Friday, June 13, 2014

Godspeed Carla Laemmle

Dancer and actress Carla Laemmle, the niece of Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle, died yesterday at the age of 104. She was one of the last surviving actresses from the Silent and Pre-Code Eras and a valued source for the history of Universal's early years.

Carla Laemmle was born Rebecca Isabelle Laemmle on 20 October 1909 in Chicago. Her parents were Carrie "Belle" and  Joseph Laemmle. Joseph's younger brother was Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios. It was in the winter of 1920, when Miss Laemmle was eleven years old, that Carl Laemmle invited his older brother Joseph and his family to move to Southern California. The family settled in Universal City. Growing up there Carla Laemmle witnessed the making of many of Universal's early classic films.

Eventually Carla Laemmle became a part of the motion pictures themselves. A trained dancer, she made her debut in an uncredited role in the classic Phantom of the Opera in 1925 in the role of a prima ballerina. She had uncredited roles in Topsy and Eva (1927) and Uncle Tom's Cabin (1927) before receiving her first credit (as Beth Laemmle) in The Gate Crasher (1928). In the late Twenties she appeared in the films The Broadway Melody (1929), and King of Jazz (1930).

With her first film of the Thirties Miss Laemmle made history, speaking the first lines in Dracula (1931), a film that not only sparked Universal's dominance of the horror genre for nearly 15 years, but also the First Golden Age of Horror Movies as well.  In the Thirties she appeared in such films as Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935), His Last Fling (1935), The Adventures of Frank Merriwell (1936), and On Your Toes (1939). In between films she worked at such dance venues as the Paris Inn in Los Angeles.

Later in her life Carla Laemmle returned to the silver screen, appearing in the films The Vampire Hunters Club (2001), Pooltime (2010), A Sad State of Affairs (2013), and The Extra (2014). Her last film, Mansion of Blood, is in post-production. She also became a valued source for the early history of Universal Studios and its horror films. She appeared in such documentaries as Lugosi: The Forgotten King (1985), Universal Horror (1998), and The Phantom of the Opera: Unmasking the Masterpiece (2013), as well as such TV series as Midnight Madness: The History of Horror, Sci-Fi & Fantasy Films and Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood. In 2003 David J. Skal  interviewed her for Carla Laemmle Remembers: An Interview with David J. Skal. In 2009 her book Growing Up With Monsters: My Times at Universal Studios in Rhymes, co-written with Daniel Kinske, was published. She was also a regular at many classic horror film conventions, including Monsterpalooza.

Carla Laemmle only appeared in 17 films and in most of them she only had small roles. Regardless, she was always pretty and pleasing on the screen, and she was a talented dancer. I have always suspected that she could have had a much larger role in motion pictures than she did. I could have easily seen her in the musical comedies of the Forties.

Of course, Carla Laemmle's biggest contribution to the world of film may not have been her various film roles, but instead her many memories of growing up at Universal. Carla Laemmle was present at the studio's early years and her memory remained sharp all her life. Because of this she proved to be an invaluable source of information on the early days of Universal, including the making of their classic horror films. Had it not been for Carla Laemmle, her wonderful memory, and the love she had for her family's legacy, we might not know as much about Universal Studios' early days as we do.

While Carla Laemmle was an invaluable source for Universal's history, it must also be pointed out that she was also an utterly wonderful woman. Of my various friends who had the opportunity to meet her I believe each and every one of them fell in love with her. She was a very sweet woman who always had time to speak to classic movie fans and always offered kind words to them. The kindly, sweet natured woman one saw in her interviews was pretty much what Carla Laemmle was in real life. If Carla Laemmle was so loved by classic film buffs, it was not simply because she was a first hand source for movie history. It was because she was a truly wonderful, beautiful soul as well.

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