Carl Laemmle: Universal Founder profiled

William Wyler and Carl Laemmle. Courtesy of James L. Freedman.

Carl Laemmle is a very informative and fascinating documentary that profiles the pioneering founder of Universal Studios.

James L. Freedman goes deep into the archives in a documentary that certainly targets both film nerds and the Jewish community. Carl Laemmle was a guy who left his hometown for a better life in America and he never forgot his roots. It didn’t matter that Germans didn’t like him in the 1930s.  He saw what was happening to the German Jews, especially those of his hometown in Laupheim. Hell, he raised money to fund the city’s reconstruction following World War 1. A city that wouldn’t allow Jews into the market in the early 1700s would name a street after a Jewish guy! The Universal Studios mogul would eventually fight for as many German Jews as possible to come to America.

The first two-thirds of the documentary focus on the founder’s roots in Germany. Laemmle would eventually make his way to Chicago in 1884. He would later marry Recha Stern. The two of them had two children together.  Unfortunately, Recha passed away due to illness. Laemmle never remarried following her tragic death.

Universal Pictures

Laemmle’s foray into film began in 1906 following a short stint in Oshkosh, Wisc. A visit to the Nickelodeon would change his life in an instant! The man had the nerve to take on Thomas Edison himself! Edison, of course, would not allow for this. His company would try to take down as many theaters as possible if they didn’t pay a $2 license. Laemmle would become one of the first independent film producers when he founded Independent Moving Pictures. This led to taking away the Biograph girl from Edison’s company and forming the star system. The man was an innovator! With Laemmle as the head, many producers teamed up to take on Edison under the guise of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.

It’s funny how Universal received it’s name. It’s all because Laemmle saw a Universal Pipe Fittings truck. There’s also the fact that the media mogul thought films were universal. Anyway, we get a condensed history of Universal Pictures. There’s only so much that can be shown in such a documentary. After all, this is a guy with over 800 credits to his name! Freedman does manage to stress which filmmakers hired for a job would be nominated for an Oscar.

Because of the role it played in the studio’s history, there’s a big focus on All Quiet on the Western Front. This film would give the studio its first Best Picture win during the 3rd Oscars for films released August 1929-July 1930. We get some fascinating tidbits. Future director Fred Zinneman would be fired as an extra but would later earn four Oscar nominations for directing, winning once.

We can’t discuss Universal without discussing monster movies or the studio tour. This was the studio that invented both of them! With Laemmle running things, he would hire Walt Disney, John Ford, Irving Thalberg, William Wyler, etc. He wasn’t afraid of hiring women and Lois Weber was among his hirings. She earned more then the men! Film critic and historian Leonard Maltin notes that Laemmle had 11 female directors working for him at one time.

Laemmle’s List

The latter third of the documentary focuses on the battle against antisemitism during the War. It wasn’t just the war but antisemitic sentiments were awful–especially in the U.S. government. In showing his efforts to bring Jews to America, Freedman lets it all loose. My understanding was that former Secretary of State Cordell Hull was an antisemite. It turns out that Hull’s wife is of Jewish heritage by way of her father. Wow! I don’t think that I would have guessed this in a million years. Hull was very secretive about this and Laemmle used it to his advantage in appealing an affidavit to bring in the Obernauer family. If you have yet to watch this documentary, you can read about Laemmle’s List here.

While Warner Brothers co-founder Harry Warner was instrumental in the fight against the Nazis, Laemmle doesn’t quite get the recognition he deserves. Hopefully, this will change as a result of the documentary. After all, he put a lot of effort into saving so many innocent German Jews. Laemmle had a personal reason to invest in them as he still had family living in Germany in the 1930s. When he sold Universal, he devoted some 80% of his time to bringing as many over as possible. The antisemitism in the U.S. government meant affidavits got held up for months at a time.  In spite of this, he did as much as he could and recruited others to help do the same.

If you’re looking to learn about the history behind the creation of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle does this and a whole lot more.

FEATURING:  Carl Laemmle, Peter Bogdanovich, Ron Meyer, Ahilan Arulanantham, Bob Balaban, Antonia Carlotta. Rosemary Hilb, Anthony Slide, Fred Bender, Werner Maas, Leonard Maltin, Jeff Pirtle, Joseph Roos, Marvin Hier

Carl Laemmle screens during the JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival. Grade 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.