California Hall of Fame to induct the four Warner brothers

03/17/2013 12:00 AM

03/21/2013 1:14 AM

Before the Warner Bros. "WB" logo connoted a conglomerate and even before it evoked Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny, four visionary brothers stood behind it.

Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner were sons of Polish Jewish immigrants too persecuted and then too poor to send their children to school. Sent to work early in their lives, the Warners parlayed their unflagging work ethic and an ability to recognize the next big thing into one of Hollywood's most successful film studios.

The next big things during the Warners' rise in show business were nickelodeons, kinetoscopes and syncing sound to film. The last innovation, first successfully used in the 1927 Warner Bros. film "The Jazz Singer," changed the picture business forever.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jerry Brown, first lady Anne Gust Brown and the California Museum will induct the brothers into the California Hall of Fame. Harry Warner's granddaughter, Cass Warner, will attend. Jack Warner, youngest of the brothers, died in 1978.

"They came from nothing and their dream was as big as anyone can dream," Cass Warner said by phone from her home in Santa Barbara.

Warner, director of a 2008 documentary about her grandfather and great-uncles called "The Brothers Warner," said the family is "delighted and honored" by the Hall of Fame award.

The brothers possessed "the philosophy that innovative people have," she said. "Every challenge, every reason for them to quit, was an incentive."

Harry, Albert and Sam Warner (their real surname reportedly was Wonskolaser) were born in the 1880s in the part of the Russian empire that became Poland. Anti-Jewish laws sent the family packing to Baltimore and elsewhere where father Benjamin Warner, a shoe repairman, found work. Jack was born in 1892.

The boys hawked news- papers to help support the family of 12 children. Taken by the wonder of moving pictures and the 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery," the elder three brothers opened a theater. They later became film distributors.

With Jack in tow, the brothers left Hollywood and established Warner Bros. Studios in 1923. (The Hall of Fame award marks its 90th anniversary.) Harry was president and Sam was in charge of production. Albert handled distribution, and Jack day-to-day operations.

The young studio struggled. Rin Tin Tin was its only moneymaker.

Filmmakers were experimenting with sound, alienating audiences in the process.

Warner Bros. kept trying. Sam, who procured the technology that would sync dialogue and film in "The Jazz Singer," died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 40 just before the film debuted.

As Harry, Albert and Jack grieved, "Jazz Singer" became a box office sensation, ushering in the "talkie" era and putting Warner Bros. on the map.

The brothers knew living in America "was a privilege," Cass Warner said, and that inspired great patriotism.

"My grandfather in particular was always involved in helping America and its causes," she said.

Warner Bros. became known as the most patriotic of big studios during World War II, offering its resources for military training films. Even 1942's "Casablanca," with its anti-fascist themes, was viewed as helpful to the war effort.

Harry's opposition to Adolf Hitler long predated the United States' participation in the war. In 1934, Warner Bros. became the first Hollywood studio to pull out of the lucrative German market. In 1939, the studio made the first anti-Nazi film, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy."

A sense of social responsibility permeated Warner Bros. films. The studio's promise to "educate, entertain and enlighten" manifested itself in 1930 and '40s films that exposed social ills such as abuse in prisons ("I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang").

The fictional criminals on which Warner built its lean, tough Golden Age reputation, from Edward G. Robinson in "Little Caesar" to James Cagney in "White Heat," came out guns blazing and came down in a hail of moral retribution.

"One of the reasons they did the gangster movies was they wanted to show crime didn't pay," Warner said. If these sometimes-exploitative films also sold tickets, that too was American.

More dramatic than the gangster films were relations between studio president Harry, a solid family man, and Jack, the pencil-mustached, wiseacre head of production and the company's public face. Eleven years Harry's junior, Jack frolicked with movie stars, divorced his first wife and generally met with Harry's disapproval. The brothers timed their lunches in the Warner private dining room to avoid each other.

The rift became a chasm in 1956, as "The Brothers Warner" shows, when Jack persuaded Harry and Albert to sell the studio and then bought it back himself without telling his brothers.

Exploring this betrayal in her film was "tricky," Warner said.

"More than anything I wanted to understand what happened – rather than blame anybody – because I wasn't there."

Jack's behavior did not diminish his contributions to the studio or the brothers' legacy, Warner said, "but it is too bad they went to their grave not resolving their differences."

Harry died in 1958, Albert in 1967.

Jack retired in 1970, after helping shepherd the "new Hollywood" films "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and (under some protest) "Bonnie and Clyde."

There are no longer family members atop Warner Bros., part of media giant Time Warner. But a cousin works for the record company, Cass Warner said, and her own son, Cole Hauser, is a successful actor.

Warner returns regularly to the Burbank Warner Bros. lot she roamed as a kid. She's working on a permanent exhibit on the brothers for the studio's VIP Tour, and lunches weekly with tour guests through its "meet the family" feature.

Warner said there is a fictional film about the brothers in the works, with Nicholas Pileggi ("Goodfellas") writing the script.

When she can distance herself from how it affected her grandfather, Warner sees the brothers' journey as "Shakespearean, and really incredible," she said.


CALIFORNIA HALL OF FAME

Admission to Wednesday's ceremony is by invitation only. The public can view red-carpet arrivals from 6 to 7 p.m. from a designated area at 10th and O streets in Sacramento. The ceremony will be recorded for later broadcast on California PBS stations. An exhibition representing the inductees opens Thursday at the California Museum.

Inducted will be social scientist Gregory Bateson, known for his "ecology of the mind" theories; actor and director Warren Beatty; designers Charles and Ray Eames (the latter also the subject of an ongoing exhibit); United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta; Ishi, who emerged from the wild in Tehama County in 1911 and is believed to have been the last of the Yahi people; former 49ers quarterback Joe Montana; and movie industry giants Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack Warner. Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @carlameyersb.

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