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October 2, 2001

Doc Spotlight

At 7:00 p.m. on Thursdays this quarter, Doc Films embarks on a filmic history of Universal Studios in the time of its founder, Carl Laemmle, Sr., and especially under the influence of his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr. This period includes the introduction of sound to film to Hollywood, and the recruitment of some of Europe's most talented filmmakers to the American screen. The resulting films are some of the most memorable from this or any period, and include the introduction of such iconographic images as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy into American society.

Carl Laemmle, Sr., was born in 1867 in Laupheim, Germany. By the time of his arrival in America in 1884, he had already been an excellent bookkeeper and office manager. In 1906, Laemmle opened his first nickelodeon and quickly expanded to open more locations and his own film exchange. Within two years, Laemmle had centers in several cities both in the U.S. and in Canada. In 1909, Laemmle founded the Independent Motion Picture Company of America to produce films in competition with the Motion Picture Patents Company. After it tried to destroy his company, Laemmle won a court battle with the Patents Company, hastening its demise. He publicized the stars (including Mary Pickford) more than any other company had, and his feature film Traffic in Souls made almost $495,000 in profit in 1913.

Laemmle merged with a couple of other independent producers and moved their newly formed Universal Pictures to California, where he purchased 230 acres of land. Designating the space Universal City, the studio was, and remains, the largest in the world. He established a police force, fire fighters, and even signs instructing “Keep off the Grass" bearing the name Carl Laemmle. The film production consisted of mostly short programmers; quickly and cheaply done westerns and melodramas allowing for a steady stream of new releases.

Carl Laemmle had hired the young Irving Thalberg in 1918, and it was in his capacity as production head that the able Thalberg clashed with Erich von Stroheim over Foolish Wives in 1922. The German director had been given his first directorial assignment by Laemmle two years earlier, but his extravagant taste and elaborate set construction put Foolish Wives well over budget. Still, the film was a remarkable piece of filmmaking and represented a trend on the part of Laemmle to add some more prestigious feature films to the Universal repertory. The more prestigious titles, referred to as Universal Jewels, included titles from director John Ford, and included titles such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney, Sr.

In 1929, Carl Laemmle's son, born Julius Laemmle but forever known as Carl Laemmle Jr., became production head at the studio. Though he was only 21, Junior had a great deal of experience on sets at Universal and had already produced several films. Junior would hold varying official posts with the studio until 1936.

At first, the young man advocated for and produced the film adaptation of Eric Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front, bringing in Hungarian director Lewis Milestone but casting virtual unknowns in the lead parts. The production was (and remains) a critical favorite, and silenced some of the criticism Junior had initially received as an upstart and college-boy intellectual looking for literary material to film. Another literary adaptation he championed was that of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Dracula had been touring in the form of a production by the stage's influential producer Hamilton Deane, first in Europe and later in the United States. F.W. Murnau had filmed an unauthorized version of the novel in Germany under the name Nosferatu almost a decade earlier. Lon Chaney was slated for the lead at Universal, but died before the filming began. In his place, and after some casting around, Bela Lugosi landed the part. He had actually been playing Dracula on the American stage. The film was an immense hit.

Laemmle, Jr. had also advocated a British director who had come out with the gritty war drama Journey's End just before All Quiet. The film was based on the West End play of the same name staged by the same director in both London and New York and met critical praise and some popular success before Universal's World War I drama overshadowed it. The director was James Whale, who would forever be associated with some of the best films Universal (and Hollywood) produced in this time period. His first assignment at Universal was Waterloo Bridge in early 1931. The film was well received by audiences and critics alike. In 1939, Universal and MGM entered into an unusual rights-sharing deal on the title (to facilitate MGM's 1940 remake) which has made Waterloo Bridge especially difficult for audiences to see for 70 years.

