Warner's First Feature Film Turns 100

A Milestone Anniversary
Fri March 09, 2018 at 10:22 AM PST

One hundred years ago four brothers looking to make a name for themselves in the nascent film industry scraped together $50,000 to buy the rights to the enormously successful novel My Four Years in Germany, a firsthand account of U.S. Ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard's dealings with Kaiser Wilhelm II during the Great War. The Warner brothers, Albert, Sam, and Jack, led by Harry Warner, beat out stiff competition from other studios in securing the deal to bring the best-seller to the screen. 

At a press luncheon for James Gerard (seated center at the head of the table). Also present are Sam Warner (first on bottom lefthand side of photo), director William Nigh (on left, three men up from Sam), Harry Warner (seated to the right of Gerard) and Jack Warner (second on the bottom righthand side of photo).

With the first World War still raging on in Europe when the film was released on March 10, 1918, and a strong anti-German current running through the U.S., the country was eager for a patriotic film. My Four Years in Germany was presented as "fact not fiction" and was even interspliced with actual war footage from the front. The level of violence and brutality throughout the film was both shocking and enthralling to audiences, with many of the worst brutalities depicted as taking place at Wittenburg prison camp. Included in the film were scenes of sexual and physical assault, separation of families and violence towards the elderly. Some of the scenes were considered so cruel that the Chicago censor board ordered them cut, though the scenes were later restored.

My Four Years in Germany - English prisoner at Wittenburg camp
A still from My Four Years in Germany
My Four Years in Germany - Mr. Gerard questions the use of dogs
A still from My Four Years in Germany

The film, now widely considered a propaganda war film, was a boon for the brothers' burgeoning studio, grossing an impressive $1.5 million dollars. The box-office hit helped the brothers establish themselves as a prestige studio and were able to purchase property in Los Angeles at Sunset and Bronson and set-up shop as the Warner Brothers West Coast Studio, incorporating on April 4, 1923.

My Four Years in Germany newspaper clipping
In a newspaper clipping the Warners credited the film saying, "My Four Years in Germany brought us back into the game and restored our fortunes as well."
Newspaper write-up on Warner Bros. from 1924
The Youngstown, Ohio Vindicatotor touts "the boys" success and features the new studio in a 1924 write-up.

To learn more about the founding of the WB studio, visit our company history section