January 8, 2024 | Brendan Da Costa

Ruthless Facts About Jack L. Warner, The Meanest Man In Hollywood

Jack L. Warner co-founded Warner Bros. Studios with his older brothers—then ruthlessly forced them out of the company.

1. He Produced Blood Feuds

Jack L. Warner was a founding member of Warner Bros. Studios and helped shape Hollywood’s infamous “Golden Age”. Even though he was responsible for some of the greatest films ever made (Casablanca, for example) his greatest legacy was his ruthless business tactics and outright brutality. In the end, he produced more blood feuds than films.

Press photo of Jack Warner in suit

2. His Parents Fled The Pogroms

Jack L. Warner was the 12th and youngest child born to poor Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. His family fled night-riding cossacks who burned down the houses of Jews and worse in the pogroms of Eastern Europe. They eventually made their way to the United States and Canada, where Jack L. Warner was born.

He brought the terror with him.

Jack Warner, one of the founders of Warner BrosUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

3. He Learned From The Worst

The cold Canadian climate proved to be too harsh for the growing Warner family so they eventually moved south and settled in Youngstown, Ohio. This is where Jack grew up and, more importantly, where he learned his cut-throat business tactics. At the time, he recalled, Youngstown was “one of the toughest cities in America”.

He was not exaggerating.

Youngstown, OhioInfrogmation,  Wikimedia Commons

4. He Grew Up With The Mafia

Jack’s new hometown of Youngstown, Ohio just so happened to be a hotbed of mafia activity. The Sicilian mob was active in Youngstown and Jack recalled that, in his neighborhood, every Saturday turned bloody. He spoke frequently about the “young hotheads on the prowl” in his memoirs. But there's one thing he rarely mentioned: He was one of them.

Jack L. Warner  in suitUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

5. He Wanted To Be An Entertainer

Given his later business tactics, it’s not entirely surprising to learn that, in his youth, Jack had belonged to a street gang himself. But, from the sounds of it, it was closer to West Side Story than The Departed. He soon started performing in vaudeville acts and realized he wanted to pursue a career as an entertainer. However, his older brother, Sam, disapproved.

Sam Warner in suitUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

6. His Brother Stopped Him From Becoming An Actor

Later on in his career, Jack developed a particular disdain for actors—even though he almost became one. His older brother, Sam, however, told him, “Get out front where they pay the actors. That's where the money is.” He wasn’t wrong. 

The older Warner brothers soon got into the business of film distribution. They had no idea the beast they had awakened in their little brother.

Sam Warner, Joe Marks, Florence Gilbert, Art Klein, Monty Banks, & Jack WarnerUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

7. He Co-Founded Warner Bros. Studios

With Jack onboard, the Warner brothers built up their early film distribution business and managed to sell it for a pretty penny. This was just the beginning for them. Over the next few years, they used that cash to start up the Warner Bros. Studios. It wasn’t an immediate success as a film production house. Then Jack’s ruthless tactics changed everything.

Warner Brothers - Albert, Jack, Harry And SamUnknown photographer, Wikimedia Commons

8. He Had An Eye For Talent

As a young producer, Jack displayed a keen eye for spotting talent, even if it wasn’t human. When Jack met the dog Rin Tin Tin, he knew that he’d found the star who would turn his fledgling studio into a behemoth. He remarked that the dog “seemed to display more intelligence than some of the Warner comics”. 

People laughed at him—but they wouldn't wouldn’t be laughing for long.

Rin Tin Tin 1929Warner Brothers, Wikimedia Commons

9. His Favorite Brother Was Sam

Rin Tin Tin turned out to be a cash cow for the fledgling Warner Bros. While the dog's movies raked in the cash, Jack worked closely alongside his favorite brother, Sam, on the next big thing. Together, they produced the 1927 blockbuster The Jazz Singer, the first "talkie". 

It was the start of something big—but during production, Jack noticed that the film seemed to be taking a toll on Sam’s health. The truth was worse much than he knew.

Sam Warner And Lina BasquetteUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

10. His Brother Wasn’t Doing So Well

If anyone could rein in Jack’s ruthlessness, it was Sam. But when the elder Warner began suffering from nosebleeds and headaches while producing The Jazz Singer, Jack knew something was wrong. Sadly, it was too late for him to do anything. On October 5, the day before the premiere of The Jazz Singer, Sam succumbed to pneumonia.

For some, however, this sudden tragedy felt far too suspicious.

