Tag Archives: warner brothers

The Shy Stooge

(I was only 15 when Elvis Presley died in 1977, and I remember everyone going on about what a tragedy it was for The King to have passed so young at age 42. At that time 42 seemed like a lot of years to be alive, and I didn’t see anything particularly tragic about someone so “old” dying.

Man have times changed!

I’ll turn 50 on the 4th of July this year, which means that I’ve outlasted Elvis by a solid eight years so far, and from where I stand, 50 ain’t old! Not one bit.

It also means that I’ve been circling with the earth for a couple of years longer than Jerome “Curly” Howard got on this side of the ground. Curly died sixty years ago this week, as a “youngster” of only 48.)

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Jerome “Curly Howard" Horwitz was very different from the hyper-manic slapstick “stooge” that he played on screen in nearly 100 shorts with Larry Fine and his brother Moe.

Curly, who died 60 years ago this coming Friday, was known as Jerry to his friends and Babe to his family. He was the youngest of the five Horwitz brothers, which included future Stooges Moe and Shemp.

A shy, unassuming boy, young Jerry did poorly in school, but excelled as a basketball player (!), ballroom dancer, and singer. He walked with a slight limp that resulted from an accidental gunshot wound he sustained as a child. (He would later develop his famous “Curly Shuffle” in part to hide his affliction.)

Jerry joined the Stooges in 1932 after his brother Shemp left the act to pursue a solo career. Comedian Ted Healy led the team at the time, and initially rejected him because he didn’t like his full-head of auburn hair. Jerry, needing the job, reappeared a few minutes later with a shaved head and was immediately hired and given the ironic nickname “Curly.”

Curly became the most popular Stooge out of the gate when the team began making shorts for Columbia two years later. A self-trained comic, Curly created most of his most famous routines on the spot. Often times, directors would give him the barest of plot outlines and simply turn on the camera and watch him create.

The Stooges kept up a grueling filming schedule for many years with Columbia head Harry Cohn demanding eight shorts a year from the team. When not filming, the Stooges toured non-stop, giving live performances. Curly, who felt more comfortable with dogs than people, would often spend his downtime on tour finding homes for strays.

When not on stage, Curly would morph back into the introverted Jerry, who was insecure around women because of his shaved head, and could only open up to strangers when intoxicated. This became an increasingly constant condition.

His health, both physically and mentally, declined drastically during the 1940s, as he suffered through a string of bad marriages and hypertension brought on by obesity. After he had a stroke in 1946 (Perhaps brought on by too many head slaps administered by brother Moe?), Shemp rejoined the team and Curly was sent to live out the remainder of his life in hospitals. He eventually died from a major stroke in a sanitarium in San Gabriel on January 18, 1952. He was only 48.

Curly was interred in East L.A.’s Home of Peace Cemetery where he would later be joined by brother Shemp, who died three years later. The cemetery houses the mortal remains of many Hollywood luminaries, including studio moguls Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers.

But by far, the most visited grave on the grounds belongs to a shy kid named Jerry, who – lucky for us – hid his introversion behind a persona with a shaved head, a high-pitched staccato Brooklyn accent, and a host of memorable catch-phrases and physical gags.

The grave is a bit tough to find, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s the one with “Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk” written out in front in pennies.

(And in Deadwrite’s Dailies news: We passed 100,000 all-time hits just after New Year’s. Thanks everyone for stopping by.)

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The Fifth Warner Brother

Bette Davis, and her famous eyes.

When Bette Davis first came to Hollywood in 1930 after being discovered on Broadway by a Universal talent scout, she traveled by train and was shocked on arrival not to be greeted by a representative from the studio. In fact, the studio had sent a man to meet her, but he left after failing to see anyone exit the train who looked like an actress.

For the next five decades, Davis would employ her unique look, as well as a willingness to play unsympathetic characters, to create one of the greatest of all Hollywood careers.

After her anticlimactic arrival in Hollywood, Davis would get her first role at Universal on the recommendation of a cinematographer who found her eyes to be striking. She quickly moved over to Warner Bros., where she got her big Hollywood “break” in 1932 when actor George Arliss personally chose her for the lead female role in his film The Man Who Played God.

Two years later, she earned critical acclaim in Of Human Bondage. When she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for the film, the ensuing uproar forced the Academy to change its nominating process. She won the Oscar the following year for Dangerous, but till the end of her life she would contend that the statuette was a consolation prize from the Academy for the previous year’s snub.

Along the way, Davis became nearly as famous for her legendary fights with studio chief Jack Warner, as for her body of work. In 1936, she tried to break her contract with the producer, believing that Warner was damaging her career with the roles he was demanding she play. Her case went to court in England, where Davis had fled, and was lost when her claim that WB kept her in “slavery” produced laughter in the courtroom when it was pointed out that her involuntary servitude was netting her $1350 per week.

During World War II, few actors in Hollywood threw themselves more valiantly behind the war effort than Davis. She once personally sold $2 million worth of war bonds in only two days, and in 1942, she, along with some other A-list friends, transformed an old nightclub into the “Hollywood Canteen,” a service club for men in uniform. She made it her personal mission to insure that it was staffed nightly by Hollywood stars who would entertain the fighting men on leave. Two years later, art imitated life when she played herself in Hollywood Canteen, a fictionalized account of the club. She was later quoted as saying that the founding of the Canteen was one of her proudest achievements.

Davis was a ubiquitous part of the Warner landscape for decades, making 54 films, and winning two Oscars along the way.

Even in death, the “Fifth Warner Brother,” who died on this date in 1989 at the age of 81, is said to keep an eye on things at the studio from her grave, which faces the lot from a short distance away.

Davis' grave at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.

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.


The Untimely Death of Sam Warner

Producer and visionary Sam Warner.

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. 

The four Warner Brothers. Clockwise from the upper-left they are Harry, Jack, Sam, and Albert.

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.