Universal Pictures: The Laemmle Junior Years

Founded in 1912 by Bavarian immigrant Carl Laemmle, Universal Pictures remains among the powerhouses of the American entertainment industry. This series focuses on one segment of the studio’s rich history – the period from 1928 to 1936, which includes the years in which studio’s head of production was the founder’s son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., who ascended to the position on his 21st birthday. Known condescendingly as ‘Junior’ Laemmle and the butt of endless Hollywood jokes (“the son also rises”) the younger Laemmle was in fact a sophisticated, ambitious, risk-taking producer, who moved Universal away from its long standing product line of westerns, serials and short comedies toward a series of expensive, audacious and often challenging ‘prestige’ projects, such as the epic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front. Junior sustained his ambitious policy for seven years but eventually lost his bet, when cost overruns on the 1936 Show Boat forced the studio into the hands of its creditors, and the Laemmle era came to an end.
Brief as it was, that era yielded an extraordinary number of important films, including the famous horror films – such as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy – that continue today to draw a passionate cult following. This program, however, concentrates on lesser-known work, on the social dramas, domestic melodramas, gangster films and sophisticated (and unsophisticated) comedies that made up the vast majority of the studio’s output. Much of that output came with a distinctly European flavor, a consequence of Universal’s dependency on European exports for a substantial share of its revenue. Among the emigres who found work at Universal were James Whale, Paul Leni, Paul Fejos, Karl Freund, Ivan Mozžuchin, Conrad Veidt, Edgar G. Ulmer as well as countless technicians, writers and administrators (such as the redoubtable Paul Kohner, who rose from the foreign publicity department to become one of the studio’s most creative producers).
Junior Laemmle lived another 43 years after his family lost control of Universal Pictures, dying in 1979. He never again worked in the movie business, and when he died the “New York Times” did not see fit to publish an obituary. His best memorial, perhaps, can be found in the renewed commitment to preserving and restoring the heritage of the company founded by his family currently being brought into action by NBCUniversal, the studio’s corporate heir. My sincere thanks to Michael. Daruty, Janice Simpson, Paul Ginsburg, Mike Feinberg and the other members of Universal’s archival team for bringing these wonders back into the world.

Dave Kehr