Whale's next assignment came right from Carl Laemmle, Jr. Frankenstein, which Junior Laemmle had to fight for despite the success of Dracula, was another adaptation from a literary source that also came from a play. The imaginative look of the film, including the castle interiors and the interiors of the laboratory, clearly show Whale's influence; he had designed stage sets for years before directing. For the creature, Whale cast bit player Boris Karloff, some say while the actor was eating in the Universal canteen. His gaunt features were accentuated by Universals make-up wizard Jack Pierce, who also weighed down Karloff's eyes and added bolts to his neck. Whale also cast Colin Clive from the play and film Journey's End, whose performance made the film, as the tortured man-against-fate Henry Frankenstein; a character unable to escape his own self-destruction. Clive himself led an all too similar life, and his own alcoholism would lead to his death in 1937.

The next installment of the lucrative Universal horror series was The Mummy. The script evolved through several drafts, with the final result being a tale of love through the ages. Imhotep (in mummified form) is re-incarnated as Ardeth Bey, who menaces the living using his ancient mental powers while seeking the soul of his lost princess love. Only archeologist Frank can stop him! One of the writers, John L. Balderston, had been a journalist covering the opening of King Tutankamun's tomb in 1921 (the 10-year systematic removal of objects being completed at about the same time that The Mummy was released). His first-hand knowledge is largely to thank for the authentic Egyptian look of the film. Karl Freund, the influential German who had acted as cinematographer for The Golem, with Lang on Metropolis, and with F.W. Murnau on 10 films, had recently been recruited to Universal. Freund is largely responsible for the deep, rich, shadow of The Mummy, his first film in the director's chair.

James Whale continued in the fantastic with the adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, using elaborate and time-consuming process shots with a remarkable effect, and with The Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff returned as the creature, now with a limited vocabulary, and many consider this slyly done piece of black humor Whale's best film, and perhaps the best of Universal's productions.

While the horror films have retained public attention, the studio continued to produce numerous and varied other features. Westerns ranged from the two reelers that the studio had long cranked out (and always turned a healthy profit) to the more intellectual titles like Law and Order. John Huston wrote the script for this fictionalized account of the gunfight at O.K. Corral with an accent on the despair of the needless death in the situation. A standout of its time.

Melodrama, long another specialty of affordable Universal short films, also reached a creative peak under the Laemmles. John M. Stahl, formerly of Tiffany-Stahl, came over to Universal to direct nine such works, including Imitation of Life. Though largely forgotten now, Stahl was arguably the most important director at Universal City from his arrival in 1931. His titles were well crafted and immensely popular.

In the Depression, Universal had initially seemed financially untouchable, but towards the middle of the decade financial problems and the age of Carl, Sr. contributed to rumors of a sale or merger of the company. In 1936, the 69-year-old studio owner announced that, for a great deal of money, he would sell the company to an agglomeration from the East Coast. Junior would go with him amid rumors of starting his own company or his own unit at MGM.

Their last film was Show Boat, an adaptation of the musical that Laemmle, Sr. had already produced in an uncomfortable half-talkie version in 1929. James Whale helmed again (notice the creative sets), and the final film was well accepted. Carl Senior retired a wealthy man and remained happy until his death just three years later. Carl Junior, 28 in 1936, remained active in Hollywood (though with little result) for a little before beginning a 43-year retirement.

Universal fell into inartistic hands and was largely mismanaged. The horror films remained a studio mainstay, but the films lacked the quality of the creative minds the Laemmles allowed to run free in Frankenstein and The Mummy. These characters, losing their humanity and generally reduced to zombie-like objects clunking through one silly, improbable plot after another, appeared in the likes of House of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Mummy's Hand, The Mummy's Tomb, and The Mummy's Ghost.

Carl, Sr. built a studio from a storefront, and in addition to the sharp business acumen, he recognized the need for higher quality films in addition to the cheap and profitable shorts. Carl, Jr. lacked his father's financial head, but the titles and individuals he brought to his father's stable studio, many imported from Europe, provided the driving force behind the most memorable films the studio would make.