Warner Bros. is one of the Big Five studios in Hollywood that was a major pioneer in films with synchronized sound and gained prominence after producing the first partial talkie, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. Established in 1923 by brothers, Harry, Sam, Albert and Jack Warner, Warner Bros. cemented its status a year later releasing the first all-talking feature film, Lights of New York. The movie’s massive success inadvertently led to the film industry converting to talkies overnight.
At the time, actors would sign a contract to act exclusively in Warner Bros.’ movies, hence the term “contract players”, which is no longer the case for modern Hollywood actors. Warner Bros.’ ultimate key to success was their stars who many today, are considered to be icons of Hollywood’s Golden Age such as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.
Known as The Great Profile, John Barrymore was the first big star to sign with Warner Bros. and is considered to be the first major movie star. Barrymore was born into the Barrymore stage family and along with his siblings, Ethel and Lionel, established the family name on the silver screen. Unlike his siblings, Barrymore had no desire to go into acting and had wanted to pursue a career as an artist but with no money, he turned to the stage solely for financial means.
After his success in the stage production of Hamlet, Warner Bros. cast Barrymore as the lead in the 1924 film, Beau Brummel which was a huge financial success. Barrymore went on to sign a long-term contract with Warner Bros. starring in The Sea Beast, Moby Dick and Don Juan which was the first feature-length film to be synced to sound effects and a musical soundtrack with Vitaphone technology.
2Olivia de Havilland
Olivia de Havilland is known for her role as Melaine Hamilton in Gone With the Wind as well as her frequent on-screen appearances with fellow Warner Bros. star, Errol Flynn. She and her younger sister, Joan Fontaine started performing at a young age, and in 1935, de Havilland made her film debut in the 1935 adaption of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In 1936, she negotiated and signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros. and got her first big break as Maid Marian opposite Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Throughout her career, de Havilland won two Best Actress awards for her performances in To Each His Own and The Heiress and is considered to be one of the greatest actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Known for his sophisticated villains, Claude Rains was a British actor who had started working at His Majesty’s Theater in London before becoming a successful stage star. He started at Universal Pictures and in 1935, signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. portraying memorable characters in classics such as Casablanca, King’s Row, and Now, Voyager.
Due to the terms of his contract, Rains was loaned out to other studios for films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination, andAlfred Hitchcock‘s film, Notorious. With a career expanding of almost seven decades, Rains is credited as one of the finest actors of the 20th century earning several Oscar nominations and a Tony Award win for his performance in the play, Darkness at Noon.
Doris Day started in show business as a singer in a big band and made her film debut in the 1948 film, Romance on the High Seas with Jack Carson. Day signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros. and a few years later, her film with Danny Thomas, I’ll See You In My Dreams, broke a 20-year box office record.
Day went on to star in the musical comedy, Calamity Jane, which won the Oscar for Best Original Song and Love Me or Leave Me co-starring Cagney. Between the 1950s and 1960s, Day was one of Hollywood’s most popular actresses and is also remembered for her non-Warner Bros. films specifically the romantic comedy, Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Lauren Bacall was 19 years old when she signed a seven-year contract with Warner Bros and made her feature debut in Howard Hawks‘ film, To Have and Have Not. A few years later, Bacall married her co-star, Humphrey Bogart who made four films together including The Big Sleep and Key Largo. Bacall’s independent, sultry femme fatale roles made her an icon of the film noir genre, but eventually, she branched out into other genres.
Bacall made several successful romantic comedies and dramas including A Young Man With a Horn, How to Marry a Millionaire, and The Shootist with notable stars like William Powell,Kirk Douglas and John Wayne. Later in life, Bacall revived her career with minor roles in Stephen King‘s Misery and Dogville as well as making a cameo appearance in an episode of the HBO hit series, The Sopranos.
6Edward G. Robinson
Edward G. Robinson is the definition of a classic gangster and is remembered for his wise guy roles in movies like Key Largo, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Originally on Broadway, Robinson made his film debut in the 1916 silent film, Arms and the Woman, and unlike most silent stars, the talkies didn’t hurt his career and had become an established actor by 1930.
After the success of Little Caesar, Robinson’s career took off and the actor signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros starring in several more gangster pictures before moving into dramas and film noirs like Double Indemnity and Orson Welles‘ The Stranger. Robinson appeared in over 100 films and with an impressive career spanning over 50 years, the American Film Institute ranks the actor as the 24th greatest actor of all time.
Australian actor, Errol Flynn, was one of Warner Bros.’s most dashing stars who by 1935, had signed a contract with the studio. Flynn got his first big break as the lead in the swashbuckling picture, Captain Blood which was a huge box-office success. He went on to appear in more adventure films including his most famous role, The Adventures of Robin Hood, before moving into Westerns and historical dramas like They Died With Their Boots On and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.
Flynn’s also recognized for his on-screen pairings with fellow studio star, Olivia de Havilland who made a total of eight films together and became longtime friends. According to an interview with de Havilland, she and Flynn both genuinely loved each other but Flynn’s wandering eye and multiple marriages proved to be problematic and essentially kept the stars from pursuing any kind of relationship.
Bette Davis was a phenomenal theater actress who had a reputation for her intense style of acting and the constant perfection of her craft that made her one of Hollywood’s first leading ladies. In the early 1930s, Davis signed a contract with Warner Bros. and remained under contract with the studio for 18 years. Her no-nonsense attitude and refusal to be pushed around by men earned her the nickname of the “fifth Warner Brother.”
Davis starred in countless classic movies including Now, Voyager, Dark Victory, and All About Eve, andwon two Best Actress Oscars for her performances in Jezebel and Dangerous. She wasthe first performer in history to earn 10 Academy Award nominations and also the first woman to become president of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.
Cagney was one of Warner Bros.’ biggest contracts known for his deadpan comedic timing and notorious tough guys in movies like White Heat and The Roaring Twenties. At a young age, Cagney learned to tap dance and performed on the vaudeville circuit for several years before signing a contract with Warner Bros. in 1930. He played second fiddle in a handful of films before his breakthrough performance in one of the most influential gangster films of all time, The Public Enemy.
By 1935, Cagney was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood and according to James Cagney: The Authorized Biography by Doug Warren, also started taking on roles in comedies and musicals including Love Me or Leave Me and The Strawberry Blonde. Throughout his career, Cagney earned three Oscar nominations winning only once for his showstopping performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Bogart was one of Warner Bros.’ most notable stars and today is considered an iconic staple in classic cinema. After the success of The Petrified Forest, Bogart signed a contract with Warner Bros. appearing in supporting roles in gangster movies for the first decade of his film career before his breakout performances in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon.
By the 1940s, Bogart’s career had taken off and starred in signature Warner Bros. films including Casablanca, The Big Sleep and Sabrina,becoming one of the silver screen’s most popular leading men. Bogart earned three Academy Award nominations winning one for his performance in The African Queen co-starring Katharine Hepburn. In 1999, the AFI named Bogart as the greatest actor of all time surpassing stars like Marlon Brando, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant.