James L. Freedman spoke with Solzy at the Movies this week ahead of Wednesday night’s TCM broadcast of Carl Laemmle: The Film.
Laemmle was a German-Jewish immigrant that went on to found Universal Pictures. This came as a result of Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures (IMP) merging with other companies to form the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912. Originally founded in Fort Lee, N.J., Laemmle would open the largest motion picture production facility, Universal City Studios, in Universal City in March 1915. He also took on the fight against Thomas Edison’s Trust when it came to the early years of cinema. But more importantly, he personally helped rescue 300 Jewish families from the Nazis.
The Carl Laemmle documentary is finally airing before a wider audience this Wednesday on TCM. What made you decide to tell his story on screen?
James L. Freedman: After my first film—I did a film for HBO called Glickman on Marty Glickman, who was one of two Jewish runners who wasn’t allowed to run the 1936 Olympics because American Nazi-sympathizing officials were trying to appease Hitler. Marty went on to become a huge sportscaster and I worked for him when I was a senior in high school. But after I finished that film, I started surfing the internet looking for a new subject. I came across this story about this guy, this German immigrant named Carl Laemmle, who was fighting Thomas Edison in something called the Trust wars. Now I’m a movie buff and I had never heard of this story. I Googled Laemmle again and I learned how he hired all these women directors. Talk about something being in the zeitgeist of today, right? I Googled him again and I read how he made Imitation of Life in 1934, which is a movie in part about what it was like to be Black in America and to put that in perspective, that’s five years before Gone with the Wind. And then I Googled him and was completely blown away when I learned how he saved all these German Jewish refugees and took on our own US government, who was trying to stop them from doing it.
I started asking my friends, have you heard this guy, Carl Laemmle? No one had heard of him other than one friend who said he had something to do with Frankenstein or Dracula or something. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, this guy is a real American hero, who somehow his story has slipped through the cracks of history. I made the film to remedy that. At the time I made it, I also thought what better time to make a movie about an immigrant who helped make America great.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Laemmle in making the film?
James L. Freedman: Wow, it was so amazing. I wouldn’t say surprising. I’ll say favorite. My favorite thing about the guy was his motto was, It can be done. This can be done spirit. Thomas Edison tells him he can’t show his films in a theater so he shows it on a raft in the Ohio River. Edison sues him 289 times so he steals away Mary Pickford. He uses this it can be done spirit to fight our own US government as well as the Nazi government to save all these refugees. How can you not love a guy like this?
When it comes to Universal, it’s amazing how they not only hired Walt Disney and Irving Thalberg but they also hired the three founders of Columbia Pictures.
James L. Freedman: Yeah, Harry Cohn. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing about Harry Cohn but Laemmle had a shrewd eye for talent. He really, really saw—some of it is fortuitous, simply because you’re one of the first people doing it, but he really had a great eye for talent. I mean, Stan Laurel did his earliest solo film work there. Rudolph Valentino was doing some of his early work there and you had all these women directors and Lois Weber and John Ford and William Wyler, who is his relative, and his hiring Walt Disney. It’s a who’s who of the movie business of Hollywood legends and he was right there hiring Thalberg as his secretary when he was 17 years old.
What was the most challenging part of putting the documentary together?
James L. Freedman: Well, there were two things. One is he died so long ago, no one really knew him. There’s very, very little footage of him speaking on camera so how do you make this guy come alive? That was a big challenge. The other challenge is, and I had the same thing with Glickman, when you do a film that spans, in this case, it spanned many, many years, the footage that you have to find in order to make the film come alive. I don’t really think of myself necessarily as a documentarian. I was a writer in Hollywood for many years and writing comedies. I just think of myself telling a story as a filmmaker. I think of it as a movie—it happens to be real but I’m just telling a story. To find all that footage to help tell that story is always very challenging. But really, it was about how do you make the guy come alive for an audience that you don’t hear speak on camera very much. I feel confident I pulled that off, mostly because of his it-can-be-done-spirit. I think that comes across.
Willie Garson provides Laemmle’s voice and unfortunately passed away in September. Can you talk about working with him?
