Who Was Hirsz Mojżesz Wonsal? Originally Published December 11-12, 2020.

Born on December 12, 1881, in Krasnosielc, Poland, this fellow would later be known as Harry Warner, one of nine children born to Benjamin Abraham and Pearl Wonsal (later Warner).  Harry was the eldest of the four brothers - with Albert (1883-1967, born in Baltimore), Sam (1884-1927, born in London, Ontario), and eventually Jack (1892-1978, also born in Ontario before the family returned to Baltimore) - who would do business as the Warner Brothers.

Moving to Youngstown, Ohio, and following his father’s business lead, by 1896 (age 14) Harry had established a shoe repair shop.  The whole family followed, brother Benjamin joined the business, and in 1899 Harry and his brother Abraham additionally opened a bicycle shop.  They also opened a bowling alley, which failed, and Harry went to work as an outside meat salesman, in Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Though busy, he wasn’t exactly prospering, and at age 20 he moved back home.

Sam had learned to be a projectionist and how to fix the Edison projectors, and soon started off on his own to exhibit the film (which came with the projector he bought) The Great Train Robbery at carnivals, with the family joining in.  In 1903 Harry sold his businesses and he, Albert, and Sam got together to rent a vacant store in the Knox Building on South Mill Street in New Castle, Pa. (yes, our New Castle), to show motion pictures.  Sisters joined in, as well, Sadye selling tickets and Rose playing piano.  Jack, who had been a boy soprano in Vaudeville, sang between showings.  They had found their career path!  Soon they opened more theaters.  In 1907 they moved to Pittsburgh and established their own film exchange, the Duquesne Amusement and Supply Company.  In 1912, they started producing films themselves.  Harry ran things.  Sam was the head of technical matters, Albert was in charge of distribution, and Jack (the more flamboyant) came in to be in charge of production.

It happened that U.S. Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard, who had been ordered home, in 1917 wrote My Four Years in Germany, and the Warner Brothers got the rights and made the film.  It prospered.  In 1923 they incorporated Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc., and by 1925 they were huge in the industry.  That same year, they made a major investment, buying the Vitagraph Company, which had patented Vitaphone, an invention to synchronize sound with action.  In 1927 they produced The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson as a hazzan gone popular singer, widely known as the first commercial “talkie.” 

Some time in the 1930s, Warner Brothers bought Stanley Company of America, which had a stable of 250 movie theaters (think of Pittsburgh’s current Benedum Center).  Thus they would always have showplaces for their movies.  They produced huge musicals and films about current culture, classics (Shakespeare, Robin Hood), biographies, and also productions about racial and religious bigotry including The Black Legion and The Life of Emile Zola

In the mid 1930s, Harry Warner blocked the distribution of their films to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. In the late 1930s, Hollywood (finally) began to produce films against Nazi Germany, including Foreign Correspondent, The Great Dictator, and Warner’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy.  This apparently worried the American isolationists (many of them the original America Firsters), and the U.S. Senate in 1941 called an investigation into “Motion Picture War Propaganda.”  Warner Brothers was accused of making “militarism and incitement to war,” and Harry Warner testified in defense of the company’s productions.  (The investigation stopped when it ran out of money.)

Alas, an antitrust suit was brought on the way production companies were doing business, and after 13 years in court against the U.S. government, in 1951 they all were forced to divest their companies of the theaters.  They continued successfully producing films, and eventually branched out into television as well, producing such hits as the Murphy Brown and Maverick series. 

As your correspondent wonders about antitrust, she notes that in the 1990s they launched the WB television network, producing such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  In the late 1990s, they got the rights to the Harry Potter books, and produced four films between 2001 and 2005.  They also purchased the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera Productions, the film and television assets of Lorimar, and rights to most of the films of Castle Rock Productions.

Harry was quoted as once saying “It is not the challenge of dollars . . . it is the challenge of ideals and ideas!  If the producers of pictures see only the dollar, then I believe those production efforts will fail.”    

Harry Warner would serve as president of the company until 1956, when they sold the company.  Brother Jack, with whom Harry had long had a love-hate relationship, had made a secret deal with one of the purchasers and ended up with a majority of the stock and made himself president.  Harry learned of this reading a magazine, and had a heart attack, beginning his rapid decline.  He passed away in 1958.