Talking Pictures: A Secret Polish History
Warner Bros: the film studio which introduced talkies, gave the world numerous classics such as Casablanca and A Streetcar Named Desire, and has won dozens of Academy Awards. You may not realise it, but it turns out one of Hollywood’s most influential families was originally from the little-known village of Krasnosielc in Poland.
The hidden orchestra
Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?!
This is what Harry Warner exclaimed after his brother Sam showed him a film with sound. It was the mid-1920s, the era of silent movies and very few people, Sam among them, realised that sound was to become the next big thing in cinema.
Due to the technological progress linked to the development of radio, it was finally possible to make movies with sound for the general public. Earlier attempts at making so-called ‘talkies’ were disastrous and discouraged many filmmakers from taking them on. However, the sound system developed by the New York research group called Bell Labs used in the picture Sam showed Harry was the real deal. The short film presented an orchestra playing and Harry was so amazed at the quality of the sound that he even suspected that live musicians must have been hidden somewhere in the screening room. He was, however, sceptical of the concept of dialogue in film.
At first, he believed that the only good thing to come of this would be soundtracks. Nevertheless the Warner Brothers – Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack – the founders of the famous movie studio, decided to invest in Bell Labs’ invention and consequently became co-creators of the patent which they called Vitaphone. It made it possible to keep sound and vision in sync (which was once highly problematic) by powering both the record player and projector with the same driveshaft mechanism and using special markers on film rolls and discs. Back then this was a major breakthrough.
The Jazz Singer
Eventually, Warner Bros. went on to release the world’s first feature film with synchronised music and dialogue, The Jazz Singer. The 1927 picture about a cantor’s son pursuing the career of a nightclub singer was a stunning success, which proved that audiences not only wanted to hear music in films but dialogues as well. The company followed up with more talkies – the hefty profits they generated returned the risky Vitaphone investment and allowed Warner Bros. to become one of the biggest motion-picture studios in the world.
Sadly, all the stress and work involved with the game-changing project of introducing sound to film impacted Sam’s health. He died of pneumonia on 5th October, a day before The Jazz Singer premiered, on which his brother Jack later commented as follows: ‘There is no doubt that The Jazz Singer killed him.’ These are all well-known facts as they are part of the history of cinema. A less known fact is that that the story begins in Poland…
Benjamin was born in 1857 and lived in Krasnosielc, a village in Poland (whose territory had been partitioned by Prussia, Austria and Russia toward the end of the 18th century). He worked as a cobbler and married Pnina with whom he had twelve children, among them Hirsch, Aaron, Shmul and Itzhak who were, one day, to found Warner Bros.
It isn’t entirely certain which of the four brothers were born in Poland, according to some sources it was only Hirsch, others say that Itzhak was the only one to be born abroad, in London or Canada. The family’s original surname is also a bit of a mystery. In some places you’ll find that it was Wonsal but it was most likely Wrona which means Crow in Polish. The latter guess is in line with what Cass Warner, Hirsch’s granddaughter wrote in her book Hollywood by the Name: The Warner Brothers Story:
More likely it was Varna, which meant blackbird in the language spoken around Krasnashiltz.
Life in Krasnosielc wasn’t easy for the family. In those days, the village was under Russian rule and Jews were discriminated against: men were subjected to forced labour, children couldn’t get an education. Benjamin found it hard to provide for his wife and kids. The young ones had to attended secret educational gatherings at the local synagogue to receive any kind of schooling at all.
He decided, like so many other Europeans, to go to the United States in search of a better life. He took with him his only valuable possession, a golden watch, and promised that as soon as he settles in he’d arrange for his family to come join him.
The Great Train Robbery
After arriving in the U.S. in the 1880s, Benjamin set up a cobbler shop in Baltimore and it wasn’t long before he was able to finance his family’s trip across the ocean. In America, they went by the surname of Warner, which was easier for English-speakers to pronounce and the brothers Hirsch, Aaron, Shmul and Itzhak changed their names to, Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack, respectively, for more or less the same reason. The family moved to Canada and later to Ohio. There Sam landed a job as a projector operator at an amusement-park show, leading the brothers to take an interest in motion pictures. In his book, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood: An Autobiography, Jack Warner recalls:
Sam saw the vast possibilities in this new form of entertainment and he was ready to do anything short of robbing a bank to get his hands on a projector of his own.
