Jack L. Warner, the last of the great first-generation motion picture tycoons, died Saturday night at the age of 86.According to a spokesman at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, where Mr. Warner had been hospitalized since Aug. 13, the cause of death was pulmonary edema. Mr. Warner's wife, Ann, was at his bedside when he died.
Born on Aug. 2, 1892, in London, Ontario, Jack Leonard Warner was the youngest of 12 children of Benjamin and Pearl Warner, Polish-Jewish immigrants from the village of Krasnostow near the border of Poland and Germany. Mr. Warner and three elder brothers, all deceased, entered the film business in 1903 as traveling exhibitors in Youngstown, Ohio, and later founded Warner Bros., one of the major Hollywood production and distribution companies.
During Mr. Warner's half-century as head of production, president or chairman of the board, Warner Bros. released such famous pictures as "The Jazz Singer," "Little Caesar," "The Public Enemy," "Forty-Second Street," "Gold Diggers of 1933.," "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," "The Life of Emile Zola," "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Jezebel," "The Maltese Falcon," "Casablanca," "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," "Giant," "My Fair Lady," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Bonnie and Clyde."
Mr. Warner personally produced the - lavish, Academy Award-winning movie version of "My Fair Lady" in 1964, after acquiring the film rights several years earlier for $5.5 million. He had received the Academy's highest accolade for producers, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1959.
However, it was the Warner studio of the 1930s and 1940s that seems distinctive to moviegoers: the studio that specialized in gangster melodramas, Busby Berkeley musicals, timely social melodramas, didactic biographical melodramas, wartime combat and political melodramas, swashbucklers and tearjerkers.
The crime movies brought stardom to such performers as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield. The stories about contemporary social problems or famous historical figures like Zola, Louis Pasteur and Benito Juarez were the special province of Paul Muni. An unknown named Errol Flynn, signed by Mr. Warner for $150 a week in 1935, became the studio's great - and eventually disenchanted - swashbuckling attraction.
At one time or another most of the studio's elite fought with Mr. Warner about the roles they were offered and went on suspension to authenticate their defiance. None fought harder than Bette Davis, the studio's greatest woman star. Indeed, she was so infuriated at Mr. Warner in 1936 that she spurned an historic opportunity. Refusing to play a lumberjack in a projected potboiler called "God's Country and the Woman," Davis told her boss, "I won't do it! 'Satan Met a Lady' was bad enough, but this is absolute tripe."
Mr. Warner pleaded, "If you'll be reasonable and do the picture, I promise you a great role when you return. I have just optioned a wonderful novel that isn't out yet called 'Gone With the Wind.' You were born to play the heroine."
Miss Davis, in no mood to be reasonble, cracked, "I bet it's a pip!" and went on suspension. By the time she and Mr. Warner settled their dispute, "Gone With the Wind" had been purchased by David O. Selznick.
Despite their clashes, Miss Davis later complimented Mr. Warner as "a singular movie mogul." According to her testimony, "No lecherous boss was he. His sins lay elsewhere. He was the father. The power. The glory. And he was in the business to make money."
Humphery Bogart, a compulsive agitator who relished conflicts with Mr. Warner, recalled their working relationship nostalgically for writer Ezra Goodman in "The Fifty-year Decline and Fall of Hollwood":
"I'd read a movie script that I'd think was not right for me. I'd be called for wardrobe and refuse to report. Jack Warner would call and say, 'Be a good sport.' I'd argue and say, 'No.' Then I'd get a wire from the Warner Brothers lawyers ordering me to report. I'd refuse. Then another wire from Warner saying that if I did not report he'd cut my throat. He'd sign it 'Love to Betty' (i.e., Bogart's wife, actress Lauren Bacall). I took about 10 or 12 suspensions at Warners. If I met Jack out some place we were the best of friends. I kind of miss the arguments I had with Warner. I used to love those feuds. It's like when you've fought with your wife and gotten a divorce, you kind of miss the fighting."
Director John Huston tried to define what made the Warners formula successful for historian James R. Silke in the book "Here's Looking at You, Kid," an illustrated chronicle of the studio:
"The resistance was good for you. Not only for the writers and the directors, but for all the talent. They were the establishment, you might say, and we were the criminals. It gave you something to fight. When I went to MGM later, it was a completely different atmosphere . . . There was a sense of leisure at MGM . . . At Warner Bros., the pressure was always on.
"The departments were totally prepared, everything was made and done for you. In the Art Department there would be model sets of every scene, even the little rooms, and there were these small cutout figures so you could move them around and set up your shots with them."
Robert Lord, a writer and producer at the studio, recalled that "the moment a director began deviating from the script, everybody mobilized to find out what was happening. A working supervisor had to be on the set as much as the director to anticipate trouble and stop it before the pipe burst. By the time a film got on a set, it was to be a fairly mechanical process."
