Monday, April 30, 2012

Universal Pictures Turns 100

It was today on 30 April 1912 that Universal Pictures was founded. It would become one of the eight major motion picture studios that dominated Hollywood from the Thirties to the Fifties (the others were MGM, Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, Columbia, and United Artists). Today it remains one of the most important studios in the world, surviving some of the studios that were bigger than it was. Indeed, it is the oldest Hollywood studio (Paramount is second, having been founded 8 May 1912).

Universal Pictures (also known as Universal Studios) was founded on 30 April 1912 by Carl Laemmle. Carl Laemmle was an immigrant from Laupheim, Württemberg, Germany.  He had arrived in the United States in 1884, when he was only 17. He settled in Chicago, where he spent two decades working in retail stores. It was when he was 38 that he decided to change careers. He had lost his job (it is unclear whether he quit or was fired) and then contacted advertising man Robert Cochrane, with whom he had worked before, to help him find another line of business. Mr.Laemmle wanted to go into film even then, although Mr. Cochrane advised him to learn about film before he took the leap into the business. It was on 24 February 1906 that Carl Laemmle opened the White Front Nickelodeon in Chicago. Six months later he opened the Laemmle Film Service, which rented films to other exhibitors. In 1909 he formed Independent Moving Pictures Company. Independent Moving Pictures would be one of the first studios to actually credit its actors, thus helping create the star system. In fact, Independent Motion Pictures would use actress Florence Lawrence and actor King Baggot in their promotional materials in 1910, making the company perhaps the first to use its stars in their advertising.

 It was in 1912 that Independent Motion Pictures Company merged with Nestor Studios, Powers Picture Plays, Bison Life Motion Pictures, The Champion Film Company, Rex Motion Picture Company, and Éclair American Company to form the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. In 1915 Carl Laemmle opened the 230 acre Universal City Studios, the largest movie producing facility in the world. The company would be formally incorporated in 1925 under the name by which it is perhaps best known, Universal Pictures. It would go through various name changes throughout the years before it was given the other name by which it may be best known, Universal Studios.

For much of its history during the Golden Age of Hollywood, Universal would occupy a niche somewhere between the Big Five (MGM, Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers and, RKO) and the Poverty Row studios. While it was rare that Universal Pictures produced films with the budgets of the Big Five, over all their movies cost more and were of a higher quality than Columbia (who spent much of their history on the border between the majors and Poverty Row). The average Universal movie of the Thirties and Forties generally had a moderate budget and production values that were not quite that of the Big Five, but still well ahead of the minor studios.

While Universal would largely work in the shadow of the Big Five for much of the Thirties and Forties, in the end they would leave an imprint on Anglo-American pop culture as large as, if not larger, than the bigger studios. Indeed, if you mention "horror movies" to the average person, they are apt to think of Universal Pictures. The studio's history with horror movies actually goes back further than the classics of the Thirties and Forties. Universal's predecessor, Independent Motion Pictures, had produced one horror film, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in 1913. In 1923 Universal produced an adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a historical drama that bordered on the horror genre. It was in 1925 that the studio released its first pure horror film, Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. The success of Phantom of the Opera would lead to more films from Universal that at least bordered on horror: The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Man Who Laughs (1928), and The Last Warning (1928).

Of course, it was in 1931 that Universal launched its adaptation of Dracula. The film proved highly successful and made Bela Lugosi a star in the horror genre. It success was followed in 1931 by Universal's Frankenstein. Frankenstein was the Star Wars of its day, making a good deal of money and making Boris Karloff a star. The success of these two films would start a cycle towards  horror movies that lasted from 1931 to 1936, with most of the major studios producing horror films during the period. In 1939 Son of Frankenstein would spark a new cycle towards horror movies, a cycle in which studios other than Universal (most notably RKO and their films produced by Val Lewton) also took part. The impact of Universal's horror movies cannot be underestimated. Frankenstein and its first sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, are counted among the greatest films ever made. Even today, after countless adaptations of the novel have been made, when most people picture Frankenstein's Creature in their heads, it is most likely to be the image of Boris Karloff in Jack Pierce's make up. Dracula, Frankenstein, and the other Universal horror films would have a lasting impact on the genre. In fact, their influence can still be felt today.

While Universal may even today be best known for its horror movies, the studio worked in a number of other genres. One of these was comedy. Over the years Universal would make several comedy films, often drawing upon stars from radio for their casts, including  Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Red Skelton. It would be from radio that Universal would draw its two best known comedy stars, the team of Abbott & Costello. Their 1941 film Buck Privates proved to be such an enormous success that it would spark a series of Abbott and Costello films that would last until 1955 (with one more film, Dance with Me, Henry, released in 1956 by United Artists). Eventually Universal would combine their Abbott & Costello films with their horror movies. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, released in 1948, would lead to a number of films in which the comedy duo met various Universal Monsters.

The Abbott & Costello movies may be the best known series Universal produced, but it was by no means the only series. In many respects the meat and potatoes of  Universal was the various series of medium budget films in a variety of genres that the studio produced. As might be expected, some of these series were in the horror genre. Universal produced a number of sequels to both Dracula and Frankenstein. The studio also produced a series based on the popular Inner Sanctum radio show. Aside from the Abbott & Costello movies and their horror series, perhaps the best known series ever produced by Universal was their series of Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson respectively. Universal made fourteen Sherlock Holmes films in the series. Universal also produced a series of Dead End Kid and Little Tough Guys movies, Baby Sandy movies, Ma & Pa Kettle movies, and others.

Here it must be pointed out that Abbott & Costello were not the only stars Universal produced. In fact, in the Forties their biggest star may have been Deanna Durbin. Deanna Durbin had been signed to MGM in 1935, but the studio had also signed another young songstress, Judy Garland, at the same time. While debate over whether to keep both raged at MGM's front offices, Miss Durbin's contract with the studio expired. MGM's loss was then Universal's gain. She made her debut at Universal with Three Smart Girls in 1936. The movie proved to be a success and soon Miss Durbin was starring in musicals for the studio. Miss Durbin would continue making movies for Universal until 1948, by which time her success at the box office had declined. Her contract with Universal was allowed to expire and she retired from film.

While Universal would become famous for its monster movies, Abbott & Costello comedies, and Deanna Durbin musicals, like most studios at the time it would also produce a number of Westerns. Indeed, Universal would also produce or co-produce some of John Wayne's later films, including The War Wagon (1967) and Rooster Cogburn (1975). While Universal would not work with John Wayne often, they had a number of their own cowboy stars. Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, and Tex Ritter would all work for the studio at one time or another. In addition to many B-Westerns, Universal would also produce major feature films in the Western genre. Destry Rides Again (1939), Comanche Territory (1950), Winchester '73 (1950), The Far Country (1954), and others among them.

Of course, many of the B-Westerns produced by Universal would actually be serials. In fact, among aficionados of chapterplays, Universal is considered to have produced the very best serials besides Republic. Unlike Poverty Row studio Monogram and fellow major studio Columbia, Universal's serials generally had good production values and often relatively large budgets. In fact, Flash Gordon (1936), Universal Pictures' adaptation of Alex Raymond's classic comic strip, was the most expensive serial of its time. It would prove to be a huge success, followed by two sequels. Universal would also produce several other notable serials, including Secret Agent X-9 (1937), Buck Rogers (1939), The Green Hornet (1939), Don Winslow of the Navy (1941),  and many others. Universal would continue producing serials until 1946, when it ceased production of chapterplays. The studio had been producing serials since the Silent Era.

