Wednesday, 15 June 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 8: Universal

Universal Pictures was founded in 1912 when Carl Laemmle, a German-Jewish immigrant born in Laupheim in the South-German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, merged his IMP (= Independent Motion Picture Company) with a string of smaller film companies like Bison, Powers, and Nestor, with himself at the helm.

Prior to that, back in 1906 Laemmle ran a nickelodeon in Chicago before moving on to opening a chain of cinemas and subsequently branching out into distribution shortly after. His outfit, Laemmle Film Service, eventually turned into the country’s biggest distribution company.

With Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company (referred to as The Trust), formed in 1908, out to get anybody who wouldn’t play by the rules and regulations imposed by The Trust, it was a sorry time for anybody trying to break into film. Undeterred by The Trust’s shenanigans, Laemmle started to produce his own pictures in 1909, signing The Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence, (so called because she had heretofore starred in flicks of the Biograph Company) in 1910, and putting Mary Pickford under contract soon after.

Carl Laemmle Senior

Laemmle's efforts to defy the Trust’s monopoly proved successful when in 1912 the Justice Department deemed Edison’s practices unlawful, giving Laemmle wings to further expand his ever-growing company, which subsequently led to the foundation of Universal.

In 1914 Laemmle bought a 230 acre parcel of land north of Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, with the intention of building an enormous film studio, called Universal City, which he opened in 1915. In about 1920 a young Irving Thalberg, who would soon makes waves at Metro, was appointed manager of the studio, after having previously worked at Universal’s head office in New York. Driven, and with a fire in his head, Thalberg ran the studio efficiently, which was reflected in the high box office returns, enabling Universal to further assert its position on the increasingly competitive motion picture market.

Irving G. Thalberg

Thalberg went on to run a tight ship during his relatively brief stint at Universal, and his torrid run-ins with Erich von Stroheim, one of Universal’s resident directors, are legend. Thalberg firmly believed that a director was nothing but a hired hand, and any attempt on his side to let his imagination, not to mention the cost of the film, run wild, had to be nipped in the bud. After having gone way over budget already on his opulent Foolish Wives (1922), where Stroheim insisted on a painstakingly precise recreation of Monte Carlo, on his next picture, Merry-Go-Round (1923), Stroheim found himself discharged by the hard-headed Thalberg. The Merry-Go-Round disaster spelled the end of Stroheim’s career in the US. But before returning to Europe he would go on to do a couple of films for MGM where he clashed once again with Thalberg, who had since joined the Mayer Company just prior to its merger with Goldwyn and Loew.

To be sure, Thalberg’s tight reign at Universal was a prelude to his years at MGM, where he was known for keeping its directors on an equally tight leash, exercising his power as production chief wherever and whenever he saw fit. History, however, has been kinder to Stroheim than to his nemesis, Thalberg, as his films are hailed by critics and film historians alike as unique and outstanding masterpieces, while Thalberg’s input and influence has of late become regarded as overvalued.

Other pictures of note of that period in Universal’s history include Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923), and Paul Leni’s films, The Cat And The Canary (1927), and The Man Who Laughs (1928), starring fellow-German Conrad Veidt (of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari fame). Thus started Universal’s love affair with the bizarre, the macabre and the twisted.

James Whale

Carl Laemmle had a reputation for filling all kinds of positions in his company with family members, inspiring a witty unknown to coin the term, “Carl Laemmle has a very big faemmle”. In 1929, the ageing Carl Laemmle Sr. put his son, Carl Jr. in charge of production, who went on to win the studio its first best picture Oscar in 1930 with the anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front, based on Erich-Maria Remarque best-selling novel. A year later Laemmle’s nephew, William Wyler, arrived from Europe, to begin what would eventually turn into a successful career as one of Hollywood's leading film directors. His western Hell’s Heroes (1930), stands out amidst all the monsters and dead bodies that tended to fill Universal’s screen during the early 1930s. British import James Whale, since then elegantly and aptly portrayed on screen by fellow Brit Ian McEllan in the elegiac Gods And Monsters (1999), was largely responsible for Universal's reputation as the studio of horror flicks as his string of horror movies, beginning with Dracula (1931), followed by Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride Of Frankenstein (1932) rippled the film world.

Bette Davis in the early 1930s

In 1930 Universal lured the young Bette Davis, then appearing on the New York stage, to Hollywood in order to add her name to the studio’s pitiful roster of stars. Legend has it, that once the aspiring actress, accompanied by her mother, Ruthie, arrived at the Pasadena station, after a strenuous five-day journey from New York, nobody from Universal bothered to show up to greet them. Universal’s negligent treatment of the budding actress was an antecedent of the studio’s cluelessness as to what to do with her, studio boss Laemmle being said to have uttered that “she has as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville”. Consequently, after only a few pictures, most of which on loan-out to other studios, and not one even remotely exploiting her potential, Universal dropped her contract and Bette Davis was ready to go back east, when, in the nick of time, Warner Brothers snapped her up, and turned her into their Queen of the lot.

During the mid-1930s Universal had little to offer in terms of quality pictures.
My Man Godfrey (1936), Gregory LaCava’s hilarious screw-ball comedy, starring Carole Lombard and William Powell, both on loan-out from Paramount and MGM respectively, was one of the rare exceptions. And with box-office returns slackening continuously, there was no denying the fact that Universal was in dire need of funds. The year My Man Godfrey was released, Carl Laemmle Sr. was pressed to sell his interest in the company he founded.

By 1938 Universal was run by Nate Blumberg, and the company slowly climbed out of the red, but with the ailing studio in dire need of stars and talented directors, its output would remain second-rate until the mid/ late forties, when Universal released a couple of exciting thrillers, thereby once again resorting to the dark side of the screen. Fritz Lang’s classic Scarlet Street (1946) and Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) were among the most outstanding Universal releases during that period.

