This article was written by Martin Cooper, President of Cooper Communications, supervised public relations for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for 10 years. It was published in the Warner Center News in Woodland Hills, California.
Sadly, the four brothers who left Poland for America and went from being penniless immigrants to owning one of the largest and most successful motion picture studios in the world, ended their lives in disharmony.
Many fairy tales feature a good sibling and a bad one. In the fairy tale of the Warner brothers, it was no different, except their story features four brothers: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack.
Looking back on the 100 years of Warner Bros., one can’t help but marvel at the incredible legacy left behind by these four brothers. Founding their eponymous studio in 1923, they faced numerous challenges throughout their reign, including navigating the censorship era, managing talent relations, and embracing technological innovation.
Harry (1881-1958), the eldest and company president, took on the role of protector, ensuring the family business stayed on solid ground. Albert (1884-1967) was Warner Bros.’ treasurer and head of sales and distribution, steering the company through acquisitions and ensuring its survival during the Great Depression. Sam (1888-1927) was the technological genius, responsible for the introduction of sound to film, forever changing the way movies were made and consumed. Ironically, Sam died in 1927, the day before The Jazz Singer, which he had nurtured, premiered.
The youngest, Jack (1892-1978), was the charismatic showman, the driving force behind the studio’s creative endeavors, was instrumental in launching the careers of stars like James Cagney and Bette Davis, and is the villain in the Warner’s fairy tale.
Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling, penned a quasi-tell-all book about her family, Hollywood Be Thy Name. One chapter begins: “‘I’ll get you for this, you son-ofa-bitch!’ Harry Warner, raising a three-foot lead pipe
threateningly over his head, chased his younger brother down the streets of the Warners studio lot.”
In the same book, producer and screenwriter Milton Sperling recalls, “Boy did Harry and Jack fight. I spent most of my
time on the Warner lot carrying truce flags back and forth between them, just to keep them from tearing the studio apart.”
Jack was a tough and ruthless businessman. He was notorious for his abrasive and domineering personality, and was known to be difficult to work with. He was also accused of mistreating his employees and engaging in unethical business practices, such as double-dealing and price-fixing.
Additionally, he was often at odds with other Hollywood executives, and was involved in several high-profile legal disputes and controversies. All of these factors contributed to his reputation as a disliked and controversial figure in the film industry.
And the fact that he “named names” during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings that resulted in the Blacklist, gained him no fans in Hollywood.
But the ultimate perfidy was how Jack Warner became president of the studio.
More than in most industries, motion picture studios’ balance sheets vary widely year to year. Warner Bros. was no different; by 1956, the studio was losing money, declining from a net profit of between $2.9 million and $4 million each of the previous three years.
In May 1956, the brothers announced they were putting Warner Bros. up for sale. Jack secretly organized a syndicate, headed by Boston banker Serge Semenenko, which purchased 90 percent of the stock. After the studio was sold, Jack, without informing his brothers, joined Semenenko’s syndicate and bought back all his stock. Shortly after the deal was consummated, Jack, now the company’s largest single stockholder, appointed himself its new president.
According to Lou Lumenick, film critic for the New York Post: “Harry suffered a debilitating stroke shortly
afterward, and a furious Albert never spoke to his younger brother again.”
“Jack Warner Jr. reports that when his jovial father visited Harry for the last time at his 50th wedding anniversary party, the ailing old man simply shut his tear-filled eyes to avoid his betrayer.”
“Jack Sr. did not even return to Hollywood for his eldest brother’s funeral, remaining on the French Riviera.”
The family rupture never healed.
Lawsuits and contentious relationships between Jack Warner and his stars were also not uncommon. In 1935, James Cagney sued him for breach of contract; in 1943, Olivia de Havilland brought suit against him for the same thing. In 1948, Bette Davis, Warners’ leading actress, angry with Jack, left the studio, along with others, after completing Beyond the Forest.
Humphrey Bogart and Davis were constantly being put on paid suspension for refusing to appear in what they considered to be low quality movies that the studio wanted to legitimize with their star power.
Sadly, the four brothers who left Poland for America and went from being penniless immigrants to owning one of
the largest and most successful motion picture studios in the world, ended their lives in disharmony. One died the day before his biggest triumph while two others become embittered over betrayal by their youngest sibling.
In the Warner Bros. fairy tale, few remember Harry, Albert and Sam; the black knight emerged triumphant.