A camera on the set of the first talking film, 'The Jazz Singer'.Hulton Archive, Getty Images

11. His Brother Was Terribly Ill

Sam had suffered from “sinusitis, osteomyelitis and epidural and subdural abscesses” along with a mastoid infection on his brain. However, decades later, in a 1993 memoir, character actor William Demarest alleged that Sam’s sudden and complicated demise had not been natural. 

Demarest claimed that the other Warner brothers had orchestrated the illness—and Sam's demise. Could there be any truth to such a dark rumor?

Sam Warner, director Frank Griffin, Howard Hawks, and Jack Warner,Warner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

12. He Wanted Revenge

Beyond Demarest’s explosive allegations, there’s no hard evidence that Jack or any of his brothers were responsible for Sam’s illness. But that didn’t stop those within the family from whispering about it. Given their closeness, it’s unlikely that Jack would have harmed Sam. 

But if his other brothers had been involved, he hatched a plan to get even.

Jack L. Warner at setWarner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

13. He Lost His Sunshine

The tragedy of Sam’s passing left Jack feeling lost and at sea. According to those who knew him well, Jack was inconsolable. As they said, “Throughout his life, Jack had been warmed by Sam's sunshiny optimism”. Furthermore, Sam had served as the peacemaker between Jack and his eldest brother, Harry. But with Sam gone, the Warner brothers feuded.

They all underestimated Jack’s brutality. 

Harry Warner - Feb 1919 MpwUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

14. He Had An Iron Fist

With Sam gone, Jack’s harshest personality traits came to the fore. Prior to Sam’s passing, Jack had been more or less tolerable as a producer. But, now that he was on his own without a softening buffer to the world, he turned into the iron-fisted producer that everyone remembers. It was good for business, but disastrous for the family. 

Jack Warner Portrait Photograph in suitUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

15. He Raided Other Studios

With the full-force of Jack’s business acumen unleashed, Warner Bros. Studios began producing more box office hits. Jack, however, became even more unpredictable and tyrannical. To maintain the studio’s supremacy, he “raided” the highest-grossing actors from rival studios. But he wasn’t always happy with the talent he purchased.

Jack Warner, Monty Banks, Sam Warner - Jan 1922 EhWarner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

16. He Was Cagey With Cagney

One of Jack’s biggest “buys” from a rival studio was James Cagney. But, while Cagney put butts in theater seats and money to the studio, he made Jack red with anger. Allegedly, the two fought constantly, with Cagney's Yiddish insults often echoing through halls of the studio. 

But Cagney wasn’t the only actor to end up on Jack’s blacklist.

James Cagney Promo Photo in suitWarner Bros, Wikimedia Commons

17. He Was Mean For The Sake Of It

Legendary film director Gottfried Reinhardt summarized Jack’s brutality when he said that the powerful producer derived pleasure from firing people on set. “Mayer could be a monster,” Reinhardt had said of studio head Louis B. Mayer, “but he was not mean for the sake of meanness. Jack was”. 

Maybe Gottfried just misunderstood his sense of humor?

Jack L. Warner stand in front of a truck containing the first Vitaphone sound equipmentWarner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

18. He Was Not Funny

Throughout his career as a producer, Jack was almost as famous for his strange and cringe-inducing sense of humor as he was for his brutality and ruthlessness. His odd jokes left those around him scratching their heads. Or running in fear. 

As the comedian Jack Benny said, “Jack Warner would rather tell a bad joke than make a good movie”.

Jack Benny  in suitNBC , Wikimedia Commons

19. He Banished Actors

Jack so despised some of the actors that worked for him—not just Cagney—that he went so far as to banish them from his sight. Those who worked on the Warner Bros. Studios lot revealed just how mean Jack could be. The all-powerful producer banned any and all actors from using the studio’s executive dining room, stating plainly (and rudely), “I don't need to look at actors when I eat”.

Jack L. Warner in suitullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

20. He Had At Least One Fan

Not everyone (although just about everyone) had bad things to say about Jack L. Warner. Bette Davis, for example, defended Jack from his detractors, particularly against accusations of impropriety. “No lecherous boss was he! His sins lay elsewhere”. She was, of course, referring to his primary sin of greed. And vanity. And wrath.

Bette Davis Isabel Santos Pilot, Flickr

21. He Take The Spotlight

When Warner Bros. Studios’ film Casablanca won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Jack couldn’t hold back his pride. Even though he had only been an executive producer on the project (meaning that he only funded the film), he was all too eager to claim the credit. But it meant taking the spotlight away from someone else.

Poster for the film Breve Storia del Cinema, Flickr

22. He Took Someone Else’s Oscar

Hal B. Wallis was the real producer behind Casablanca. Years later, he recalled the moment when the hosts announced that his film had won the Academy Award. Before he could even rise to his feet, Jack, he said, rushed to the stage “with a broad, flashing smile and a look of great self-satisfaction”. There was nothing that he could do.

al B Wallis circa 1955: A headshot of American film producer Hal B WallisHulton Archive, Getty Images

23. He Wanted All Of The Credit

Wallis tried to reclaim his spotlight from Warner, but he simply couldn’t make it to the stage in time. The rest of the Warner family sat between him and the stage, where Jack gleefully held onto the Oscar that he hadn’t earned. “I had no alternative but to sit down again, humiliated and furious,” Wallis said.

That's what you get when you get into bed with Jack L. Warner. Speaking of which...

American film producer Jack Warner (1892 - 1978), circa 1930Pictorial Parade, Getty Images

24. He Loved Money More Than Marriage

In late October 1914, early on in his career, Jack married Irma Claire Salomon. She was the daughter of prominent San Francisco Jewish parents, Sam and Bertha Franklin Salomon. Jack’s brothers welcomed Irma into the family as one of their own—but it was apparent to everyone that Jack loved making money more than he loved his wife.

Youngstown, Ohio

25. He Had A Mini-Me

Two years into their marriage, Jack and Irma had their only child, a son. Given that he was a raging narcissist, it’s not surprising that Jack broke with his family’s tradition in not naming children after surviving relatives. He named his son, Jack M. Warner, after himself. Thankfully, the boy was nothing like his cruel and ruthless father.

Jack M. Warner and fatherBettmann, Getty Images

26. His Wife Had Had Enough

After more than twenty years of marriage, Irma stunned the Warner family. She filed for divorce from the all-powerful studio head, Jack L. Warner. The move had likely been years in the making but, for once, it seemed, Jack had crossed a line with the long-suffering Irma. Or, more accurately, he crossed two pink lines.

Youngstown, Ohio

27. He Deserted His Wife

In her divorce proceedings, Irma cited “desertion” as the reason for the dissolution of their marriage. Naturally, everyone assumed that Jack had “deserted” his wife in favor of his love for money-making. The truth, however, was far more scandalous—and would cause another rift in the already divided Warner family. This one, however, would never heal.

Stanley Tucci as Jack L. Warner sitting at desk20th Television, Feud (2017)

28. He Got His Mistress Pregnant

In late 1934, it became apparent why Irma wanted to divorce Jack: He had a child with another woman. In September 1934, Jack had a child with his mistress, Ann Page. The scandalous divorce that ensued left the Warner family scrambling to shore up their reputation. 

As Harry put it, “Thank God our mother didn't live to see this”.

Mrs. Irma S. WanerBettmann, Getty Images

29. He Married His Mistress

After the divorce, Jack decided to make an honest woman out of Ann Page. Before the ink had even dried on his divorce papers from Irma, he married Page. But the extended Warner family, especially Jack’s son, refused to welcome Page into the fold of the Warner family. The contentious and shameful affair pitted father against son.

Jack L Warner and wifeGeneral Photographic Agency, Getty Images

30. He Finally Crashed

Less than a month after Harry passed in 1958, Jack nearly followed his brother into the hereafter. While driving his Alfa Romeo through the narrow roads of Cannes in the south of France, he lost control of the vehicle. The devastating and brutal accident should have been a wake up call for Jack and his whole family.

Cannes from Suquet TowerSpike, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

31. He Wasn’t Wearing A Seat Belt

After losing control of his vehicle, Warner crashed headlong into a coal truck. The sheer force of the impact launched him from the vehicle. In a strange twist, however, his lack of a seat belt actually might have saved his life. After launching from his roadster like a stuntman out of a cannon, the car burst into flames. Ironically, so did his family.

Stanley Tucci as Jack L. Warner in suit20th Television, Feud (2017)

32. His Son Announced His Demise

Tragedy usually brings families closer together—unless it’s the Warner family. Following his accident, Jack slipped into a coma for several days. During those short days, the divisions in his family grew even deeper. Jack’s son, Jack Jr., went on television and announced that his father wasn’t going to make it out alive.