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang's Scarlett Street (1945)

Bearing in mind that the history of the Hollywood studios being also part of the history of corporate America, it was in 1946 that Universal merged with International Pictures, founded a mere three years earlier by William Goetz and Leo Spitz, who both took control over the studio operations in Hollywood while Nate Blumberg continued to be president of Universal, based at the company’s New York headquarters. In an attempt to boost Universal’s performance at the box-office, the studio reached an agreement with the British film company J. Arthur Rank to distribute its films in the US, which also added some much needed cachet to Universal’s chipped reputation.
The deal quickly paid off, though not necessarily in cash, but in giving Universal a long overdue ego-boost, when Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) won a best picture Oscar in 1948. Other British productions released by Universal included like David Lean’s Great Expectations (1948), Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1948), and Carol Reed’s masterpiece Odd Man Out (1947).

Douglas Sirk

In 1952 Universal was in for yet another shake-up when Decca Records seized control over the studio by becoming its major shareholder. The old guard exited, and Milton Rackmil and Edward Muhl entered the studio, the former being its new president and the latter Universal’s new studio chief. It was during the 1950s that Universal finally became a major player again and a force to be reckoned with, when a new breed of producers and directors marched in, headed by Ross Hunter and Douglas Sirk, who brought a new meaning to the term melodrama dazzling 1950s audiences with their polished, impeccably staged soap operas such as Magnificent Obsession (1954), Written On The Wind (1956), and Imitation Of Life (1959). Their films would have a lasting influence on future generations of directors. German film-maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder is said to have been greatly influenced by the films of his fellow-German, inspiring him to his acclaimed Veronica Voss (1981) and The Marriage Of Maria Braun (1978).

Marlene Dietrich in Welles' A Touch of Evil (1958)

Another remarkable film of Universal’s 1950s period is Orson Welles’ A Touch Of Evil (1958). A low-key thriller with a brilliantly crafted screenplay -including a meaty part for Orson Welles’ pal Marlene Dietrich- the film is every bit a masterpiece. But, of course, as Welles’ films go, A Touch Of Evil wasn’t exactly breaking records at the box-office.

Ten years after Decca took control of Universal, it was now the giant Music Corporation of America (MCA), run by the charismatic Lew Wasserman, that swallowed up both companies in one fell swoop in 1962. A highly regarded and well respected man, the bespectacled, magnetic Lew Wasserman was generally agreed to be the most powerful man in Hollywood, in fact, its King. He would continue to run MCA until 1995, five years after the conglomeration’s takeover by Japanese electronics behemoth Matsushita, when Wassermann was named ‘chairman emeritus’.

Like an ancient rock in the surf, Universal stood firm in spite of the numerous takeovers the company had been through over the years, and if anything, these seem to have injected some new life into the ailing film studio, as the 1960s went off to an even better start than the previous decade.

Tippi Hedren in Hitchock's The Birds (1963)

Alfred Hitchcock began his association with Universal in 1962 with his shocker The Birds. Universal granted Hitchcock the freedom he craved, and in turn Hitchcock’s films reaped healthy profits. It was thus a partnership both sides were happy with, and one that would last until Hitchcock’s last film 14 years later, Family Plot (1976).

The Doris Day and Rock Hudson comedies were also universally popular, Miss Day having been rated the most popular film star in three consecutive years, between 1960 and 1963. In terms of artistic merits, however, another Universal release of the 1960s which more than warrants a mention, is Robert Mulligan’s subtle adaptation of Harper Lee's instant classic, To Kill A Mockingbird (1963), for which Gregory Peck rightly won the Academy Award for best actor.
To Kill A Mockingbird also won for best picture, which was the studio’s first best picture Oscar after 43 years.
It was clear that Universal was finally out of the woods.

Steven Spielberg came on board in the 1970s, ringing in the block-buster age with hits like Jaws (1975), and later, E.T. (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993). His much subtler, and better, film, Schindler’s List (1994) was also produced by Universal, winning the studio yet another best picture Oscar, its fifth, after having won again in 1979 for the melancholy The Deer Hunter, and also in 1985, for the melodrama to end all melodramas, Out Of Africa, in which Meryl Streep gives a towering performance of the Danish writer Tania Blixen’s years in East Africa.

Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa (1985)

Universal’s unbroken string of successes made it a likely, not to mention lucrative, object of desire for investors, and in 1990, after almost 30 years of MCA’s unswerving reign, Universal and MCA were both bought up by Matsushita.
But after only 5 years the electronic giant lost interest in the film company and sold it to the Canadian Seagram Corporation, managed by Edgar Bronfman Jr.
The financial success of Apollo 13 (1995) was dampened by the departure of Spielberg, who left to form Dreamworks with partners Devid Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. However, an agreement was reached that their pictures would continue to be released through Universal.

Julia Roberts in Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich (2000)

Five shaky years later, in 2000, the French media giant Vivendi swallowed Seagrams’ drinks along with Universal’s films, gulping it down to the tune of $ 34 billion.
With the company bouncing back and forth, and a lot of back-scratching as well as back-stabbing going on at the top, Universal had a couple of respectable hits over the past few years, most noteworthy of which is Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), which won Julia Roberts her richly deserved Oscar as best actress. Universal was also one of the first Hollywood studios to tap the public’s fascination with films and filmmaking, and already during Carl Laemmle’s times as studio chief, the public was granted a peek behind the scenes.

However, 1964 marks the year Universal officially began their organised studio tours, which now have evolved into a theme park emulating Disneyland. There is little, unfortunately, in terms of studio history, as the tour - and the rides - focus on recent studio successes as Back To The Future, Jurassic Park, and the like.