Not only did Universal produce serials, but they also produced animated cartoons. While Universal's cartoons would never gain the prestige of those of either Warner Brothers or MGM, they would prove very successful and they would have a lasting impact on pop culture. Indeed, it could well have been actions on the part of Universal that led to the creation of Mickey Mouse and the foundation of  The Walt Disney Company. Universal owned the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a popular character created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. Charles Mintz, whose studio produced cartoons for Universal, demanded that Messrs. Disney and Iwerks accept a lower fee for producing the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts. When Disney and Iwerks refused, Mr. Mintz took over production of the shorts himself. Messrs. Disney and Iwerks simply created a new character for their own series of animated shorts, a character who looked in his early days very similar to Oswald. His name was Mickey Mouse.

In what could be considered a bit of poetic justice, Charles Mintz hired his own successor in 1928. Animator Walter Lantz was a veteran of John Bray Studios as well as Carl Laemmle's part time chauffeur. Eventually Carl Laemmle tired of dealing with Charles Mintz and looked to found Universal's own in-house animation studio. As a result, Universal Studio Cartoons was formed, with Walter Lantz as its head. The company would become independent in 1935 as Walter Lantz Productions, although their cartoons would continue to be distributed by Universal until 1947. For a brief period from 1948 to 1949 Walter Lantz's cartoons would be distributed by United Artists. From 1951 to 1972 Universal would once more distribute the Walter Lantz cartoons.

While Walter Lantz Productions cartoons have never been considered to be of the quality of Warner Brothers, Disney, Fleischer Studios, or MGM, the company produced such popular characters as Woody Woodpecker, Andy Panda, and Chilly Willy. Walter Lantz Productions would continue to produce animated shorts long after many of the other studios had ceased doing so. The studio would not permanently close until 1972. In 1984, Lantz sold the company, its characters, and its cartoons to Universal.

By the Fifties and Sixties Universal, like most of the studios, had fallen on hard times. Music Corporation of America (MCA), originally a talent agency, had expanded into television. Its subsidiary, Revue Productions, originally formed in 1943 to produce live concerts, became the company's television production arm in 1950. Revue would become one of the most successful production companies in television. It produced such shows as Alfred Hitchock Presents, Wagon Train, Studio 57, and many others. In 1958 Universal sold its lot to MCA, who then renamed both the Revue Productions and the lot, "Revue Studios." Although MCA had only bought the lot, it would prove increasingly influential in Universal's dealings. MCA's various clients, including Doris Day, Cary Grant, and Lana Turner would sign to Universal. In 1962 MCA bought Universal outright. Revue Productions then became Universal Television.

Universal Television continued to produce shows originally produced by Revue, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Virginian. Eventually it would produce some of the best known shows of the Sixties and Seventies, many of them airing on NBC. In its early days Universal Television produced such series as Laredo and Ironside. By the Seventies it produced the umbrella series The NBC Mystery Movie, which included such classic shows as Columbo, McCloud, and Hec Ramsey. Over the years Universal Television would produce such television classics as Ellery Queen, The A-Team, Miami Vice, The Equaliser, Northern Exposure, and the Law & Order franchise. Universal would further become involved in television through the cable channel the USA Network in the Seventies. Originally started with other companies, Universal would become the sole owner of the channel in 1987.

Among the television series Universal inherited fro Revue was Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It should then come as no surprise that Alfred Hitchcock's last few movies would be produced through Universal.  It was in 1955 that Lew Wassermann, head of MCA, approached their client Alfred Hitchcock about producing a television series, what would become Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  MCA later persuaded Alfred Hitchcock to sign a contract with Universal. Beginning with The Birds in 1963, all of Hitchcock's films were released through Universal. Universal would even acquire the distribution rights to Psycho (originally distributed by Paramount). Here it must be noted that this was not the first time Universal was associated with Alfred Hitchcock. Selznick International loaned the director to Universal for Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943).

