Universal



UNIVERSAL-INTERNATIONAL ANDTHE EARLY MCA YEARS

Universal's revenues and profits reached record levels during the war and then peaked in 1946, a year in which the studio underwent a profound change. In an effort to upgrade its films and compete more directly with the major studios, Universal merged with International Pictures, an independent company run by Leo Spitz and William Goetz (1903–1969) that specialized in prestige productions. Engineered by Cowdin, Blumberg, and British producer J. Arthur Rank (1888–1972), the merger installed Spitz and Goetz as heads of production, phased out B-movies and subfeatures, and reduced studio output from its wartime average of fifty per year (twice the majors' output) to thirty-five. Existing deals with Wanger, Mark Hellinger (1903–1947), and other independent producers were extended, while new pacts were signed with several others. Universal also entered a complex international distribution agreement with Rank and his British counterpart, Alexander Korda (1893–1956).

Universal-International (U-I) enjoyed critical success in the immediate postwar era, with Hellinger turning out three successive hits— The Killers (1946), Brute Force

Elsa Lanchester (left) and Boris Karloff in James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
(1947), and The Naked City (1948)—that were among the strongest crime films of the era. Laurence Olivier (1907–1989) directed and starred in an adaptation of Hamlet (1948) that gave the studio its first top Oscars ® in years. But critical success did not translate into boxoffice revenues: record profits of $4.6 million in 1946 became net losses of $3.2 million in 1948. So it was back to basics at Universal City, with the studio reverting to high-volume, low-cost formula films for the subsequent-run market, best characterized by three hit series: the Abbott & Costello Meet … cycle launched in 1948 with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948); the Ma and Pa Kettle series launched in 1949, and the Francis the Talking Mule series in 1950. All three were targeted at small town and rural audiences, and all three series flourished throughout the 1950s. While the low-grade series kept the studio machinery running and the revenues flowing, Bill Goetz managed to keep A-class feature production alive through a truly extraordinary deal with talent agent Lew Wasserman, head of MCA (Music Corporation of America), for the services of James Stewart (1908–1997) in Winchester '73 (1950). The deal gave Stewart 50 percent of the net revenues of the film, making him an equal partner with U-I and forever changing the nature and scope of profit-participation deals in Hollywood. The success of Winchester '73 led to similar deals with Stewart on films like Bend of the River (1952), Thunder Bay (1953), and The Glenn Miller Story (1953), and with several other top stars like Alan Ladd (1913–1964) ( Saskatchewan , 1954) and Kirk Douglas (b. 1916) ( Man Without a Star , 1955) as well.

Goetz negotiated the first of these deals, but his role at U-I rapidly diminished in the early 1950s due to another change in ownership. In late 1951, the music giant Decca Records, which had been looking for an entree into the movie business, began buying up Universal stock, starting with the holdings of Spitz, Goetz, and Rank. By 1953, Decca had controlling interest and Spitz and Goetz were out altogether, replaced by the Decca president, Milton J. Rackmil, who served as president and CEO of U-I as well. Rackmil operated out of New York City and continued to focus primarily on Decca, while Nate Blumberg ran the studio and Ed Muhl, the long-time plant manager, oversaw production, with the day-to-day filmmaking handled by a handful of contract producers. In fact, Universal was one of the last

ABBOTT and COSTELLO
William A. (Bud) Abbott, b. Asbury Park, New Jersey, 2 October 1895, d. 24 April 1974
Louis Francis (Lou) Costello, b. Patterson, New Jersey, 6 March 1906, d. 3 March 1959

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were Universal's top stars of the 1940s, eclipsed only by Paramount's comedy duo of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and they continued to costar in Universal comedies until the mid-1950s. The duo proved eminently adaptable, shifting from service comedies (comedies about life in the military) to genre parodies to comedy-horror hybrids, although the essence of their onscreen appeal remained the comic banter and classic shtick (like their "Who's on First?" routine) first developed on the vaudeville stage years earlier.

Indeed, the lanky, snide Abbott and dumpy, bumbling Costello were comedy veterans when they made their unlikely breakthrough as movie stars. They refined their comic skills on the burlesque circuit in the early 1930s, eventually taking their routines to radio and to Broadway. They signed with Universal for a second-rate (even by Universalstandards)1940romp, One Night in the Tropics (1940), and then were featured in a military farce, Buck Privates (1941), as a pair of inept army draftees who comically survive basic training and become unlikely heroes. The plot was a pastiche of army jokes and vaudeville routines, interspersed with tunes performed by the Andrews Sisters—including the Oscar ® -nominated "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which became a wartime standard.

Buck Privates was a huge and unexpected hit, which Universal immediately followed with two more 1941 service comedies, In the Navy and Keep 'Em Flying . These were created at breakneck speed by Universal's Abbott and Costello unit, whose key contributors were the producer Alex Gottlieb, the director Arthur Lubin, the writer John Grant, and the cinematographer Joe Valentine. By the time the United States entered the war in December 1941, Abbott and Costello had become the industry's top boxoffice attraction. At that point Universal shifted the focus (out of respect for the "war effort") from service comedies to genre parodies, including Pardon My Sarong (1942), a spoof of the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures. The duo remained atop the box-office charts throughout the war, along with Hope and Crosby and Betty Grable, but their appeal waned in the immediate postwar period amid repeated announcements of their impending split. They were soon written off as an offbeat wartime phenomenon.

