Childhood & Early Life
Jack was born on August 2, 1892, in London, Ontario, to a Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant couple from Poland. His father, Benjamin Warner, was a Polish cobbler. His mother was the former Pearl Leah Eichelbaum. Jack and his eldest brother, Hirsch (later Harry), were two of the surviving children of their parents.
Jack's paternal surname was perhaps "Wonsal" or "Wonskolaser.' His father introduced himself as "Benjamin Warner" to hide his Jewish identity, and he passed on the surname to his future generations.
Jack's initial years in Youngstown had been instrumental in shaping his career and his personality. He was involved with the notorious gang of Westlake's Crossing and had his first experience of business when he partnered with an aspiring artist. Jack would also sing at local theaters, which brought him a lot of connections from the entertainment industry.
During his initial career in vaudeville, Jack officially changed his name to “Jack Leonard Warner.” His older brother, Sam, who did not support his youthful pursuits of not working to earn, advised him to find a place where actors got paid.
In Youngstown, during the early 20th century, Sam purchased a 'Model B Kinetoscope' from a projectionist after his first business failed. Jack pawned a horse to contribute $150 to Sam's new venture. They later turned a vacant store in New Castle into a small theater.
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Jack and Sam began their film distribution business in 1907, with a Pittsburgh-based firm named 'Duquesne Amusement Company,' that earned them profits until Thomas Edison's 'Motion Picture Patents Company' captured the market.
In 1909, Jack joined his family business. His older brother, Harry, sent him to Norfolk, Virginia, to assist Sam to run their second film exchange company. The Warner brothers eventually stepped into film production in 1910. In 1912, Jack got a job as a film splicer in New York and simultaneously assisted Sam with the production of the film 'Dante's Inferno.'
Jack established a film exchange company in San Francisco in 1917 and produced their first major film, 'My Four Years in Germany,' in 1918. The film was a massive success. Following this, the Warner brothers established a studio in California, which had Jack and Sam as the production heads.
In 1919, Jack made his only screen appearance with the film 'Open Your Eyes,' which was not a profitable project for the studio. The studio subsequently made huge losses, and in 1920, the Warners were burdened with bank loans. Hence, they moved their production studio from Culver City, California, to Hollywood. This, however, did nothing much to improve their financial condition.
From 1928 to 1933, screenwriter Darryl F Zanuck of 'Rin Tin Tin' fame worked as Jack's right-hand man and executive producer. During that period, the studio faced cut-throat competition with 'Paramount,' 'Universal,' and 'First National' studios.
Jack underwent a breakdown after Sam died of pneumonia in 1927. Following this, he became the sole head of the 'Warner Bros.' studios. Sam's death was difficult for Jack, and he eventually turned unapproachable and ruthless toward many of his employees.
The grand success of the first feature-length talking film, 'The Jazz Singer,' earned 'Warner Bros.' a spot among Hollywood's five major studios. Later, the 'Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' acknowledged the studio's contribution in "revolutionizing the industry with sound."
Even though the studio flourished, Jack introduced several cost-cutting policies. He structured a quota system for the studio's directors and degraded the sets' lighting style to give them a fake cheap look.
'Warner Bros.' successfully produced a broad range of projects even during the 1929 ‘Wall Street Crash.’ However, it earned most of its profits from hard-hitting social dramas, which were highly supported by Jack.
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To pitch in “star power” during such a competitive period, Jack began acquiring contract players from rival studios and offered them higher salaries. One of them was James Cagney, who later became the studio's biggest gain and toughest challenge at the same time. Jack would use Yiddish expletives in his verbal brawls with James, which strained their professional relationship.
Jack's merciless attitude eventually resulted in him having a limited role in the production. However, he was not the same with everyone. A few film personalities, including Bette Davis, acknowledged him as a compassionate and polite person.
In the wake of ‘Nazism’ in the late 1930s, Jack and Harry produced several anti-‘Nazi’ films and became the only studio to produced war-themed projects. However, initially, they bowed to pressure from various associations and isolationist lawmakers to cease production of such projects.
Jack reportedly banned the use of German language in any form in all his studios, which was opposed by studio representatives. He was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the ‘US Army’ after America declared war against the ‘Axis Powers.’
In the late 1940s, Jack produced gimmicks, such as 3-D films, as a reluctant response to the rising popularity of TV at the time. However, he soon realized his mistake and finally ventured into TV in 1954, producing the 'ABC' weekly show 'Warner Bros. Presents.'
Around the same time, Jack became the victim of marketing myopia, as he considered cartoons, which was a trend then, an external service. Nevertheless, several years later, he sold all the 400 'Warner Bros.' cartoons that were made before 1948 for $3,000 apiece.
Jack's already tumultuous relationship with Harry worsened by February 1956, when Harry came to know about Jack's plan to sell all the pre-1950 films of 'Warner Bros.' to 'Associated Artists Productions.' However, it was too late by then, and in July 1956, 'Warner Bros.' was unanimously put out in the market.
Jack secretly organized a syndicate, purchased most of the company's shares, and appointed himself as the studio's new president. Learning from his past mistakes, in the 1960s, he kept himself updated with the rapid changes in the industry and produced several successful films such as 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' (which earned 13 'Academy Award' nominations in 1966).
Despite such achievements, Jack lost interest in film production, and on November 14, 1966, he sold a considerable percentage of shares to 'Seven Arts Productions.' Jack officially retired from his studio in 1969. He still served as an independent producer until the early 1970s.
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Jack displayed his anguish against "pinko communists' in an interview with host Merv Griffin. That was his only TV interview.
He directed the 1922 film ‘A Dangerous Adventure’ and the shorts ‘F.O.B. Africa’ and ‘Cleaned and Dry.’
Family, Personal Life & Death
Jack was married to Irma Claire Salomon from 1914 to 1935. They had a son named Jack M Warner. Jack named his son after himself, disregarding an Eastern European Jewish custom that forbade naming of children after living relatives.
Jack divorced Irma to marry Ann Page. Ann and Jack had a daughter named Barbara. Irma later sued Jack for deserting her. Jack's marriage to Ann was never accepted by his family and spoiled his relationship with his son. Jack Jr. is not even mentioned Jack's 1964 autobiography, 'My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.' The two never reconciled.
Jack had a series of relationships throughout the 1950s and the 1960s. One of them was with actor Jackie Park, who resembled Ann a lot. The two broke up after Ann pressurized Jack.
Jack was an "ardent Republican" but supported President Franklin D Roosevelt and the ‘New Deal’ in the early 1930s.
Toward the end of 1973, Jack retired due to his disorientation. In 1974, he became blind and enfeebled after suffering a stroke. He subsequently lost his voice. He also suffered from partial memory loss.
On September 9, 1978, Jack died of a heart inflammation (edema). He was entombed at 'Home of Peace Cemetery' in East Los Angeles, California.
The majority of the wealth and property he had left behind was given to his widow, Ann. He left $200,000 to Jack Jr., only to keep him from contesting the will.