Universal Pictures, or Universal Studios, has been around for a little over a century and it is currently regarded amongst the top six movie studios in America. It grosses billions of dollars in revenue annually and produces major hits and movie stars. Universal is also owned by a giant media conglomerate known as NBC Universal, which is quite different from its humble beginnings. This paper will provide a brief insight into the relationship between Universal Pictures and its impact on the movie industry along with how Universal became a big name in Hollywood.
The man who started it all was Carl Laemmle. Born in Württemberg Germany, Laemmle was the tenth of thirteen children, eight of which died of a cruel epidemic of scarlet fever. At the age of thirteen, he was apprenticed to a family friend as a bookkeeper and office manager. A few years later, at the age of seventeen, Carl persuaded his father to let him buy passage to the United States. After arriving, Carl worked as an errand boy in New York for a short while then moved to Chicago where his brother Joseph lived. There Carl worked as an office boy until his next move took him to Wisconsin. There he worked in a clothing company and met his wife Recha Stern who gave birth to a son, Carl Jr., and a daughter , Rosabelle.
Carl got into an argument with his employer and moved back to Chicago looking for an enterprise that might multiply his family’s savings. Carl decided to go into the film industry after seeing The Great Train Robbery, which left a “heavy impression” and a profound business idea (Zeirold 89). In 1906, Laemmle began purchasing nickelodeons. As Laemmle’s business bloomed, the Motion Picture Patents Company was born, which sparked one of his many contributions to the industry, the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America.
Founded in 1909, the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, condensed to IMP, was created to spite the MPPCo. IMP caused its biggest blow to the MPPCo when they snatched up Florence Lawrence, nicknaming her the “Biograph Girl,” and produced many hit films with her, thus creating the star system we know today. In 1910, Carl joined another organization named the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company. This company led to the downfall of the MPPCo and the creation of major studios, such as, MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures), Twentieth Century-Fox, Paramount Studios, and Universal Pictures.
Universal, whose name came from Laemmle “observing” a Universal Pipe Fittings wagon, was created from the remnants of IMP and was sited in New York (Dick 33). The new Universal studio was a horizontally integrated company, with movie production and distribution of exhibition venues. As Laemmle’s business grew he searched for a new foothold to permanently house his studio and, following the westward trend of the industry, by the end of 1912 the company was focusing its production efforts in the Hollywood area.
On March 15, 1915, Laemmle opened the world’s largest motion picture production facility, Universal City Studios, on 230 acres of converted farm just over the Cahuenga Pass from Hollywood. Studio management became the third facet of Universal’s operations, with the studio incorporated as a distinct subsidiary organization. Unlike other movie moguls, Laemmle opened his studio to tourists. Universal became the biggest studio in Hollywood, and remained so for a decade. However, it sought an audience mostly in small towns, producing mostly inexpensive westerns, melodramas, and serials.
The reason for Laemmle’s low budget and lower-class films were because he personally funded all of Universal’s endeavors. One of his greatest “investments” was character actor Lon Chaney, nicknamed “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” Chaney started working for Universal when it began in 1912, but was not truly recognized until 1918 in the silent picture Riddle Gawne. He began his early career presented as a team alongside Dorothy Phillips and William Stowell, starring in fourteen films from 1917 to 1919.
However, Chaney’s greatest contributions to Universal were The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Universal’s “Super Jewel” of 1923 and was their most successful silent film, grossing over $3 million, and set the standard for all future horror films in the industry. The Phantom of the Opera made Universal more interested in possibly making higher budget, “grade-A” films. Chaney eventually left Universal for MGM and retired shortly after making a few films for Howard Dietz.
In the late 1920s, Universal became a very powerful movie studio but was not considered part of the “Big Five.” It was, however, given companionship alongside Columbia Pictures and United Artists which became collectively known as the “Little Three.” Although it was the largest of the Little Three, Universal Pictures lost money during each year of the 1930s except 1931, 1934 and 1939. This desperate ﬁnancial situation led to a change in ownership in 1936 and several management upheavals thereafter. Universal had traditionally engaged primarily in the production of low-budget features and “sub-features” aimed at the subsequent run and rural markets, with only an occasional prestige ‘A’ picture. This policy of reliance on programme pictures remained fairly stable throughout the decade of the 1930s; those periodic forays into ‘prestige’ production and away from the basic programme formula generally met with ﬁnancial disaster and precipitated most of the decade’s management turnovers.
The case of Universal is somewhat unique when compared with MGM or Warner Bros. Under the conservative leadership of its founder, Carl Laemmle, Universal specialized in the secondary, largely rural, independent theatre market, and most of its product consisted of rather short features without top rank star players. Unlike MGM or Warner Bros., short subjects had always been a fundamental part of Universal’s production strategy. In an effort to remove itself from its near-bottom industry ranking, the company ﬂirted occasionally with the prestige feature market during the 1930s, usually to its ﬁnancial detriment. During this decade it did its best ﬁnancially when it concentrated on its primary business: turning out low-budget features at high speed. Universal’s short subject releases maintained this philosophy throughout the 1930s with amazing consistency, considering the turnover in management (including the ouster of Laemmle and his son, Carl, Jr, in 1936). Early in the 1930s, the studio’s emphasis was shifted to two-reel comedies, starting with the likes of Slim Summerville, Arthur Lake and Benny Rubin as starring comedians.
The Universal two reelers took a decidedly interesting swing when former Hal Roach studio manager Warren Doane was hired in 1932 to organize a production unit. Doane, in turn, brought in Roach employees James W. Horne, a young George Stevens and Alf Goulding as directors, as well as a long-time member of Charles Chaplin’s staff, Albert Austin. The unit lasted until 1934, with Stevens leaving for RKO quite a bit earlier. Unfortunately most of these ﬁlms have been unseen for decades, locked away in Universal’s ﬁlm vaults, unavailable for fresh appraisal. A handful of the Doane shorts viewed by the author revealed no hidden treasures, a disappointment considering the behind-the-camera talent involved. However, Mr. Mugg, a 1933 series entry, was nominated for an Academy Award.
Another Universal short comedy from this period, although not from the Doane unit, which could provide both a “new” look at a legendary humorist and a cinematic treatment of an early Depression school of political thought, is a single Robert Benchley two reeler entitled Your Technocracy and Mine. In addition to the comedies, Universal had the ‘Mentone’ revue series, Strange As It Seems and later Stranger Than Fiction, short lived Goofytone News series produced by a New York independent studio, and travelogue and sports series. Universal produced its own twice-weekly newsreel, the only non-Big Five company to do so. In a reversal of the situation with MGM and Warner Bros. at this time, Universal also had its own in-house animation unit, headed by Walter Lantz, at the beginning of the 1930s, but allowed Lantz to go independent during the ownership turmoil of 1936. The unstable nature of the company at mid-decade also abbreviated the production of colour cartoons after just six shorts made in 1934 and 1935. Colour did not return to the Universal cartoon release schedule until the 1939–1940 season, when the Lantz studio switched to all-colour production. The area of short ﬁlm production for which Universal is best known, however, is the serial.
Serials generally were considered the domain of small, independent producers such as Mascot and Republic. Of all of the major studios, only the two ‘mini-majors’, Universal and Columbia, produced serials. This may be largely attributed to the aforementioned need for producers without theatres to cater to rural and niche markets. Throughout the decade of the 1930s that was to prove so turbulent for Universal, the studio still managed to crank out an average of four 12-episode serials per year. The subject matter ranged widely, from Westerns to jungle adventures to mysteries to air adventures and more. One Universal serial available in its entirety for viewing today is the 1934 Perils of Pauline. Other than the title, borrowed for name recognition value, the Universal Perils bears no resemblance to its famous early silent forebear. This serial was obviously the beneﬁciary both of several standing sets evidently left over from other productions and of a rather large stock footage library.
The latter fact is particularly apparent in the scenes of a Chinese revolution that opens Chapter 1, and of numerous jungle and other location scenes in the following episodes. It is not at all uncommon to have clean backlot shots of the serial’s characters reacting to shaky, ﬂickering, scratched and undercranked shots of revolutionary carnage or charging tigers. Both the extensive use of existing sets and of stock footage permit the story to hopscotch from one location to another, all over the Far East and, ultimately, back to New York City. The result is that this series is essentially a mixture of virtually every type of serial ever done at Universal, including science ﬁction. Much more successful, as evidenced by their popularity even today, were the studio’s three Flash Gordon serials. The battles between Buster Crabbe’s Flash and Charles Middleton’s Ming the Merciless of the Planet Mongo combine streamline, art-deco styling of the late 1930s with sci-ﬁ camp in a package that is still appealing.
The promotional booklet, For Your Box-office: Line up with Universal 1935–1936, provides a fascinating look at the manner in which the studio tried to sell its product to exhibitors during the last year of the Laemmle regime. The promotional hype expended on the company’s shorts suggests their perceived audience appeal as well as the content of some of the long unseen short series. Announcing the ﬁrst “Flash Gordon” series, the advertising copy proclaims: ‘53 million people read it in the Daily and Sunday newspapers! Now Universal adapts Alex Raymond’s sensational newspaper adventure strip for a serial of 13 episodes!’ The page devoted to Universal Newsreel reminds theatre owners that Graham McNamee, ‘National Broadcasting Company’s Ace Announcer’, narrated the reels. It goes on to assert the statistically unsupportable ‘First! Fast! Foremost! Holder of the World’s Record for Miraculous Scoop after Scoop.’
Moving to the entertainment short series, For Your Box-office describes the ‘Mentone’ series as having ‘more stars and headline acts than the best vaudeville show! … And at prices you can afford to pay!’ Three other one-reel series are depicted thusly: ‘Stranger than Fiction’-‘Facts, freaks and fancies from every corner of the globe! Each reel is a box-office magnet in itself’; ‘Studio Novelties’—‘Gems of comedy, musical comedy, trick photography, satire and short subjects! A new and novel series’; and ‘Going Places’—‘The short that never fails to do things! From one end of the world to the other … and back again … with the enchanting personality and voice of Lowell Thomas.’ As frequently happened with studio press books, which were designed to sell a company’s product before production on the season’s wares had actually commenced, some of the announced projects never reached the screen. Speciﬁcally, in this case, the promised 13 episodes of the new ‘Studio Novelties’ dwindled to a mere four ‘Specials’.
In sum total, Universal’s product actually conformed to the basic format of its competitors, with the exception of serial production. Content and quality are hard to judge at this point in time with relatively few of the ﬁlms available for re-evaluation. The original nitrate negatives for most of the Universal short subjects still survive and are housed in the company’s Kearny, New Jersey, vaults. Hopefully, they will be transferred to safety ﬁlm before they are consumed by the inevitable nitrate decomposition. As has been previously noted, serials were generally the province of low-budget producers, not of major studios. Beyond serials, Universal’s greatest successes were its novelty series (Strange As It Seems, Stranger Than Fiction), travelogues (Going Places) and musicals (Mentone series). An interesting aspect of Universal’s short subject programme was that it continued to release silent ﬁlms through 1931, over 2 years after the ‘talkie revolution’.
Presumably this was for the beneﬁt of the more than 1500 small silent theatres that were still in business despite having been unable to afford the conversion to sound. Beyond that, one gets the impression that Universal was just struggling to turn out a product during the turbulent 1930s, with any ideas of visual style being secondary. The studio’s shorts, like its features, tended to be all over the map in terms of production polish. One may ﬁnd a rough correlation between Universal’s B-grade Western feature productions and a number of its Western-themed serials.
However, as with Warner Bros.’ lack of gangster shorts, it is something of a surprise that the studio known for its world-class horror ﬁlms (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, etc.) attempted virtually nothing in the way of horror/science ﬁction serials until decade’s end (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and The Phantom Creeps). In conclusion, Carl Laemmle worked vigorously to bring down the MPPCo powerhouse with IMP and kick start a major movie studio which he called Universal. Universal made great impacts on the industry in the fields of horror, sci-fi, and serials; impacts that changed the movie industry forever.
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