“CARL LAEMMLE is a remarkable man,” wrote John Drinkwater in his 1931 biography of the Universal Pictures founder. Without Laemmle, “the story of the birth and progress of the motion picture industry would be incomplete,” wrote Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America chairman Will Hays in the biography’s preface. When nostalgia for Hollywood’s Golden Age began to grow in the 1960s and ’70s, Laemmle had been gone for decades, and Universal, which had been purchased by MCA, had a new face in Lew Wasserman. Today, Laemmle is mostly known by dedicated film historians and aficionados. Fortunately, a new documentary directed by James L. Freedman highlights one of Hollywood’s most important founding fathers.
Carl Laemmle (2019) opens with a provocative question, “How many people remember the movie mogul who from the time Hitler took power spent every single day trying to save Europe’s Jews?” Certainly, many familiar with Universal will connect the studio to iconic monster movies, but what about the heroism behind the scenes? That story is much less known and far more important. Freedman’s film offers not only a detailed biography of Universal’s founder but also essential insight into what drove the heroic efforts of his final years.
Born in 1867 in Laupheim, Germany, Carl Laemmle grew up in an assimilated Jewish family. He remembered fondly how Jews and Christians lived in harmony, creating a pleasant atmosphere in which to grow up. This experience of religious concord during his formative years would cement the altruistic sentiments that would define that last years of his life. Carl was a small kid, and he would remain small, but that may have added to his determination to have an impact larger than his stature. Carl’s brother Joseph moved to the United States and sent regular letters home telling of prosperity in America. Carl made his way to New York in 1884, some years before mass immigration through Ellis Island began in the 1890s. Carl eventually found his brother in Chicago. After a series of odd jobs as an errand boy, Carl found himself, at age 30, still struggling to achieve the prosperity he had dreamt about while in Laupheim. He then moved to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to work as a salesman, and eventually a manager, for Continental Clothing Company. During this time, Carl got married and had a child, but he was still not fulfilled by his work.
In 1906, the Laemmles moved to Chicago, where Carl was quickly exposed to the new “nickel madness.” Transfixed by nickelodeons, Carl relished the idea of making money by bringing people joy through film. After managing a few theaters, Carl moved into distribution by creating Laemmle Film Service. During a time when film prints were openly copied, renamed, and resold, the ability to control distribution was essential. Carl made history when he began using his own image in advertisements for Laemmle Film Service, solidifying his company as a unique service and establishing his professional persona.
The first decade of the 20th century saw the rise of many film companies, but one prominent figure balked at the competition. Thomas Edison’s Biograph Company began to dedicate money and resources to ensure that competing firms were smothered. It cannot be overstated how much of a patent troll Edison was. Although the inventor was never overtly interested in movies as a medium, he used his celebrity status and wealth to acquire the most powerful lawyers to purchase and/or sue to obtain over 1,000 patents. In addition, Edison created the Motion Picture Patents Corporation (MPPC), which partnered with top companies interested in keeping competitors out of the film industry. The MPPC saw that essential raw materials, such as film stock, were sold only to MPPC members. Those outside of the MPPC would have to pay license fees to use almost any technology necessary to produce, distribute, and exhibit a film. In addition, Edison hired detectives to shake down and physically break up productions in progress by companies noncompliant with MPPC.
Freedman’s documentary details this period during which Laemmle, along with William Fox, had a crucial role in the fight against Edison. Unafraid of Edison, his General Film Company, or his Trust (as the MPPC was known), Laemmle hired the Jewish mafia in New York to project his operations. In addition, he created Independent Moving Pictures (IMP) as added security for his production and distribution operations, and he took out ads in the press to publicize his many legal battles with Edison. The courts ruled in Laemmle’s favor in a lawsuit regarding sprocket holes when he proved that perforation had previously been patented by a toilet paper company (catching Edison in a lie that he owned the patent). Laemmle also fought back by stealing “Biograph girl” Florence Lawrence and crediting her on screen (as Edison did not); in the process, he made her a star, and in turn created the star system. Edison sued Laemmle a total of 289 times, but the MPPC would eventually be found in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and broken up in 1915. By January 1916, Edison had largely given up on filmmaking.
