Carl Laemmle (January 17, 1867 – September 24, 1939), born in Laupheim, Wurttemberg, Germany, was a pioneer in American film making and a founder of one of the original major Hollywood movie studios – Universal. Laemmle produced or was otherwise involved in over four hundred films.
Regarded as one of the most important of the early film pioneers, Laemmle was born on the Radstrasse just outside the former Jewish quarter of Laupheim. He emigrated to the US in 1884, working in Chicago as a bookkeeper or office manager for 20 years. He began buying nickelodeons, eventually expanding into a film distribution service, the Laemmle Film Service.
On June 8, 1912, in New York, Carl Laemmle of IMP, Pat Powers of Powers Picture Company, Mark Dintenfass of Champion Films, and Bill Swanson of American Eclair all signed a contract to merge their studios. The four founded the Universal Motion Picture Manufacturing Company in 1914, and established the studio on 235 acres (0.95 km2) of land in the San Fernando Valley, California.
Universal became known as the most paternalistic of all the Hollywood studios. Virtually all of “Uncle” Carl’s relatives (including his son, Carl Jr., and his vastly more talented nephew, William Wyler were employed there). The studio enjoyed enormous hits during the 1920’s, especially Lon Chaney’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923/I) and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925) before the actor was lured away to MGM.
Lacking a theater network, Universal concentrated on independent rural theatrical houses, offering affordable exhibitor’s packages which allowed them to change bills numerous times per week. This marketing strategy largely concentrated on product that would appeal to rural theaters through 1930. During the 1920’s Europe also became a major source of revenue, with Universal actively involved in co-productions overseas. Sound productions became the norm by 1929 and Universal responded by increasing the number of quality productions, scoring it’s first Academy Award for Best Picture with ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ (1930) the following year.
However, for me, it will always be synonymous with horror. Universal Monsters or Universal Horror is the name given to a series of distinctive horror, suspense and science fiction films made by Universal Studios from 1923 to 1960. The series began with the aforementioned 1923 version of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, and continued with such movies as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘The Mummy’, ‘The Invisible Man’, ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, ‘Werewolf of London’, ‘Son of Frankenstein’, ‘The Wolfman’, and ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’. The iconic gallery of monsters created by Universal has created a lasting impression on generations of avid moviegoers around the world.
In spite of the Great Depression, executive Carl Laemmle Jr produced massive successes for the studio in 1931 with the legendary Dracula (directed by Tod Browning) and Frankenstein (directed by James Whale). The success of these two movies launched the careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and ushered in a whole new genre of American cinema. With Universal at the forefront, film makers would continue to build on their success with an entire series of monster movies. These films also provided steady work for a number of genre actors including Lionel Atwill, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, and John Carradine. Other regular talents involved were make-up artists Jack Pierce and Bud Westmore, and composers Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner. Many of the horror genre’s most well-known conventions—the creaking staircase, the cobwebs, the swirling mist and the mobs of peasants pursuing monsters with torches—originated from these films and those that followed.
The Mummy was produced in 1932, followed by a trilogy of films based on the tales of Edgar Allan Poe: ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1932), The Black Cat’ (1934) and ‘The Raven’ (1935), the latter two of which teamed up Lugosi with Karloff. ‘The Invisible Man’, released in 1933, was a phenomenal hit and would spawn several sequels. Of all the Universal monsters, the most successful and sequelized was undoubtedly the Frankenstein series, which continued with ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935). Althugh Dracula too had its share of sequels, beginning with ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ in 1936.
1936 also marked the end of Universal’s first run of horror films as the Laemmles were forced out of the studio after financial difficulties and a series of box office flops. The monster movies were dropped from the production schedule altogether and wouldn’t re-emerge for another three years. In the meantime the original movies were re-released to surprising success, forcing the new executives to give the go-ahead to ‘Son of Frankenstein’ (1939) starring Basil Rathbone.
Following his death from cardiovascular disease on September 24, 1939, in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 72, Laemmle was entombed in the Chapel Mausoleum at Home of Peace Cemetary.