Sam Warner, perhaps the most affable of the four brothers who founded the WB motion picture empire, was always thinking about the future.
Schmuel Wonskolaser was born in Poland and came to the United States as a child with his family in the late 1880s. As a young man, he worked in several trades before going into the nickelodeon business with his two older brothers near their home in Youngstown, Ohio. Sam’s job, as the most technically-minded of the brothers, was to crank the projector.
The boys soon moved into film distribution and added younger brother Jack to the business. Sam was able to get along well with all his brothers, and provided a buffer between the argumentative Jack and his other two siblings, Albert and Harry. This pattern would continue for the next two decades as the Warners moved into film production and settled in Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” district.
As second-tier producers during the early 1920s, the brothers constantly hovered on the brink of bankruptcy. Only the success of Rin Tin Tin films kept the young enterprise afloat. The brothers knew that to remain in business, they would have to make a big gamble, but they were rarely in agreement on what that gamble should be.
Sam felt that the future belonged to sound.
Silent films were entrenched into the fabric of Hollywood and few felt that the situation would change any time soon. Sam disagreed. He had worked closely with sound engineers from Western Electric setting up WB’s first L.A. radio station. (Jack Warner would later say that the call letters for the station, KFWB, stood for “Keep Filming, Warner Bros.,” but they were coincidental. The station still exists today and has a news/talk format.)
Sam was given a demonstration for a new sound-on-disk process that Western Electric had developed and was convinced that it would save the company. But first, he would have to convince his brothers. It was a tough sell, but Harry, the WB president, agreed to buy the invention if Sam would only use it for background music. They named the process Vitaphone, to capitalize on their recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios.
Hollywood had taken its first baby-step into sound production.
Sam oversaw the production of several sound shorts, as well as Don Juan, the first sound feature, in 1926. The film had a recorded orchestra and employed a few crude sound effects. It was a huge hit, but was unable to recoup the massive investment that WB made in wiring their theaters for sound amplification.
The brothers found themselves seriously in debt once again. They decided to push in all the chips and make a true “talkie” film; one where not only the background music would be heard on the soundtrack, but the voices of the actors as well. Sam was again put in charge of bringing this difficult birth to term.
The result was The Jazz Singer, which was released on October 6, 1927 in Manhattan. The film set box-office records, and effectively put the silent era on life support. It also secured WB’s future and propelled the brothers into the ranks of the major film producers.
Tragically, none of the brothers were in attendance at the theater that night to hear history being made. That’s because Sam, the brother most responsible for Warner Bros.’ and Hollywood’s new era of talkie films, had died 24-hours earlier of a cerebral hemorrhage brought on by the stress of bringing the film to the screen.
That was 83-years ago today.
Sam was only 42.
If you would like to learn more about the early days of Warner Bros., check out Images of America: Early Warner Bros. Studios, which I recently co-wrote with noted Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker.