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Title: Kings of the Talkies
Author: Johnston, Alva (1888-1950)
Date of first publication: 1928
Edition used as base for this ebook: New York: The New Yorker, 22 December 1928 [Profiles]
Date first posted: 24 July 2010
Date last updated: 24 July 2010
Project Gutenberg Canada ebook #579

Kings of the Talkies

by Alva Johnston

22 December 1928

The men who murdered the silent drama are the four Warner brothers—Harry, Albert, Jack, and the late Sam Warner. History will hold them equally guilty.

They were not the first to make the pictures talk. Years before, Edison, de Forest, and others had caused the screen to soliloquize in empty houses, but the Warners were the first to make the public listen.

The modern talking-picture mechanism was developed in the laboratories of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company in 1925. The telephone engineers, who saw the motion-picture industry revolutionized overnight and "Hamlet" in the talkies by Christmas, called in the biggest man in the movies to witness the birth of a new art. The headliner at that première of the modern talkie was a full-length talking portrait of a gentleman with an impediment in his speech. Immediately after the performance the biggest man in the movies left without making any comment and was never heard from again.

That was in February, 1925. In March another man was the biggest man in the industry. The apparatus was tuned up again and the new biggest man was invited to see and hear. He said, "Gentlemen, this is horrible."

The show was then strengthened by a comic act, written and staffed by two telephone engineers and a physicist, but the April and May crop of biggest men in the motion-picture industry were still unimpressed, By this time every big concern except Warners had decided that the public would never like talkies. The Warners—and this is no idle figure—bet their shirts they would make the public like talkies, and mortgaged everything down to their personal belongings to launch the Vitaphone. The heads of the other big companies had made fortunes gambling against the fickleness of the public, but they did not want to risk their winnings. "Stabilize" and "standardize" were their watchwords, and they hated the thought of experiments and innovations. They had everything to lose by a revolution in the industry; the Warners had everything to gain.

*      *      *      *      *

The history of the Warners explains everything, From the start they had to be enterprising to live. Their father came here from Poland and set up a cobbler's shop in Baltimore, but it would not support a family of twelve. The boys had to sell papers as soon as they were old enough; before high-school age they were all working. When he was twelve years old, Sam was running a portable gambling hell in a street fair. The customer put a nickel down and spun an arrow. He could not win less than one cigar for the nickel and he might win any number up to seven. Nevertheless, there was a cruel percentage against the public, because Sam bought the cigars for a cent apiece. The combination of a moral wave and grafting local authorities ruined this enterprise. At the age of thirteen Sam was barking for an egg-dodger, and at fourteen he was managing an intemperate snake-eater. He later ran a bicycle-repair shop, had a brief career as a boxer, and became a locomotive fireman on the Erie.

Harry went on the road with meat products, and developed charm in the course of making himself agreeable to the delicatessen and retail-butcher trades. Later he sold apple vinegar, and perfected a deferential and courtly bearing in making his contacts with the grocers of Western Pennsylvania. A few years on the road is a great finishing school in manners, and Harry Warner could easily win a competitive examination for one of his own usherships. All the brothers have mellow ringing voices—the late Sam Warner spoke as melodiously as Caruso sang.

*      *      *      *      *

Back in 1903, when Harry Warner was twenty-one years old and Sam was sixteen, they decided to go into the pictures. They happened to be together in Pittsburgh and dropped in at a nickelodeon, where they saw a one-reel Western. They were overcome. Hardly able to speak, they silently clasped hands and cast their lot with the silent films. Albert Warner, twenty years old at the time, quit selling soap and joined them.

They began by putting a projection machine and a screen in a warehouse at Newcastle, Pennsylvania. At the start they were embarrassed by a scarcity of chairs when they were showing a popular feature, but next door was an undertaker, who was similarly embarrassed when he was holding important obsequies. This situation was a set-up for the combining and consolidating talent of the Warners. They merged the bereavement and amusement interests of the town. The chairs were pooled, and it was agreed that when there was a good film, the funeral must wait, and vice versa. The Warners rented a piano, which Rose, a sister, played. Jack, then twelve or thirteen years old, sang illustrated songs.

Sam Warner went an tour with that epoch-maker, "The Great Train Robbery," which he showed in barns and halls all over Pennsylvania. The brothers roadshowed other films in the same manner, and by 1910 had built up one of the most profitable agencies in the industry. In 1910, however, the industry was in the grip of an octopus. There were no films but the General Film Company's films. The octopus decided to run its own agencies, and it put the Warners out of business.

*      *      *      *      *

"If you break us, you'll break yourselves," Harry Warner told the head of the General Film Company. This was prophetic. The Warners and other independents began making their own pictures, and in five years the General Film Company hid failed. The Warners' first picture was "The Covered Wagon" with only one wagon. They called it "'The Peril of the Plains." They made several other successful four and five-reelers, but in their haste to expand, went outside of the family to take in partners. The new partners knew copartnership law. The Warners did not, and one day they found that they were no longer connected with Warners. Their company was doing beautifully, but the four brothers had signed away everything but the debts. They not only sold their homes, but called in the old-clothes man. After discharging their own obligations, they raised eighteen thousand dollars to pay off the losses of friends who had invested in the wrong issue of securities, but they compelled the new owners to change their title by giving up the name of Warners.

When their affairs were wound up, the four Warners had one dollar and sixty-five cents left. They soon found a backer, however, and started to distribute foreign-made pictures, making money with the French film "Redemption," but losing everything in 1917 in a futile effort to educate the public to appreciate "The Glass Coffin."

Then they began to look about for a new start. Passing a bookstore window, Sam saw a picture of a fly with the face of Ambassador James W. Gerard in a web surrounded by spiders with the faces of the Kaiser, Bethmann-Hollweg, Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and others. It was an advertisement for "My Four Years in Germany." Sam and his brothers were never greatly interested in reading matter. They did not stop to inquire what was inside the book, but wired the Ambassador an offer of twenty per cent of the profits in return for the film rights. The Ambassador agreed, but remarked that he did not believe his book would make a successful film. He was right. His book would not have made a successful film, but it was a great war-time title. Harry Warner and Charles Logue, the scenarist, wove in a corking romance in which pure affection and guilty love were contrasted, greatly to the detriment of the latter. A backer put up forty thousand dollars, while Sam and Jack went to Hollywood and built a studio and print laboratory with their own hands, and Albert Warner began to sell the picture in advance as the greatest ever made. First exhibited while the war was still on, "My Four Years in Germany" was a sensation, grossing eight hundred thousand dollars. The Warners followed it with their great morality film, "Why Girls Leave Home."

Jack Warner stayed at Hollywood in charge of the picture-making, while Sam shuttled from Hollywood to New York and toured the country as the field marshal of the picture-selling campaigns. Albert and Harry remained in New York to oversee the distribution and to hold the bankers' hands. They built homes in Westchester, took Thursday boxes at the Metropolitan, subscribed for the Hundred Neediest Cases, and otherwise regularized themselves. The brothers are heavy subscribers to Jewish charities, and no theatre in New York gives as many benefits as Warners. Jack has been in Hollywood so long that, at thirty-eight years of age, he is one of the patriarchs.

*      *      *      *      *

The Warners are equal partners in the business. Not only that, but they have all had the same bank accounts, and their possessions are pooled absolutely. When Sam Warner died a year and a half ago, he provided for his wife, Lina Basquette, and his child, with trust funds, leaving the residue of the estate, including his interest in the company, to his brothers. Their confidence in each other is complete. According to Jack Warner, the greatest advantage of their company has been its entire freedom from jealousies among executives and from inside politics. He says that the other companies are handicapped because the big executives waste too much time in worrying about what their fellow executives are doing.

In spite of their successes, the Warners have always been troubled by a scarcity of capital, a sore embarrassment to a rapidly expanding company. They have been saved several times by the quick administration of oxygen by New York bankers, but their fundamental difficulty was the fact that the big motion-picture houses in the large cities were nearly all in the hands of rivals. They tried to rush the theatres of their competitors with "Main Street," "Babbitt," "Brass," and other popular titles. Then they tried to force their rivals to open their houses to "The Marriage Circle," "Lady Windermere's Fan," and other Ernst Lubitsch masterpieces. Their one consistent money-maker, however, was Rin-Tin-Tin, who is still the one star which thousands of small-town motion-picture houses can not do without. That splendid animal has performed many heroic rescues on the screen, but his greatest has been that of leaping over rivers of red ink with the Warners on his back.

*      *      *      *      *

Their position in the industry was again precarious in 1925 when they took up the talking pictures. Sam heard about them in Hollywood and telegraphed Harry, who reluctantly consented to inspect the telephone company's talkies. Like the other moving-picture men, he found the sounds terrible, but he was the first to appreciate their possibilities.

A congress of all the Warners was called. Their method is to hold unlimited debate, but to leave all decisions to Harry. In this case they were unanimous in favor of going into the talkies. After the humiliations suffered at the hands of other picture men, the telephone company let the Warners have the device on terms which are said to have been equivalent to giving them a Christmas present.

Harry still has a violent prejudice against such words as "talkies," "speakies," and "talking films," and, according to employees, it is almost a firing offence to use such phrases in his presence. He wants the world to join him in adopting the elegant Graeco-Roman word "Vitaphone," and the Warners are now spending one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a month in advertising for that end.

*      *      *      *      *

Earlier talking-picture devices had been killed at the start by timorous showmanship. They had been used to reproduce third-rate vaudeville acts, equally objectionable in canned or human form. The Warners threw all their resources into their first show, which opened in New York on August 6, 1926. Martinelli, Elman, Anna Case, Zimbalist, Bauer, and the Metropolitan Opera chorus were on the first program; Al Jolson, Eugene and Willie Howard, George Jessel, and Elsie Janis on the second. Otto Kahn said, "If Martinelli could sing like that at the Met, he would be a greater star than Caruso." As the New York success was duplicated in Atlantic City and Chicago, Warner common stack jumped from eight to sixty-five.

Then came bad news: The Vitaphone not only flopped in St. Louis and Los Angeles, but nearly ruined the houses that introduced it. The response elsewhere was spotty. In some communities Vitaphone bill-posters had the power of smallpox signs in quarantining theatres, and Warner stock receded from sixty-five to nine.

The talkies were making gradual progress when the sensational success of Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer" won the fight. In less than a year Warner stock jumped from nine to one hundred and thirty-two. All the other big producers had to fall in line, and seven out of eight of them are now paying royalties to the Warners, who recently bought the Stanley and several chains of theatres and obtained control of First National, the film-producing organization. They were on the market with ten talking features before their competitors could enter the field. For the next two or three years, anyway, they are the reigning kings of the talkies.

[End of Kings of the Talkies by Alva Johnston]