Universal was founded in 1912, when Carl Laemmle (1867–1939) and several other independent film pioneers pooled their interests to create the Universal Film Manufacturing Co. Within weeks, the new company was under the command of Laemmle, who controlled the studio for the next quarter-century. Laemmle got his start in the film business in Chicago in 1905 with a string of nickelodeon theaters, and he soon created a distribution "exchange" to ensure a steady flow of product. He ran afoul of the Motion Picture Patents Co., initiating a feud with Thomas Edison and his associates that intensified when he moved his company to New York, and, in 1909, launched a production operation, the Independent Motion Picture Co. (IMP). By 1912, when Laemmle merged IMP with several other firms to create Universal, the MPPC's power was waning and the demand for film product was surging. The movie business was expanding and maturing rapidly, and Laemmle was determined to service that industry by developing Universal into the movie-industry equivalent of the Ford Motor Company. In early 1914, he purchased the 230-acre Taylor Ranch, some five miles north of Hollywood, and began construction on Universal City, by far the largest and most advanced filmmaking facility at that time. Inaugurated in March 1915, Universal City was a testament to a factory-based, assembly-line mode of production, with an annual output of some 250 features,
During a decade-long career in Hollywood, James Whale directed (and occasionally produced) some twenty films, most of them for Universal Pictures. He attained legendary stature for four of them: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The first of these, coming several months after Universal's breakthrough horror hit, Dracula (1931), solidified the genre as the cornerstone of Universal's "house style" in the 1930s and affirmed Whale as the studio's foremost staff director. The last of the four stands as a consummate achievement not only of classical horror but of classical Hollywood in general.
Whale started as a newspaper cartoonist in England before joining the service during World War I, and began acting in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He continued his stage career after the war, moving into set design and eventually directing. A hit play brought him to the United States in the late 1920s, and the talkie revolution brought him to Hollywood. Whale signed with Universal in 1931 to direct an adaptation of the stage play Waterloo Bridge , and he followed that project with Frankenstein . Whale himself cast the lead roles, selecting Colin Clive to play Dr. Frankenstein and a little-used Universal contract player, Boris Karloff, for the monster. The casting of Karloff was truly inspired, as the lanky, low-key British actor brought both menace and pathos to the role, thus creating a screen icon and a crucial genre convention—the monster as both sympathetic outcast and as rampaging beast. Karloff became one of Universal's contract stars and, along with Bela Lugosi, defined the studio's trademark genre.
Whale followed Frankenstein with a second-rate melodrama, Impatient Maiden (1932), establishing a pattern (begun with Waterloo Bridge ) of alternating horror films and women's pictures. Then came another polished Karloff vehicle, The Old Dark House , an oddly effective melding of the haunted house formula with a comedy of manners that marked Whale's first effort to interject offbeat black humor into the horror genre. That effort continued in The Invisible Man , as the disembodied protagonist (voiced by Claude Rains) displays a self-deprecating wit and creates a succession of comic incidents before the effects of his experiments render him a murderous psychopath. Bride of Frankenstein , the culmination of Whale's style, expertly balances horrific drama and high kitsch, careening in its memorable finale into screwball romance as Karloff's genial monster is spurned by the doctor's newest creation, Elsa Lanchaster of the electric-shock hairdo.
Whale's next major assignment was a lavish, all-star remake of Show Boat , a solid critical and commercial success on its release in 1936. Nevertheless, the picture's production delays and budget overruns cost the Laemmles their studio. Although he directed another nine films before retiring in 1941 to concentrate on his painting, after Showboat , Whale's career as a successful, innovative filmmaker was at an end. Whale made an unsuccessful comeback attempt in the late 1940s and died, aptly enough, "under mysterious circumstances" (a drowning victim in his swimming pool) in 1957.
Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Show Boat (1936), Gods and Monsters (1998)
Curtis, James. James Whale . Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1982.
——. James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters . London: Faber & Faber, 1998.
shorts, serials, and newsreels that could be combined into a predictable, highly standardized "program" of pictures.
This left Universal increasingly out of step with the other major producers, who were rapidly moving to star-driven, feature-length films geared to the growing number of downtown theaters that catered to more "urbane," middle-class moviegoers. Despite the changing marketplace, Laemmle remained adamantly opposed to developing a theater chain—an enormously expensive enterprise—and to upgrading his output and paying top dollar for personnel. Thus, while a remarkable range of filmmaking talent started at Universal, including stars like Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), Lon Chaney (1883–1930), and Mae Murray (1889–1965), and directors like John Ford (1894–1973), Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957), Rex Ingram (1892–1950), and Tod Browning (1882–1962), they eventually left in pursuit of higher salaries, bigger budgets, and greater creative control.
Another significant expatriate was Irving Thalberg (1899–1936), who began his career as Laemmle's secretary in New York City in 1919, just out of high school, and within three years was overseeing production at Universal City. Thalberg convinced Laemmle to produce a few of Hollywood's biggest "prestige pictures," notably Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922) and two spectacular Chaney vehicles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But ongoing differences with Laemmle's conservative market strategy led to Thalberg's departure for Louis B. Mayer's independent production company, which in 1924 merged with Metro and Goldwyn to create MGM.