One day in 1912, Laemmle saw a truck with a placard reading “Universal Pipe Fittings.” The label stuck as Laemmle always viewed his films as having a universal appeal. That did not mean they were simple escapist entertainment, however. Laemmle was known for financing films that addressed serious social issues, such as Universal’s first feature, Traffic in Souls (1913), which dealt with prostitution. Universal Studios opened in Southern California, some 3,000 miles away from Edison and his Trust. Freedman’s documentary rightfully points out that the real reason many film companies moved to the Los Angeles area was to put distance between themselves and Edison. The film-friendly climate in Southern California was an added bonus. To add insult to Edison’s injury, Laemmle founded Universal City and made Universal Studios the first all-electric facility of its kind. Edison was brought in for added publicity, to help dedicate the city. Laemmle didn’t attend the service, but he undoubtedly grinned at his victory over the MPPC.
The coming years saw a series of important advances for Laemmle and the film industry. In 1915, Universal hosted the first studio tour. Because noise did not impact silent production, patrons could freely walk behind active sets, guided by studio press agents. Laemmle also hired a young Irving Thalberg, eventually known as the “Boy Genius,” who would manage the studio’s finances, including grappling with problems caused by director Erich von Stroheim’s budget malfeasance. Thalberg, of course, eventually moved on to a famed career at MGM before his untimely death in 1936. Universal provided breaks for Rudolph Valentino, Stan Laurel, and Lon Chaney. More importantly, Laemmle was probably the first mogul to place talented women in positions of power. At one point, Lois Weber was the highest-paid director on the lot. Laemmle’s interest in social issues meshed well with Weber’s desire to make films with explosive topics, such as abortion and voting rights. Weber would offer a job to a young prop man named Jack Ford, who would become one of the most important directors in film history. When Laemmle decided to make inexpensive Westerns with Harry Carey, he gave the directing job to Jack, whom we now know as John Ford.
While Laemmle’s rise to success is as impressive as it is fascinating, the most interesting aspect to his story is the growing conflict between his American persona and his German roots. Freedman’s film goes to great lengths to show Laemmle as a proud German American who was courageous enough to stand against his homeland during World War I and in the lead-up to World War II. His memories of Laupheim, which he visited often, were of a balanced life free of conflict. During and after World War I, Laemmle became distraught at the hunger and desperation he saw in Germany. While the mogul raised money for supplies and food to be sent back home, some Germans became angry at Laemmle for his role in supporting an American propaganda film titled The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918), about a tyrannical German emperor.
A less savory aspect of Laemmle’s career was his penchant for nepotism. The mogul hired so many friends and family who came over from Europe that poet Ogden Nash quipped, “Carl Laemmle has a big Faemmle.” The nickname “Uncle Carl” was commonly used on the lot, and for many employees it was literally true. One promotion that irked some of the studio staff was Carl Laemmle Jr.’s appointment as his father’s successor. John Ford famously did not like Junior’s opinions, feeling that the boy did not yet have the skills to properly assess a production. Junior was known around town for spending time at the racetrack and chasing starlets in nightclubs, the typical behavior of a spoiled rich kid, but he also showed promise as a producer, especially with the powerful love story Lonesome (1928).
After bombing with King of Jazz (1930), Junior organized a new series of productions that would stray from the comedies and Westerns of Uncle Carl. Beginning with Dracula (1931), Junior established a new house style of neo-Gothic horror, maximizing talent in front of and behind the camera with actors like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and directors like Tod Browning and James Whale. The series continued with films about the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man, eventually including crossovers among them. Universal’s monsters continue to define the studio and are, perhaps, the first version of the kind of major tentpole cosmology we recognize today in, for example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Universal also found success in the sound era with Best Picture Oscar winner All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Laemmle traveled to Europe to meet with the author, Erich Maria Remarque, while Junior saw the film through production. All Quiet on the Western Front became one of the most important antiwar pictures of all time. The power of images, often deployed in montage, of kids swept up in patriotic war fever only to find death and destruction on the battlefield resonates to this day. Germany approved the film but only with essential cuts, such as a line calling out the war-hungry Kaiser. Any antiwar film was a major threat to the power-hungry Nazi Party, of course. Soon Laemmle was branded as an anti-German producer and an embarrassment to his country. The altruistic Laemmle defended the film as antiwar, not anti-German, but the Nazis were not interested in nuance.
