When looking at the current state of politics in the United States today, one is likely to fall into a state of anxiety. With national leaders and political pundits resorting to finger-pointing and apocalyptic rhetoric, we can learn a great deal from the strong and stoic co-founder of Warner Bros., Harry Warner. Understanding the power of movies, Warner mandated that his studio’s films had a duty to educate and demonstrate key values of free speech, religious tolerance, and freedom of the press. Warner took cinema very seriously and always found ways to connect people both when America was united and also when it was severely divided. Connecting American culture was the studio’s strength but also Warner’s forte as a public figure.
Warner regularly encouraged understanding among people who may be political polar opposites. Both passionately political and incomparably independent, Warner was a longtime Republican who used his company to campaign hard for Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Warner was also known as one of the most charitable moguls in Hollywood who donated a great deal of money to local and national humanitarian causes that transcended politics of Left and Right.
Movies, when produced correctly, could be an unparalleled social force. Warner Bros. used their films to fight fascism long before World War II. When accused of warmongering in 1941, Warner told a Senate subcommittee, “For many years Warner Bros. has been attempting to record history in the making.” The studio made films about what they saw such as economic turmoil, crime, and prejudice. This topical approach to filmmaking created much respect and fanfare for Warner films.
Warner’s influence can be seen in each New Year issue of the Warner Club News throughout the 1940s, where Harry and his brother Jack would publish messages that would go out to thousands of studio employees. All of their messages were encouraging for the future and often critical of the present, but Harry’s message from January of 1947 has much resonance even today. Warner begins, “We seek peace among nations, peace in industry, peace in the ranks of labor, peace in our homes and peace within our own hearts. Yet peace, which is so universally desired, is most difficult to attain.” At a time when the world was ravaged by conflict, just like today, Warner understood that many people could have disagreements while connecting on universal desires.
Just like the studio’s films, Warner called out what he saw to be a major hindrance to peace and understanding, “If we are honest with ourselves we must admit that in the world there is much religion but little faith; many opinions, but little tolerance; many worthy causes, but little sincerity.” One can easily see the truth in this statement today. We live in a culture with no shortage of causes, opinions, cultural battles, and political debates. One look at social media can show you that Harry’s words are still applicable – there is much talk of faith but anger towards religion, myriad opinions but no tolerance of those who may disagree, and many excellent causes too often pursued for political points and without humanistic sincerity.
Harry’s answer to this problem is that “We have grown too far away from the simple virtues. We have led ourselves to believe that we are somehow entitled to peace as a matter of right. We have forgotten that this blessing comes only from hard work and an unselfish devotion to the welfare of mankind.” In other words, we must work together if we are ever to sustain a culture and community that holds faith, tolerance, and sincerity for humanitarian causes at the center. Too many people feel entitled for something they did not work for. It we want peace and cooperation within our communities we must earn it.
Warner concluded, “Faith, tolerance, and sincerity. These are the foundation stones upon which peace must rest. When we have dedicated ourselves to them, only then we will know what we are at last on the road to true peace.”
In 2016, it is all too obvious that the United States is more divided that any time in recent memory. With the future uncertain and the present turbulent at best, history can be a useful reminder that more can be done through connection than conflict. We can learn from Harry Warner if we follow his method of engaging the culture as a way to build on common ground.
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication for the University of Wisconsin Colleges. His new book, From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros., is currently available. Follow Chris on Twitter: @chrisyogerst