Whether you think of Warner Bros. as the studio that gave you talking pictures, Bugs Bunny, Bogart, or Batman, you have to acknowledge the studio’s place at the forefront of Hollywood history. Indeed, it’ll be hard to avoid acknowledging it this year, as the studio will be spending 2013 celebrating its 90th birthday.
The celebration kicks off with the release of two massive boxed sets of 50-plus discs each, both entitled the “Best of Warner Bros.” — a 100-film set of DVDs and a 50-film set of Blu-rays. Both sets encompass the studio’s milestones of the entire sound film era, which Warners itself kicked off in 1927 with the release of “The Jazz Singer.” (The sets go all the way up to the 2010 classic-to-be “Inception.”)
As familiar as these movies are, there’s still plenty you may not know about the legendary movie studio, from who the actual Warner Brothers were, to the stars the studio minted, to its technical innovations, dramatic downturns, and recent achievements. Read on for a list of little-known facts about the Hollywood institution. (Many of these were gleaned from “Hollywood Be Thy Name,” the 1999 biography of the brothers written by Harry Warner’s granddaughter, Cass Warner Sperling, and Cork Millner.)
1. Yes, Warner Bros. has a motto, and no, it’s not, “That’s All, Folks!” In fact, it’s “Educate, Entertain, and Enlighten.”
2. How many Warner Brothers were there? Initially, there were 12 siblings, four of whom died in childhood. The founders of the studio were four of the surviving siblings: Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack.
3. The studio dates its founding to its incorporation on April 4, 1923, but the Warners were in the movie business long before that. In the first years of the 20th century, the family (then based in Youngstown, Ohio) bought a film projector and used it in to show movies in a tent that they toured throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania before opening their first stand-alone theater in 1906. In 1907, they moved into film distribution.
4. The Warner Brothers started to produce their own movies in 1910. By 1918, they had built their first studio in Los Angeles, in Culver City. Two years later, they moved to a site in Hollywood, on Sunset Blvd., in what is today the Sunset Bronson Studios.
5. The studio’s first major star was a German shepherd, Rin Tin Tin. The dog appeared in 27 movies and was Warners’ biggest asset of the silent era. According to legend, he even received the most votes for Best Actor during the first Academy Awards, but the Academy, seeking credibility, gave the prize to the human male with the most votes, Emil Jannings.
6. “The Jazz Singer” is considered the first major talking picture, but it was not the first sound film. In the mid-’20s, Warners introduced Vitaphone, a system for accompanying film with sound from engraved discs, that was used for talking short films and for musical sequences in the exhibition of such Warners features as John Barrymore’s 1926 hit “Don Juan.”
7. Still, “The Jazz Singer” was the first successful feature-length film featuring spoken dialogue. Sam Warner, the brother who was the strongest supporter of the Vitaphone technology, died at 40 of complications from pneumonia on the eve of the film’s 1927 premiere. The Al Jolson vehicle was a smash, putting Warners on the map as a major studio and facilitating its move to the massive studio lot in Burbank that Warners occupies to this day. More important, “The Jazz Singer” ushered in the transition from silent movies to sound films throughout the world within the next couple of years.
8. In the 1930s, Warners was best known for its gangster movies. “Little Caesar,” the 1930 melodrama about a mobster’s violent rise and fall, set the template for virtually all gangster dramas to come. The crime dramas that followed throughout the decade — including “Public Enemy,” “I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” “Angels With Dirty Faces,” and “The Roaring Twenties” — made stars out of such Warner contract players as Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Paul Muni, and Humphrey Bogart.
9. Other stars who made their names as Warner contract players in those days included Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, George Raft, and Ronald Reagan.
10. With the coming of World War II, the studio began to specialize in war dramas supporting the Allied effort. The archetypal movie of the period was 1942’s “Casablanca.” The Humphrey Bogart classic may be the most beloved movie in the studio’s history; to this day, the film’s theme song, “As Time Goes By,” can be heard while the “WB” shiield logo appears at the beginning of every Warner Bros. release.