As their stars faded, Universal writer Grant and the producer Robert Arthur devised a genre recombination strategy to meld the Abbott and Costello formula with the horror "reunion" pictures of the war years like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). The result was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which revived not only the duo's careers but also two fading studio formulas. That unlikely hit was followed by a succession of low-cost comedy-horror hybrids, from Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) to Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). The pair finally split in 1957, two years before Lou Costello's death.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING

One Night in the Tropics (1940), Buck Privates (1941), Pardon My Sarong (1942), Lost in a Harem (1944), The Time of Their Lives (1946), Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950), Abbott & Costello Go to Mars (1953)

FURTHER READING

Furmanek, Bob, and Ron Palumbo. Abbott and Costello in Hollywood . New York: Perigree Books, 1991.

Maltin, Leonard. Movie Comedy Teams . New York: New American Library, revised ed. 1985.

Miller, Jeffrey S. The Horror Spoofs of Abbott and Costello . Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

Thomas Schatz

Bud Abbott (left) and Lou Costello find themselves in the Foreign Legion (1950).

studios to maintain a producer-unit system, with over half of its output from 1952 to 1958 being handled by only five producers, each of whom specialized in a particular type of film.

Robert Arthur (1909–1986) handled low-budget comedies and series films, including the Abbott & Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis series. Aaron Rosenberg (1912–1979) handled high-end drama, particularly Technicolor adventure films shot on location (including the Stewart films). Ross Hunter (1920–1996) produced Universal's "women's pictures"—mainly light romance and glossy melodrama. The latter included director Douglas Sirk's baroque weepies All I Desire (1953), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959), which confounded critics but did excellent business. William Alland (1916–1997) specialized in B-grade westerns and science-fiction films, often in collaboration with director Jack Arnold (1916–1992): It Came from Outer Space (1953); Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); This Island Earth (1955). Albert Zugsmith (1910–1993) was the most adventurous and eclectic of the lot, producing such wide-ranging films as the sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Orson Welles's (1915–1985) film noir masterwork Touch of Evil (1958), and two of Sirk's most distinctive films, Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1958).

The films produced by Arthur, Rosenberg, Hunter, Alland, and Zugsmith defined Universal's house style until the late 1950s, when changes that had been transforming Hollywood finally caught up with the studio. The decade had been generally successful for both Decca and Universal, although the two companies never realized the kind of "synergies" that Rackmil and others anticipated. Universal had been operating in something of a time warp, maintaining a factory-oriented system and seemingly oblivious to television, independent production, and the burgeoning blockbuster mentality. Then in 1958, after eight years of steady but modest profits, U-I's revenues dropped severely. Rackmil, realizing that the studio was woefully out of step with the changing industry, shut down production and began looking for a buyer, eventually striking a deal with MCA for the sale of the Universal City lot (for $11.25 million) while retaining control of Universal Pictures. Rackmil stayed on as nominal president of Universal after the sale in early 1959, but there was no question that the chief executive of the newly merged company was MCA's Lew Wasserman, who by then was arguably the most powerful individual in Hollywood—a prototype, in fact, for a new media mogul, just as MCA augured a new breed of entertainment company.

The phenomenal postwar rise of MCA as a force in Hollywood was propelled by its utter domination of three interrelated aspects of the movie and television industries: talent representation, telefilm series production, and TV syndication. MCA brokered more top talent, produced more prime time series, and leased more film and television titles from its library than any other company in the entertainment industry. By 1958, MCA's television subsidiary, Revue Productions, had outgrown its production facility, the former Republic Studio lot, and the purchase of the massive Universal City lot was a logical move at this stage of its development. Wasserman had his eye on the movie industry, however, so the purchase of the lot was simply step one in the acquisition of Universal Pictures itself. Step two was to facilitate the studio's recovery through releases laden with MCA talent: Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk , for instance, and Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in Operation Petticoat (both 1959). Those two hits helped carry Universal to record profits of $4.7 million in 1959, and the trend continued with Spartacus (1960), a picture that Universal fully financed and coproduced with Bryna Productions, an independent company set up by MCA for Kirk Douglas, who produced and starred in the historical epic. Spartacus was the most expensive film in Universal's history, marking its first foray into the heady realm of blockbuster productions; it was also the biggest box office hit of 1960.

By then, Wasserman had decided to acquire Universal by buying its parent company, Decca, but the acquisition was complicated by legal and regulatory issues. MCA was already contending with antitrust and conflict of interest challenges by the Justice Department and the FCC, and these intensified when the agency sought to acquire Universal. Thus Wasserman opted not only to sell off the talent agency but to dissolve it altogether when MCA bought Decca and Universal in 1962, creating an integrated film, television, and music company—a veritable paradigm for the modern media conglomerate.



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