Universal was among the last of the studios to produce talkies because of Laemmle's commitment to program pictures for the subsequent-run (small town and rural) markets, which were the last theaters to convert to sound. Universal's eventual conversion coincided with the rise of Carl Laemmle, Jr. (1908–1979), who took command of the studio in April 1928, on his twenty-first birthday. Thereafter, "Junior" Laemmle supervised Universal's sound conversion and engineered its return to prestige-level pictures with adaptations of the stage hits Broadway and Show Boat in 1929, a lavish color musical revue, King of Jazz (1930), and a stunning adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone (1895–1980). Laemmle's plans to upgrade Universal's output were dashed when the Depression hit, and in fact he closed down production for several months in early 1931 to revamp operations and revert to an even more efficient, low-budget production strategy.
One key consequence of those cutbacks was Universal's move to horror, which became its trademark genre in the 1930s. This was a logical move for two basic reasons. First, Universal (like Paramount) had an excellent international distribution system, particularly in Europe, where it had been drawing on talent for several years—especially from Germany, whose recruits included Paul Fejos (1884–1960) and Paul Leni (1885–1929), early instigators of Universal's horror trend with The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), as well as Karl Freund (1890–1969), William Wyler (1902–1981), Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), and dozens of others. Second, the horror film was a remarkably cost-efficient genre to develop and maintain. Its design relied on darkness and mood rather than elaborate sets, and it was far less star-driven than other genres, although Universal did have the good fortune to cast two unknown actors in its breakthrough horror films—Bela Lugosi (1882–1956) in Dracula and Boris Karloff (1887–1969) in Frankenstein (both 1931)—who would become forever wedded to Universal's house genre, as would director James Whale (1889–1957) and cinematographer Karl Freund. Dracula and Frankenstein began a trend that coalesced rapidly with Murders in the Rue Morgue , The Old Dark House , and The Mummy (all 1932). Other studios followed suit, but none really challenged Universal's veritable monopoly on the horror film market during the 1930s.
Universal turned out a number of successful women's pictures as well, notably Back Street (1932), Imitation of Life (1934), and Magnificent Obsession (1935), which also contributed to its Depression-era house style. Far more important, though, was its ongoing commitment to subfeatures, ranging from Jungle Jim and Radio Patrol serials (generally twelve to fifteen weekly installments running two reels or twenty minutes each), to its seemingly endless output of B-western programmers starring Hoot Gibson (1892– 1962), Tom Mix (1880–1940), Johnny Mack Brown (1904–1974), Buck Jones (1889–1942), and singing cowboy Ken Maynard (1895–1973). This irked "Junior" Laemmle, who again tried to raise the studio's sights as the Depression eased—this time with disastrous results. Several expensive prestige pictures, notably Magnificent Obsession (1935), Sutter's Gold (1936), and particularly a remake of Show Boat (1936), ran severely over budget, forcing the Laemmles to borrow heavily. When they failed to meet their obligations in early 1936, J. Cheever Cowdin of the Standard Capital Corporation of New York exercised his option to buy Universal Pictures. The Laemmles were forced out, replaced by Robert H. Cochrane (1879–1973) as company president and Charles Rogers (1892–1957) as studio head. By then, Show Boat , directed by James Whale and starring Irene Dunne (1898–1990), had been released to widespread critical and popular acclaim, becoming one of the biggest hits in studio history.
Universal had several other hits in 1936, the most important by far being Three Smart Girls , a modest musical marking the debut of fourteen-year-old soprano Deanna Durbin, which was produced by Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) and directed by Henry Koster (1905– 1988), two German recruits who put the "teenage diva" through her paces in a run of hits including One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), Mad About Music (1938), That Certain Age (1938), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), and Spring Parade (1940). The Durbin films gave Universal another vital star-genre formula, adding a significant dimension to its house style and a veritable insurance policy at the box office. Durbin's hits also enabled Universal to take on A-class projects with outside talent, notably Destry Rides Again (1939), costarring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, and several films starring W. C. Fields (1880–1946), including You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), The Bank Dick , and My Little Chickadee (both 1940).
Universal's late Depression recovery was orchestrated by Nate J. Blumberg and Cliff Work (1891–1963), who replaced Cochrane and Rogers in 1937. The studio actually showed year-end profits in 1939 for the first time in a full decade. The recovery continued into the 1940s, although Universal failed to realize the kind of boom enjoyed by the majors due to its lack of a theater chain and its relative dearth of A-class talent to exploit the overheated first-run market. The studio did sign deals during the war with a number of top independents producers, including Gregory LaCava (1892–1952), Jack Skirball (1896–1985), Frank Lloyd (1886–1960), and Walter Wanger (1894–1968). The most important of these was Wanger, who entered a long-term relationship after the release of Eagle Squadron in 1942, and went on to produce both in-house projects like Arabian Nights (1942), Universal's first Technicolor release, and Scarlet Street (1945) by way of Diana Productions, Wanger's partnership with the film's star (and his wife), Joan Bennett (1910–1990), and its director, Fritz Lang (1890–1976).
While relying on independent producers for much of its A-class product during the war, Universal continued to crank out low-cost programmers, including B westerns with Tex Ritter (1905–1974) and Rod Cameron (1910–1983), the Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone (1892–1967) (picked up from Fox), and low-budget horror films like The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and The Wolf Man (1941), launching a new cycle starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (1906–1973). Durbin's star faded badly in the early 1940s, but her decline was offset by the sudden stardom of Abbott & Costello. Concurrent with Paramount's Hope-Crosby hits, Abbott & Costello utterly dominated the box office charts during the war, initially with "service comedies" like Buck Privates and In the Navy (both 1941), and later with genre parodies, including a Hope-Crosby spoof, Pardon My Sarong (1942).