11. The studio got its first cartoon star with Porky Pig in the mid-1930s, though he was soon supplanted by Bugs Bunny (who debuted in 1940) as the Warners’ mascot. Despite the production of hundreds of legendary shorts whose subversive, irreverent humor has kept them fresh to this day, Jack Warner treated the cartoon division with indifference bordering on contempt. He supposedly knew so little about his studio’s own product that he mistakenly believed Mickey Mouse was one of his properties. In the 1950s, he sold much of the Warners’ cartoon library for a mere $ 3,000 per short, thus depriving the studio of untold millions in future revenues.
12. In 1950, Warners was facing the rise of television and the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Paramount decision, which forced the Hollywood studios to sell off their theater chains. Facing an uncertain future, Jack Warner sold off most of the studio’s pre-1950 library of classic films for just $ 21 million.
13. James Dean made only three movies, all of them for Warners: “East of Eden,” “Rebel WIthout a Cause,” and “Giant.”
14. Jack Warner had been the effective head of the studio since the 1920s, often clashing with his brothers. In the 1950s, the brothers agreed to sell their interest in the studio, but Jack secretly bought his brothers’ shares through a consortium. Soon, he was the sole head of the studio. His brothers never forgave him, and Harry never spoke to him again. Harry died soon after in 1958; Jack did not attend his funeral.
15. Over the years, Warners was involved in several landmark censorship battles. Such gritty early 1930s films as “Baby Face” (in which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way to the top of the corporate ladder) were so scandalous that they led to the 1934 institution of the Production Code that kept movies sanitized for the next 35 years. In 1951, the studio wrangled with the Code administrators over the adults-only content of “A Streetcar Named Desire” until finally achieving some compromises that permitted the release of the landmark film. In 1966, the studio flouted the code with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and was rewarded with several Oscars and box office success. That was the victory that ultimately forced the code to fold forever, to be replaced in 1968 by the movie content ratings system we have today.
16. Jack Warner stepped back from his studio-chief duties after the 1967 flop “Camelot.” He’d been running the studio he co-founded longer than any of the other moguls of his generation, including Harry Cohn (Columbia) and Louis B. Mayer (MGM), and his retirement was considered the end of an era.
17. Warners created the blueprint for the modern-day superhero movie with 1978’s “Superman” (with Christopher Reeve) and 1989’s “Batman” (with Michael Keaton), both based on caped-hero titles published by DC Comics, which was a division of Warner Bros.
18. For the last three decades of his career, Stanley Kubrick worked exclusively with Warner Bros. as his distributor, in a partnership that resulted in such classic films as “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” and “Full Metal Jacket.”
19. Warners boasts nine Best Picture Oscar winners, from “The Life of Emile Zola” (1937) to “The Departed” (2006).
20. Warners got most of its classic library of features and cartoons back in 1996 when it purchased Ted Turner’s Turner Broadcasting. The Turner collection included the MGM/United Artists library and the RKO library, which seems to be the reason why the new Best of Warner Bros. DVD and Blu-ray collections include such films as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Citizen Kane,” “An American in Paris,” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” which were not Warner Bros. productions.
21. Warners ushered in the modern-style documentary wave with 1989’s “Roger & Me,” which launched Michael Moore’s directing career.
22. In 2009, Warners became the first studio to gross more than $ 2 billion in North America in a calendar year.
23. Warners’ biggest grossing hit ever: 2011’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,” with a worldwide gross of $ 1.3 billion. Its biggest domestic hit: 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” which earned $ 533 million in North America.
24. Virtually every movie Clint Eastwood has directed or starred in for the past 45 years has been for Warner Bros., a partnership that has included about 40 films.
25. To the extent that the studio is known for anything these days, it’s for greenlighting mega-franchises: the Harry Potter movies, the Matrix trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies (made by Warners’ indie division New Line Pictures), the “Sherlock Holmes” movies, the “Hangover” comedies, and the Superman movies (including this year’s upcoming “The Man of Steel”).
‘The Life of Emile Zola’ (1937)
‘My Fair Lady’ (1964)
‘Chariots of Fire’ (1981)
‘Driving Miss Daisy’ (1989)
‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King’ (2003)
‘Million Dollar Baby’ (2004)
‘The Departed’ (2006)