He was wrong, though. Mean doesn’t give up that easily.

Jack Warner and his wifeGeneral Photographic Agency, Getty Images

33. His Son Blamed His New Wife For Everything

When the Warner family descended on Jack’s hospital room in France, the fighting inevitably broke out. Jack Jr. blamed Ann Page, in the throes of her grief, for his parents’ divorce and hurled insults at her. When Jack finally regained consciousness, he had to put the bickering to rest. 

Unfortunately, he did it by driving everyone further apart.

Mr. and Mrs. Jack Warner on Ship DeckBettmann, Getty Images

34. He Pushed His Son Away

Unsurprisingly, Jack was enraged at the reports that Jack Jr. had prematurely (maybe even gleefully) announced his impending doom to the entire world. Worse yet, Jack Jr. had insulted the love of his life, Ann Page. The vindictive producer immediately severed his already strained relationship with his son once and for all. 

Then, because he was Jack L. Warner, he just had to add insult to injury.

Ben Kingsley as  Jack L Warner in suitSee-Saw Films, Life (2015)

35. He Fired His Own Son

Jack wasn’t just satisfied with ending whatever personal relationship he still had with his son. He had to end their professional relationship as well. Once he had fully recovered, Jack had his lawyer inform Jack Jr. that he was no longer employed at the Warner Bros. Studios. It was a dramatic firing fit for the big screen.

Ben Kingsley as  Jack L Warner in suitSee-Saw Films, Life (2015)

36. He Blocked His Son From The Studio Lot

Jack Jr. knew that his father was cruel, but he didn’t know how cruel he could truly be. He couldn’t have imagined that Jack would actually have fired him in such a mean and impersonal way. He was, after all, his own flesh and blood. But, when Jack Jr. showed up to work, Jack had the studio security turn him away at the gates.

Warner Bros?LiAnG?, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

37. He “Forgot” About His Son

Jack and his son, Jack Jr., never mended their broken relationship. In fact, when Jack wrote his autobiography in 1964, he completely forgot to mention Jack Jr. By “forgot” we mean, he deliberately omitted him. Worse yet, when Jack passed, he left an estate valued at $15 million...but only bequeathed a paltry $200,000 to Jack Jr.

Jack Warner with Will HaysBettmann, Getty Images

38. He Sold Everything Off

As Jack’s tyrannical rule over the Warner Bros. Studios worsened, he found himself at odds with his other brothers, particularly his eldest brother Harry. Jack took an increasingly authoritarian and money-driven focus towards their "family" studio. But he crossed the line when he decided to sell the studio’s earliest films for a modest $21 million.

Movie studios in the Hollywood area from the air, as it appeared in 1922Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

39. He Went Too Far

Where the other Warner brothers saw art, Jack saw only dollar signs. So, when Jack sold off the rights to their studio's early films, his brother Harry lamented, “This is our heritage, what we worked all our lives to create, and now it is gone”. If he and the rest of his brothers wanted to stop Jack, they would have to get rid of him. Or he would get rid of them.

Harry M. Warnerullstein bild Dtl., Getty Images

40. He Wanted Full Control

In 1956, the Warner brothers came to the sad conclusion that their behemoth of a studio was only tearing their family apart. It was time to sell-off the business they had worked so hard to build up. But Jack was never one to lose control of anything—and he was far more Machiavellian than even his own flesh and blood knew.

Jack Warner Aboard the S.S. BerengariaBettmann, Getty Images

41. He Plotted Against His Brothers

When the brothers put their shares up for sale, Jack saw an opportunity to get what he had always wanted: everything. He made arrangements with a secret syndicate to buy up his brothers’ shares in the company. By the time they found out what was going on, it was already too late. 

Jack had taken the company right out from under them.

Headshot portrait of American film executive Jack L. WarnerHulton Archive, Getty Images

42. He Focused On The Business Of Show Business

With overwhelming control of Warner Bros. Studios’ shares—thanks to his brothers’ naïveté—Jack crowned himself the King of Hollywood and appointed himself president of the studio. From there, he focused laser-like on the business end of show business. Pretty soon, however, his ruthlessness would tear the family apart for good.

Jack L Warner at a weddingGeneral Photographic Agency, Getty Images

43. He Pushed His Brother Too Far

Jack’s genius move to  take the company out from under his brothers proved to be too much for Harry. Employees of Warner Bros. Studios recalled a chilling incident in which the blood feud between the Warner brothers actually almost turned bloody. It was not the first time, or the last, that Jack pushed those around him right over the edge.

