The genesis of the Warner movie empire actually began in Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the three older Warner brothers, Harry, Albert (Abe), and Sam, all still in their twenties, went into the nickelodeon business around 1903. (Jack, born in 1892, sang during intermissions and reel changes.) Like many early exhibitors, they soon moved into distribution to ensure a flow of product, only to tangle with the Motion Picture Patents Company. They persisted, however, and eventually reached a water-shed of sorts in 1918 with the release of My Four Years in Germany , a semi-documentary that became an enormous box-office success and enabled the Warners to move into production with a modest operation on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Continued growth accelerated in 1923, when the Warner Brothers West Coast Studio was incorporated as Warner Bros., and operations were expanded substantially. Warner Bros. released fourteen films that year, including Where the North Begins , which launched its successful series featuring the dog Rin Tin Tin. The studio produced several notable films in the next few years—including Ernst Lubitsch's (1892–1947) The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windermere's Fan (1925)—but its most significant efforts involved not film production but film technology as it pioneered the development of "talking pictures."
The impulse behind Warner Bros.' early experimentation with sound, which was the brainchild of Sam Warner, was not dialogue but music. The Warners hoped to bring full orchestral accompaniment to all of their releases, including those in smaller, subsequent-run theaters that could not afford an orchestra. In 1925 Warner Bros. acquired the Vitagraph studio (in New York) and, a year later, founded Vitaphone in a partnership with Western Electric to develop a sound-on-disc system. Early sound programs featured musical and vaudeville shorts and an occasional feature-length film with an orchestral soundtrack—most notably the successful 1926 release of Don Juan , starring John Barrymore (1882–1942). The breakthrough was The Jazz Singer , an October 1927 release starring Al Jolson (1886–1950), the phenomenal success of which not only energized the talkie revolution but secured Warner Bros.' position at its forefront. It also sent Harry Warner headlong into further expansion and theater conversion, but without the assistance of Sam Warner, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage on the eve of The Jazz Singer 's premiere.
Shortly after the release of The Jazz Singer , construction was completed on four sound stages at Warner Bros.' Sunset studio, and plans were finalized for complete sound conversion within a year. Work began immediately on a slate of "part-talkies," with efforts made at both Vitagraph and Sunset to produce an "all-talking" feature. That milestone was passed in July 1928 with The Lights of New York , a Vitaphone two-reeler that was expanded into modest feature length (57 minutes) by director Bryan Foy (1896–1977), a veteran producer of Vitaphone shorts. Hollywood's first all-talking feature film was a commercial hit, providing further impetus for Warner Bros.' breakneck expansion. In September 1928 Warner Bros. purchased the Stanley Corporation of America, a chain of 250 theaters, and in October bought controlling interest in a fully integrated company, First National, whose holdings included a massive studio facility in Burbank, north of Hollywood. Harry Warner closed the decade with the November 1929 purchase of the remaining First National stock, thus completing Warner Bros.' rapid climb to integrated major status.
In terms of filmmaking, the most significant developments during this phase involved the company's executive personnel, as Jack Warner assumed control of the West Coast production operations and the role of production chief was gradually assumed by Darryl Zanuck (1902–1979), who had joined the studio as a screen-writer in 1924 (at age twenty-two) and by the late 1920s had become the studio's de facto production supervisor. Another key executive was Hal B. Wallis (1899–1986), who joined Warner's publicity department in 1922 (at age twenty-three) and by the late 1920s was managing First National studio as it was being converted to sound. When that conversion was completed, the Burbank lot became the principal Warner Bros. facility. The newly melded company, known briefly as Warner Bros.-First National, reduced its output from some eighty pictures per year in the late 1920s to about fifty-five per year during the 1930s. Virtually all of Warner's top feature production came under the supervision of Darryl Zanuck, who by 1930 was earning $5,000 per week—a hefty sum by any studio's standards, and indicative of Zanuck's value to the company. During the next few years, operating under Zanuck as "central producer," Warner's studio style began to take shape. The Depression was also a huge factor, in that it forced the studio to reduce output and to operate more economically, which meant tighter budgets, lower-cost contract talent (especially stars), and a heavier reliance on genre—the key ingredients to Warner's emergent studio style.