Here it must be stressed that following the Fifties, Universal did produce more than television shows, Ma & Pa Kettle movies, and Hitchcock films. In the late Fifties and well into the Sixties it was Universal who produced the majority of Doris Day's sex comedies. Starting with Pillow Talk in 1960, Universal produced all of them until Send Me No Flowers. The success of Pillow Talk would lead to a cycle of sex comedies that lasted from 1960 until 1965 in which other studios also took part. Universal also produced such classic films as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Charade (1963), Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), American Graffiti (1973), Jaws (1975), and Animal House (1978). In the Eighties Universal produced the highly popular Back to the Future trilogy. In more recent times Universal has produced films ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) to Jurassic Park (1993) to the 2005 remake of King Kong.

As famous as Universal is for their movies and television shows, they are also famous for their studio tour. The Universal Pictures studio tour goes back to the earliest days of the company's history. Unlike other heads of studios, Carl Laemmle actually encouraged tourists to visit Universal. In 1915 visitors could pay 25 cents to sit on bleachers and watch movies being made. It was in 1964 that the current Universal Studios tour official began, with tourists travelling through the lot in "GlamorTrams." Given the success of the studio tour, it should no surprise that Universal would expand into theme parks. This happened slowly with Universal Studios Hollywood, as rides and other attractions were added. In 1990 the Universal Orlando Resort was opened in Florida. In 2001 Universal Studios Japan opened. Currently Universal Studios is the third biggest amusement park operator in the world.

While Universal has survived to see its 100th birthday, it was not without changes in ownership. Indeed, in the Nineties the studio changed hands several times. It was in 2004 that then current owner, French multi-media company Vivendi, sold Universal to General Electric, parent of company of NBC. General Electric then merged the movie studio and the television network to form NBCUniversal. In many respects the merger should not seem so unusual given the close association between NBC and Universal in the past. Universal Television's predecessor, Revue, had produced shows for NBC beginning in 1950 with the series Armour Theatre. Thereafter Revue would produce several more shows for NBC. Once Revue became Universal Television, the studio would continue to produce many shows for NBC, including such high profile shows as The Rockford Files and Miami Vice.

Since the creation of NBCUniversal, the company has expanded. In 2004 NBCUniversal created the cable channel Sleuth (now called Cloo), which is entirely devoted to mysteries. In 2007 it launched Chiller, a horror oriented cable channel. That same year the company acquired the cable channel Oxygen. NBCUniversal is arguably one of the giants in cable, owning such cable channels as the USA Network SyFy Channel, Cloo, Chiller, Bravo, and Oxygen

The survival of Universal over the years could perhaps be attributed to two factors. The first is that it was perhaps one of the first studios to actually produce franchises. The Universal horror movies not only made a good deal of money when first released, but have made a good deal of money ever since. Indeed, the Universal monsters would produce an inordinate amount of merchandise. The various movie series Universal produced over the years would be rerun on television for literally decades, from Sherlock Holmes to Abbott & Costello. Here it must be pointed that, unlike other studios, Universal kept many of its films while acquiring the rights to others. The Universal library is one of the largest in the movie industry, consisting of everything from serials to Walter Lantz cartoons to classics like To Kill a Mockingbird.

The other factor which has permitted Universal's survival is perhaps the fact that the studio changed with the times when other studios did not. In the Sixties when many of the studios continued to produce big budget blockbusters (many of which flopped), Universal moved into television and continued to produce more moderately budgeted films. In the Seventies Universal would expand into cable with the USA Network. Universal has always had a degree of adaptability that saved it from total extinction.

In the end Universal has had an impact on pop culture which few movie studios could match. The movie monsters it created in the Thirties are still as recognisable today as they were 80 years ago. Abbott & Costello are still one of the best known comedy teams of all time. The many sex comedies Universal produced are still shown on television today. Such television characters as Lt. Columbo and Jim Rockford continue to be popular. Universal would also produce several classic films, including Destry Rides Again, The Naked City, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sting, and may others. Given the studio's long history, it seems likely it will survive for another hundred years.


Lou Lumenick said...

All of John Wayne's pre-"Stagecoach'' B-movies at Universal were non-westerns

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks, Lou! You're right about that.