Bobby Jones with the Warner BrothersBettmann, Getty Images

44. His Brother Almost Bludgeoned Him

According to the studio employees, Jack had finally pushed Harry too far. The elder Warner brother allegedly chased Jack through the studio lot with a lead pipe. He was shouting, “I'll get you for this, you son of a [b****]”. There’s no knowing what would have happened if he actually caught up with him. 

But in the end, karma still caught up with them all.

Harry WarnerUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

45. He Didn’t Care About His Brother

Following Jack’s dirty trick with the shares, he and Harry never spoke again. In fact, when Jack learned about his brother’s demise just a few years later in 1958, he didn’t even cancel his vacation or attend the funeral. Harry's wife, still furious, told reporters: "He didn't passed. Jack ended him".

When asked to give a statement about his brother's passing, Jack went low: He simply said, “I didn’t give a [s***] about Harry.” 

Jack Warner (1892 - 1978, centre) in a three-way handshakeArchive Photos, Getty Images

46. He Began To Lose Interest

With Warner Bros. Studios firmly in his grip, Jack churned out some of the biggest productions the studio had ever seen. He produced My Fair Lady and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?, both of which were smash hits that people thought would fail. Everyone except for Jack Warner, that is. 

But despite his continued success, it became apparent to anyone around him that, without his brothers to feud with, Jack was losing interest. And his mind.

Harry Stradling-Audrey Hepburn in My Fair LadyWarner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

47. His Wife Convinced Him To “Slow Down”

By 1966, Jack’s years of feuding with his own family for control of Warner Bros. Studios had taken its toll on him. He was getting ready to finally release his iron grip on power. His wife, Ann Page, convinced him to “slow down,” and he sold off most of the Warner Bros. Studios’ shares he had connived to take from his brothers.

Jack L Warner with his wifeHulton Deutsch, Getty Images

48. He Boasted About His Money

After selling his shares, Jack became a particularly wealthy man. He was a long way from the young “hothead” he had been in Youngstown, Ohio—even if he had clawed his way over his own family to get there. “Who would ever have thought that a butcher boy from Youngstown, Ohio,” he gloated, “would end up with twenty-four million smackers in his pocket?”

Youngstown Skyline Wean ParkDblcut3, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

49. He Was Losing His Power

After selling his stock, Jack began to lose his grip on power within the studio. Those around him saw him as something of a dinosaur from another era. He failed to block the production of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, a film that he personally “hated” and referred to as a “three-part movie”. It was a sign of the times. 

In 1969, he decided to officially resign.

Gene Hackman in  Bonnie and Clyde wearing a jacket and tie speaking with ClydeWarner Bros., Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

50. He Had Many Affairs

Jack didn’t exactly retire to a happy and blissful marriage. Throughout his wedded life to Ann Page, he made no secret of the numerous affairs that he had. He even carried on a four-year relationship with an aspiring actress. It might have gone further, but Ann pressed him to end the fling and he relented. But his mean streak continued even in retirement.

Davis And Warner Hold Davis' Best Actress OscarHulton Archive, Getty Images

51. He Stymied His Stepdaughter’s Career

Jack wasn’t even very nice to his stepdaughter, Joy Page. She was an aspiring actress who hoped that her mother’s marriage to the all-powerful Jack L. Warner would result in her landing big roles. She obviously didn't know Jack L. Warner. Rather than helping, he actively discouraged her from pursuing a career in acting and may even have blocked her from getting starring roles.

Joy Page in shirtWarner Bros, Wikimedia Commons

52. He Was Actually Sensitive

For all of his faults, Jack might not have been a total monster. At least, not all of the time. But Ann Page was the only one to see his softer side. If he ever had one. In her own autobiography, she wrote, “He is extremely sensitive, but there are few who know that because he covers it with a cloak”. A cloak covered with daggers, perhaps.

Jack L Warner and wifeHulton Archive, Getty Images

53. His Reign Of Terror Finally Ended

By the early 1970s, it became apparent that Jack was no longer the ruthless businessman he had once been. Those around him noticed that he was frequently “disoriented” and in 1974, he suffered a stroke that left him blind and unable to watch his life’s work: the movies. He continued deteriorating until 1978, when his reign of terror finally ended.

Jack Warner Star On Walk Of FameTabercil, CC BY-SA 3.0 , Wikimedia Commons


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