James L. Freedman: That was so, so sad. My composer, David Carbonara, who used to score Mad Men and a wonderful guy, brilliant composer—his wife, Daisy, is a director and she went to school with Willie. And she said I was looking for someone who could volunteer their services to help me bring Carl to life a little bit and she recommended Willie. Out of the goodness of his heart, he really loved the idea of the project and saw the film, which had my temp voice for Carl at that time. He said he’d love to do it and I met him at a recording studio. We worked all afternoon and he was pro. He just took direction well and was very enthusiastic. I was just so, so saddened that he passed away at such a young age, very difficult stuff. He couldn’t have been a nicer guy and helped the film immeasurably.
I’ve been reading a lot of studio mogul biographies during the pandemic. It’s amazing to see how they all took on Thomas Edison in their own ways but it was Laemmle who took on the monopoly directly.
James L. Freedman: Yes. I mean, think about being sued 289 times. Think about being sued once. He just had an indomitable spirit. He understood he was David fighting Goliath. When things got too tough and Edison’s goons were beating up actors and directors and the film crew and breaking their cameras, he fled to Cuba. The film capital of the world was Fort Lee, New Jersey, and it moved to Hollywood because Laemmle led that immigration of filmmakers, and obviously, it was for the sun and the weather and also, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was much more anti-monopoly than the courts back east. That was another reason but a very significant reason was to get 3000 miles away from Edison and his goons because it was much tougher for Edison to bring people out that far away to try and wreck stuff.
When you look at those independents, I think Peter Bogdanovich says this in the film, they have a real passion for making movies. Edison’s passion was to have the patents, just have the patents. He had no passion for moviemaking. He had a passion for the technology of it and it was so great to see the passion for the filmmaking win out. Now, unfortunately, some of those moguls ended up trying to do the same thing with the monopolies and their own studios and the government came in, I think, when was it in the late 40s or something?
The Paramount consent decree was in 1948.
James L. Freedman: You can’t own the theater and distribute, right? A lot of these people ended up doing the same thing Edison was doing to them, which I found very ironic. Carl was long gone by that point but it surprised Well, not surprised me but it’s ironic that that happened.
Which legacy do you think is bigger: founding Universal Pictures and Universal City or saving 300 Jewish families from the Nazis?
James L. Freedman: Saving 300 Jewish families, for sure, because those people have lived on. They ended up as lawyers, doctors, nurses, and teachers and all the people they affected over all these lives. It’s that famous question—there’s a fire in the Louvre and a guy rushes in and can only save the security guard who’s collapsed on the ground or the Mona Lisa? What do you save? I think you have to save a life no matter how much these movies have affected people.
What was the reception like on the festival circuit?
James L. Freedman: It was tremendous and I was stunned. I mean, the movie played in Moscow, Austria, Australia, Canada ,and the United States. We had a screening in New York. I invited the descendants of the people Carl Laemmle saved to the screening so a third of the audience literally would not have been alive to watch this movie if Carl Laemmle hadn’t done what he did.
The other thing that happened was, as it went around the country, more people came up to me—five more people came up to me at screenings in different cities—Toronto, Chicago, and San Diego—and said, he saved my family and they weren’t on the scroll at the end of the movie. I went in on TCM and I changed that for the TCM screening. I changed that to add these names. One of the names was Andrew Bergman, the guy who wrote The In-Laws and directed The Freshman, and his father, Rudy Bergman, was saved by Laemmle. I wish I had known that. I’d have interviewed him before for the film. But that was very touching. That evening with those descendants was one of the most emotionally satisfying evenings of my life. It was incredible, because you had real life and death stakes that you saw. You literally saw these people, the descendants that wouldn’t be here, they literally wouldn’t be here. They were learning about Carl. They didn’t know a lot about him.
Have you been hearing from people since it started streaming on ChaiFlicks?
James L. Freedman: Not so much. There’s been a constant stream of when can we see the film so a lot of people are excited about the TCM screening. I don’t know how many people ChaiFlicks reaches but I just put it on there so at least someone could see it before the TCM screening.
What do you hope people take away from watching the film?
James L. Freedman: I hope they’re entertained. I hope they learn a little bit. I guess this is probably way too altruistic but when you see a guy like this—I’m making this film and you almost get shamed when you see a man who’s saving all these lives and he’s building Universal Pictures and Studios. And at night, I’m on my couch watching basketball games. It really makes you think what a person can accomplish in a life and obviously, I’m working really hard to make these films but what Carl Laemmle did, I hope it encourages people to help their fellow man a little bit. It sounds and is very altruistic but why not think that.
TCM airs Carl Laemmle: The Film on October 27, 2021. The film is currently streaming on ChaiFlicks.
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