Henry Blanke, who entered the studio in 1924 at the age of 19 as an assistant to Ernst Lubitsch and became one of Mr. Warner's most important producers, told Silke that "Jack was a wonderful executive. I'd tell him a story in three words and he'd say yes or no. As much as I mislike what I'm saying now, Jack Warner was a genius. And his philosophy kept our egos down and made Warner Bros. rich.
"It was the whole philosophy of the studio to never give anyone credit, or a percentage of stocks, and it was a good philosophy.
"Jack was tough and we were tough as a studio . . . The only theory we followed was that the characters had to talk like real people . . . We were the only realistic studio at that time."
The saga of the Warner Brothers began when Benjamin Warner migrated to the United States in 1887. He settled first in Baltimore and prospered enough as a shoemaker to bring his wife and children to America within four years. After stopovers in London, Ontario, Mr. Warner's birthplace, and other cities, the Warners and their eight surviving children eventually settled in Youngstown, where the family worked at several small business enterprises: a bicycle shop, an ice cream shop, a butcher shop. Young Jack Warner participated in amateur theatricals and sang in local operatic productions until age caught up with his pleasing boy soprano. Under the name Leon Zuardo, he often provided the singing accompaniment to a show of slide pictures.
The success of "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903 fired the Warners with enthusiasm for the infant motion picture business. Sam Warner, fondly recalled by Jack Warner as the visionary of the family - "He was the dreamer, the one who saw things coming" - had learned how to operate and repair an Edison Kinetoscope projector. He persuaded the family to purchase a used machine for $1,000. The brothers took it to beer halls and carnival towns, projecting magic lantern shows on the best available wall.
The venture enabled them to rent a vacant store in New Castle, Pa. This storefront theater was called "The Bijou." Since the chairs were borrowed from a neighboring funeral parlor, Bijou customers had to stand if the starting time of a show coincided with a funeral service.
Sam Warner supervised the projector while elder brothers Harry and Albert watched over the box-office Sadye Warner took tickets, Rose Warner played the piano, and on weekends Jack Warner bicycled over from Youngstown to perform his melodious slide show at intermissions.
The success of The Bijou encouraged the family to open a second, larger theater, The Cascade. In 1904 they expanded into distribution by forming the Duquesne Amusement & Supply Company, which soon had film exchanges in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk and Atlanta.
The Warners were forced to sell their prospering concern in 1909 at a low figure to the General Film Company, the distribution arm of the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust determined to crack down on independents. Sam Warner provided the family with a new stake by acquiring New Jersey and Connecticut rights to "Dante's Inferno" and taking it on the road, with himself running the projector and Jack providing homemade sound effects.
By 1912 the Brothers had reached the conclusion that it was necessary to break into production in order to survive. Sam and Jack shot their first effort, a two-reeler called "Peril of the Plains," at a rented foundry in St. Louis. It flopped, but they persevered, moving farther west, Jack to San Francisco and Sam to Los Angeles, to avoid detectives hired by the General Film Company.
Eventually, Sam and Jack united in Los Angeles to make the movies while Harry and Albert remained in New York to arrange financing and run the distribution business.The first success of the filmmaking Warners came in 1918: "My Four Years in Germany," a film version of the memoirs of James Gerard, the erstwhile American ambassador to Germany.Descriptions leave one confused about whether it was a prestige production or an atrocity melodrama, but the film grossed $1.5 million, allowing the brothers to build their own studio at Sunset and Bronson in Hollywood.
Warner Bros. Pictures was formally incorporated in 1923, with Harry as president and Albert as treasurer. Although established, the company was far from secure during the silent period. The studio's mealticket was Rin Tin Tin, who starred in 20 pictures, all of them successes and many of them written by a tireless young man named Darryl F. Zanuck, who quickly evolved into Jack Warner's chief of production and remained in that capacity until 1933.
In 1925 Warner Bros. acquired the old Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, and Sam Warner returned to run it.Always fascinated by technical innovations, he convinced his brothers to form a company, Vitaphone, in partnership with Western Electric, which then merged with Bell Telephone, that would develop sound equipment for a synchronized sound system relying on discs. This speculative investment was destined to transform Warner Bros. into the leader of the film industry almost overnight when "The Jazz Singer" opened on Oct. 6, 1927.
The impact of "The Jazz Singer" has obscured the fact that it was not the first talking picture. The Vitaphone system itself was abandoned in 1930 for optical sound systems that had been pioneered and developed earlier in the 1920s by Lee De Forest, who called his system Phonofilm, and Theodore W. Case and Earl I. Sponable, who called their system Movietone. Several film companies had the opportunity to invest in their inventions and patents, but failed to. It was generally, and perhaps jealously, assumed that the Warners took a chance because they were always in shaky financial shape and had nothing much to lose.
Vitaphone basically was designed to synchronize musical sound rather than dialogue. Warners had used it in 1926 to augment the John Bary more vehicle, "Don Juan," with an orchestral score and to experiment with a series of musical shorts. When the Warners acquired Samson Raphaelson's play, "The Jazz Singer," they also tried without success to sign its star, George Jessel. They turned to Al Jolson, who had made one unsuccessful attempt at films, and he agreed to give it another shot.