Universal Studios was founded 99 years ago today by Carl Laemmle. We look back on a man who not only helped create Hollywood, but saved hundreds of families during the Holocaust.
Born in 1867 in Laupheim, Germany, Carl Laemmle and his family immigrated to America when he was 17 years old. Settling first in Chicago, he worked at a number of low-wage jobs for the next 10 years before moving to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He spent 12 years working as a bookkeeper at a dry goods store there, but left after failing to get a raise. It would be the best raise he never got.
Returning to Chicago, Laemmle hoped to open his own store, but seeing the growing popularity of a new form of entertainment called “movies,” he changed his mind and bought a nickelodeon instead. In 1906, he opened the White Front Theater on Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue. Other nickelodeons followed, and before the year was out he had established the Laemmle Film Service, essentially a distribution company. By 1909 it had grown into the largest “independent” (non-Edison) film exchange in the country.
The enterprise’s profitability, however, was limited by a number of factors, and Laemmle wanted to move into production. But Edison’s Motion Pictures Patents Company stood in his way, demanding licensing and royalty fees for any product created using its technology – essentially giving it a cut of any film made in the United States.
Laemmle defied Edison by creating the Independent Motion Picture Company in New York in 1909 and producing a number of multi-reel films over the next three years. For refusing to pay Edison, Laemmle was slapped with no fewer than 289 lawsuits.
On June 8, 1912, Laemmle reformed his company as Universal and headed to California. The migration west was partly to escape agents from Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company, but the booming outskirts of Los Angeles offered several advantages New York didn’t. Cheap land for large studio lots, a variety of outdoor settings – mountains, deserts, forests, the ocean – within a short drive and a climate that allowed for year-round production proved irresistible lures.
Of the early Hollywood film moguls (Laemmle, Zukor, Fox and Loew) Laemmle was considered the warmest and most easygoing. He endeared himself to actors by being among the first to give them credit onscreen and is often said to have created the first named movie star – Florence Lawrence, previously known only as "The Biograph Girl." His was the only studio that allowed tourists to visit (a practice that has evolved into a $100 million annual business with Universal Theme Parks in Los Angeles, Orlando and Osaka, Japan). On the lot he was affectionately referred to as Uncle Carl – though with his penchant for nepotism, for many the moniker wasn’t a nickname. At one point he was said to have had more than 70 relatives on the payroll, causing poet Ogden Nash to quip in verse, “Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle.”
Between 1915 and 1925, Universal was the biggest and most productive studio in the world. Though the studio specialized in low-budget melodramas and Westerns, its two biggest successes came with the prestigious Lon Chaney films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925). Unlike most studio heads, Laemmle refused to let Universal go into debt to fund any of his films, and so the studio was nearly bankrupt when director Erich Von Stroheim went over budget with 1922’s Foolish Wives and Blind Husbands.
In 1930, Laemmle turned over the reins of the studio to his son, Carl, Jr., under whose leadership the studio would become known for high-quality, low-budget monster movies like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy.
Carl Jr. also helped Universal win its first Oscar for the anti-war All Quiet on the Western Front. Carl Laemmle Sr. must have been upset – though perhaps not overly surprised – to learn that the Berlin premiere of his film in December 1930 had been disrupted by a group of National Socialist Storm Troupers who, under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, had threatened cinema goers, set off stink bombs and released cartons of mice under the seats. The ‘protests’ lasted three days, until German authorities succumbed to pressure and banned the film.
Carl Laemmle never lost touch with his European roots, traveling every two years to his hometown as well as visiting France, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland. By 1936, he recognized the Nazi threat for what it was and began helping Jewish families move to the United States. Using his personal wealth to pay both emigration and immigration fees charged by the German and U.S. governments, he enabled more than 300 families from Laupheim, Nuremberg, Dresden, Frankfurt and other cities to escape persecution by the Nazis. He would later try to intervene in the fate of Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis, a vessel that was refused in Havana, Cuba and forced to return to Europe, where many of its passengers would die in Nazi death camps.
Laemmle himself died in 1939, long before America entered WWII, long before the horrors of the Holocaust would be made known to the world. By then, the Laemmle family had also lost control of Universal after taking out a $750,000 loan to finish the wildly overbudget Showboat (1936) – a practice Laemmle himself had diligently avoided during his tenure.
Though Laemmle will always be chiefly remembered for creating Universal Studios, we should also celebrate him as humanitarian who used his fortune to help save thousands of lives during a time when most of the world was looking the other way.