There is no record of the Polish-Jewish brothers robbing a bank, however they soon started to make money thanks to The Great Train Robbery a very early, 11-minute motion picture. The story goes that the brothers convinced their old man to pawn his golden watch and horse, nearly the entire Warner estate, and with the money they purchased a projector. Equipped with a tent and portable screen they travelled around Ohio and Pennsylvania organising screenings of the film. This way, in just a matter of months, they managed to earn enough to open their own moving picture theatre called Bijou in 1903. The establishment was located in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in the back room of a funeral home.
My Four Years in Germany
By 1908, the brothers ran three movie theatres (these had far less conspicuous premises) and, owning copies of about 200 films, were building a presence on the distribution market. A couple of years later they were already experimenting with the production of their own films. Things were going well until Thomas Edison started demanding licence fees for use of the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph, a projector and camera he had patented.
Like many other filmmakers of the time, the brothers moved their business from the East Coast to California, where it was easier to avoid these costs. They started a production company in Culver City and in 1918 they released their first full-length motion picture My Four Years in Germany, which tells the story of James W. Gerard’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to Germany during World War I. Thanks to the success of this picture they were able to purchase a studio in Hollywood later that year. In 1923, they founded the Warner Bros. motion-picture studio.
The oldest brother Harry (1881 – 1958) became president of the company, with his ferocious character he was a natural fit for the role. Albert (1884 – 1967), more of a conciliatory type, worked as treasurer. Sam (1888 – 1927), the visionary self-taught in mechanics overlooked production together with Jack (1892- 1978), a socialite whose nonchalant disposition served as inspiration for one of Warner Bros.’ most famous fictitious characters – Bugs Bunny.
The new studio enjoyed early success with an immensely popular series of movies about Rin Tin Tin the dog, sometimes called ‘the first four-legged superstar’. But their real breakthrough came with the introduction of sound which made them major players. This project was, similarly to pawning all of Benjamin’s valuable possessions to get money for a projector, a huge risk. To realise it Harry took a loan which in today’s money would be worth about $150 million. It’s safe to say it paid off.
Six pictures in forty weeks
In the 1930s, Warner Bros. was producing close to a hundred movies annually. They started the so-called gangster-picture craze, a phenomenon closely linked to James Cagney’s acting e.g. in 1931’s The Public Enemy. The famous actor, along with the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis was among the studio’s contract players (actors under long-term contracts). Cagney recalled this time at Warner Bros.:
The pace was incredible. I think I did about six pictures in the first forty weeks (…) Frequently we worked until three or four in the morning.
The harsh working conditions led to conflicts between the brothers and the employees, but still they maintained relations that extended beyond the workplace. The parties at Harry Warner’s Beverly Hills mansion were frequented by Bogie and other stars. The 30s also saw the start of the company’s famous Looney Tunes cartoon series, featuring Bugs Bunny.
Over the years the studio earned a reputation for producing pictures of high artistic value such as the 1941 noir crime story The Maltese Falcon, the 1942 melodrama Casablanca (both starring Humphrey Bogart) or 1951’s drama A Streetcar Named Desire with memorable performances by Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh, which is based on Tennessee William’s play of the same-title.
Despite their success, the remaining brothers found it harder and harder to get along. Harry and Jack’s arguments were caused by differences of character and in business approaches and at some point things got so bad that they’d go to lunch at different hours just to avoid bumping into each other at the company restaurant. Jack eventually tricked Albert and Harry into selling their share of the company, which he purchased through a company he had secretly set up. Consequently, he became president in 1956 after his brothers left the business. Jack Warner retired in 1972.
The moving picture business the four brothers started outlasted their careers and even their lives. Recently, the studio, still one of the biggest in the world, was involved in such intriguing productions as the sci-fi TV series Westworld and numerous Oscar-winning films.
As to Krasnosielc, today it's a village lying in central Poland. The synagogue where the Wrona kids went to study still stands and in 2014 local authorities organised a festival entitled Big Brothers’ Small Cinema. During the one-day event, the Warner brothers’ story was told and two Warner Bros. films were screened. Also, a group of school students gave a short presentation on the history of the Krasnosielc Jews and treated the audience to some traditional Polish-Jewish snacks. A year later, the local cultural centre hosted a film workshop for kids titled The W Bros. The village also attracts cinema aficionados searching for the roots of one of early Hollywood’s most influential families.
Author: Marek Kępa, April 2017