March 11, 2010

The Movies Of Wonskolaser Brothers

If that headline is puzzling, here's the explanation: Wonskolaser was the original family surname of four enterprising brothers whose parents came to the US from Poland in the late 1800's. Like many families, they simplified and Americanized their last name on arrival.  Thus, the Wonskolasers became the Warners and, a few decades later, an American institution was born with the founding of a motion picture distribution company called Warner Brothers Pictures.

Continuing my TCM habit, I found all this out watching a fascinating documentary called "The Brother's Warner", directed by one of the brother's granddaughters, Cass Warner.  The company got its start showing movies to coal miners in Pennsylvania and each brother played a role: Harry ran the business, Albert took tickets, Sam minded the equipment and the youngest Jack would sing terribly at the end of each screening to clear the house.  Their family business grew through the 20's with stars like Rin Tin Tin and John Barrymore. However, they were they were something like the Fox Network of their day, competing against the big three studios of Paramout, MGM and First National.

That all changed in 1927 when Sam, the tech guy, convinced the brother's Warner that sound was the future of movies.  So they bought the Vitgraph company, decided to make the first feature length sound film, and that film The Jazz Singer practically changed Hollywood overnight.  TCM showed that groundbreaking film after the doc and it was just as fascinating to watch.  The most surprising thing is how little synchronized sound is in the movie....only 2 minutes of dialogue and 6 musical numbers in a 90 minute movie.  But, even with all the title cards and hammy acting, the film tells a dramatically compelling, two-hander of a melodrama which is so effective it's been remade three times since.

The story of the Warner Bros. does not, however, have a happy ending.  Sam died the day before The Jazz Singer premiered. That left Albert, Jack and Harry to feud with each other until Jack basically stole the company right out from under his eldest brothers in the 1950s.  Jack was an infamous figure in Hollywood, a larger than life super-quotable, old school mogul who was known for meddling in the editing room.  He died in 1978.