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First National

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Subject: Charlie Chaplin, Robert North, Howard Hawks filmography, Warner Bros., Sound film
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First National

First National film poster from 1918

First National was an association of independent theater owners in the United States that expanded from exhibiting movies to distributing them and eventually to producing them as a movie studio called First National Pictures, Inc. (1917−1936). In 1928, it merged with Warner Bros.

Early history

The First National Exhibitors' Circuit was founded in 1917 by the merger of 26 of the biggest first-run cinema chains in the United States of America, eventually controlling over 600 cinemas, more than 200 of them so-called "first run" houses (as opposed to the "second run" neighborhood theaters to which films moved when their first-run box office receipts dwindled).

First National was the brainchild of Thomas L. Tally, who was reacting to the overwhelming influence of Paramount Pictures, which dominated the market. In 1912, he thought that a conglomerate of theaters throughout the nation could buy and/or produce and distribute their own films. Tally was soon partnered with West Virginian James Dixon Williams, and they formed First National Exhibitors Circuit. Among the more than two dozen exhibitors who attended the first meeting held in New York on April 25, 1917, were Frederick Dahnken of the Turner and Dahnken Circuit in San Francisco, Harry O. Schwalbe of Philadelphia, Samuel Roxy Rothafel of New York, Earl H. Hulsey of Dallas, and Nathan H. Gordon of Boston.

Between 1917 and 1918, they made contracts with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, the first million-dollar deals in the history of film. For the latter, his contract allowed him to produce his films without a set release schedule. However, the production of the feature film The Kid ran so long that the company started to complain. To address their concerns Chaplin invited the exhibitors to the studio, and they were so impressed by the project and charmed by the players, especially co-star Jackie Coogan, that they agreed to be patient. That patience was ultimately rewarded with The Kid becoming a major critical and box office success.[1]

Rivalry with Paramount

Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures was threatened by First National's financial power and its control over the lucrative first-run theaters and decided to enter the cinema business as well. With a $10 million investment, Paramount built its own chain of first-run movie theaters after a secret plan to merge with First National failed. Ironically, this led to the foundation of United Artists by Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, Pickford, and Chaplin and to the loss of First National's biggest stars.

First National Exhibitors' Circuit was reincorporated in 1919 as Associated First National Pictures, Inc. and its subsidiary Associated First National Theatres, Inc., with 5,000 independent theater owners as members.[2][3]

In the early 1920s, Paramount attempted a hostile takeover, buying several of First National's member firms.

Associated First National Pictures expanded from only distributing films to producing them in 1924 and changed its corporate name to First National Pictures, Inc.[4] It built its 62 acre (0.25 km2) studio lot in Burbank in 1926.[5] The Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America and the Independent Producers' Association declared war in 1925 on what they termed a common enemy—the "film trust" of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, and First National, which they claimed dominated the industry not only by producing and distributing motion pictures but also by entering into exhibition as well.[6]

Merger with Warner Bros.

With the success of The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool, Warner Bros. purchased a majority interest in First National in September 1928.[7] Warner Bros. acquired access to First National's affiliated chain of theaters, while First National acquired access to Vitaphone sound equipment. But the trademarks were kept separate, and films by First National continued to be credited solely to "First National Pictures" until 1936. Although both studios produced "A" and "B" budget pictures, generally the prestige productions, costume dramas, and musicals were made by Warner Bros., while First National specialized in modern comedies, dramas, and crime stories. Short subjects were made by yet another affiliated company, The Vitaphone Corporation (which took its name from the sound process).

In July 1936, stockholders of First National Pictures, Inc. (primarily Warner Bros.) voted to dissolve the corporation and distribute its assets among the stockholders in line with a new tax law which provided for tax-free consolidations between corporations.[8]

From 1941 to 1958, most Warner Bros. films bore the combined trademark "A Warner Bros.-First National Picture."[9]

Notable First National productions

Made before the merger with Warner Bros. Pictures in 1936.

1925 film poster

After Purchase by Warner Bros.

See also


  • Jeff Codori (2012), Colleen Moore; A Biography of the Silent Film Star, McFarland Publishing,(Print ISBN 978-0-7864-4969-9, EBook ISBN 978-0-7864-8899-5).


  1. ^ Kevin Brownlow, David Gill|title (1938). Unknown Chaplin: The Great Director. Thames Television. 
  2. ^ "New Incorporations," The New York Times, November 18, 1919, p. 25.
  3. ^ "Picture Plays and People," The New York Times, February 1, 1920, p. XX4.
  4. ^ "New Incorporations," The New York Times, May 6, 1924, p. 36.
  5. ^ "First National Properties," The Wall Street Journal, May 21, 1926, p. 16.
  6. ^ "Theatre Owners Open War on Hays," The New York Times, May 12, 1925, p. 14.
  7. ^ Warner Bros. held 42,000 shares of common stock out of 72,000 outstanding shares while Fox Pictures held 21,000 shares; 12,000 shares were publicly held. "Warner Buys First National", The Wall Street Journal, September 27, 1928, p. 3. Fox sold its shares of First National to Warner Bros. in November 1929. "Fox Holdings in First National Pictures Sold," The Washington Post, November 4, 1929, p. 3.
  8. ^ "Film Concern Dissolves," The New York Times, July 12, 1936, p. F1.
  9. ^ American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures, volumes F4 and F5.
  10. ^ A History of First National PicturesFilms of the Golden Age,
  11. ^ Company credits for Tarzan of the ApesIMDB,

External links

  • First National at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Lost Films of First National Pictures
  • Freebase, First National: Films distributed
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