When All Quiet on the Western Front premiered in Germany, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels allowed storm troopers to release stink bombs in the theater and beat up patrons. The event was cancelled, which led Universal employee (and German American) Joseph Roos to remark that “that’s when we first lost our fight.” Once information was being censored or banned, Roos knew as well as Laemmle did that Germany was lost. What Freedman’s documentary doesn’t cover, however, is the fact that Roos was an anti-Nazi spy working on behalf of an underground sting operation organized by Los Angeles lawyer Leon Lewis and financed by numerous Hollywood moguls. Roos participated in clandestine operations that prevented numerous attacks on Hollywood Jews as well as on military bases in Southern California. In 1940, Roos sent information to the US Senate about the growing Nazi presence in Los Angeles. The letter went unanswered, and the Senate would launch an attack on Hollywood’s anti-Nazi films in 1941. Though Roos is only featured a couple times in the documentary via archival footage (he died in 1999), I am curious to know what else he might have had to say, given his experience in the industry as a story editor and his extracurricular espionage activities.
On Laemmle’s last trip to Germany, he was followed by the SS, at one point being forced to sneak out a restaurant window. The mogul came back to the United States, never to return to his homeland. Laemmle asked publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst to push stories about the threat of Nazism, to no avail. Germany ultimately banned All Quiet on the Western Front, though the film saw continued exhibition elsewhere for many years. Universal responded by cutting all ties with Germany, being the only studio besides Warner Bros. to do so shortly after the Nazis took power.
While Laemmle’s nepotism provided fodder for easy jokes, his selflessness became one of the most heroic untold stories of the 1930s. In financial straits, Laemmle sold the studio in 1934. Suddenly flush with cash, he dedicated his time to saving Jews from Europe. This was no easy task, even after Kristallnacht in 1938, when Nazi thugs organized a mass assault on Jews and set Jewish-owned property aflame. The US Immigration Act of 1924, still enforced, decreased quotas and allowed prejudice to dictate immigration status. President Hoover added to the fervor and fear by claiming that increased immigration would only lead to job loss among “real Americans.” Roosevelt’s attempts to loosen the regulations did not go far. As a result, Laemmle sought to save people on his own. The documentary features interviews from several of the people directly impacted by Laemmle’s efforts, including numerous European Jews for whom he personally found work in Los Angeles. Because the government was rife with antisemitism (Roos took information of local Nazi activity to the Los Angeles chief of police, who said in no uncertain terms that he didn’t care), the State Department began to block Laemmle’s requests for visas, forcing him to ask concerned citizens to file affidavits on his behalf. In numerous ways, Laemmle continued to open paths for European refuges while taking care of those who were lucky enough to make it stateside.
Laemmle was a highly honored member of his community, and when he retired, Will Hays hosted a dinner in his honor. What’s remarkable is that no other mogul can say that they did their best work after retirement, but Laemmle certainly did. As historian Thomas Doherty wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, Carl Laemmle “is the closest thing to an Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg that Hollywood has.” Laemmle fought night and day to save as many people from the Nazis as possible, to the detriment of his own health. When he died of a heart attack at age 72, every Hollywood studio observed five minutes of silence in his honor. Before his death, Laemmle had saved 300 Jewish families from certain death in Germany.
The selfless founder of Universal has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years, including, alongside Freedman’s documentary, Doherty’s profile in The Hollywood Reporter and a substantial piece in The New York Times by Neal Gabler. Still, according to Doherty, there is not so much as a plaque, much less a statue, commemorating Laemmle anywhere at Universal. While some of the characters of Hollywood’s Golden Age are worth forgetting, we should not forget those who are worth celebrating. Carl Laemmle is a strong candidate for a future museum exhibition or extensive biographical study. Fortunately, Freedman’s documentary will introduce Laemmle to many not already familiar with this fascinating figure, and will also remind cinema historians of Laemmle’s place as a monumental historical presence.
Carl Laemmle (2019), which has recently made the rounds on the festival circuit, will air on Turner Classic Movies on October 27. The film features interviews with Bob Balaban, Leonard Maltin, Antonia Carlotta (Laemmle’s grandniece), the late Carla Laemmle, and Peter Bogdanovich, along with historians Richard Koszarski and Anthony Slide, among others. Even those already familiar with Laemmle’s story will appreciate the film’s wealth of images and archival video footage, which brilliantly brings to life the minuscule mogul and his tumultuous era. Freedman’s documentary achieves the best that film history has to offer by combining archival research with contemporary perspectives to present a narrative of a great man who was justifiably beloved by many in his time and who deserves continued appreciation today.
Chris Yogerst is associate professor of Communication in the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His latest book, Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into Warmongering in Motion Pictures, was published by the University Press of Mississippi in 2020.