was sent to Los Angeles to open another film exchange company. Their first opportunity to produce a major film came in 1918, when they purchased the film rights for My Four Years in Germany, a bestselling novel that condemned German wartime atrocities. The film proved to be a commercial and critical success, and the four brothers were able to establish a studio in Hollywood, California. In the new Hollywood studio, Jack became co-head of production along with his older brother, Sam. In this capacity, the two brothers secured new scripts and story lines, managed film production, and looked for ways to reduce production costs.
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".
Despite Warner Bros.' new prosperity, Jack kept a tight rein on costs. He placed the studio's directors on a quota system, and decreed a flat, low-key lighting style to make the sets look less cheap than they were.