Carl Laemmle Jr.
Hollywood history was divided on the legacy of producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. , son of Universal Studios founder, Carl Laemmle, Sr. Though he oversaw some of the most enduring titles in the history of the studio, including "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), "Dracula" (1931) and "Frankenstein" (1931), he also earned a reputation as a notorious spend thrift whose careless management of the company's finances would eventually contribute to not only his removal as Universal's head of production in 1936, but also his father's ouster that same year. His dismissal effectively ended his brief but notable career in motion pictures, though many of his productions came to be regarded as classics of the horror, drama and musical genres. He was also responsible for introducing color and sync-sound production to Universal, a move that, while exorbitantly expensive, kept the company afloat during the difficult transitional period between silent and "talking" pictures. Carl Laemmle, Jr. ultimately came to represent something of an unlucky hero in Hollywood, one whose knack for selecting great films was also undone by his frivolousness with Universal's finances.
Born Julius Laemmle on April 28, 1908 in Chicago, IL, he was the only son of Carl Laemmle, then a successful nickelodeon owner, and his wife, Recha, who also gave birth to a daughter, Rosabelle. His father would eventually form a studio, Independent Moving Pictures, in 1909, which later blossomed into the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1915. Laemmle, Sr. took the family to California to break ground on a movie studio, Universal City Studios, which quickly rose to the top of the movie business on the strength of its modest slate of Westerns, serials and melodramas. Following his mother's death in 1919, the teenaged Laemmle adopted his father's name for his entry into the film business. Laemmle, Sr. put his son in charge of a popular series of two-reel shorts called "The Collegians," which ran from 1926 to 1929. When the series ran its course, Laemmle, Jr. was made head of production at Universal on his 21st birthday. The company had entered a fallow period after years of success under Irving Thalberg's reign as production chief. When Thalberg left the studio for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Laemmle, Sr., did what he had done on numerous prior occasions: installed a member of his own family in a position of power. Over 70 members of the Laemmle family were employed with Universal at the time of Laemmle, Jr.'s appointment.
Though still relatively inexperienced in overseeing feature films, Laemmle, Jr. believed firmly in his father's credo of producing genre films for middle-class moviegoers. He also saw that the company was falling behind in regard to technological advances like Technicolor and sync-sound production, and delved deeply into the studio's funds to upgrade Universal's ability to turn out these sort of pictures. Though expensive, the results paid off: the company soon earned sizable hits with its first all-color musical, "King of Jazz" (1930), as well as an adaptation of "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) which won the Best Picture Oscar that year. He also struck upon the idea of producing film versions of classic horror literature, beginning in 1931 with "Dracula," which hewed closer to a 1920 stage version than the novel by Bram Stoker. It proved exceptionally popular, and led to a string of classic fright films, including "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Mummy" (1932), "The Invisible Man" (1934) and "The Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), which made icons of its leads, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
But with the success of these pictures also came costly failures, including back-to-back adaptations of Charles Dickens' "Great Expectations" (1934) and "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (1934), and "Sutter's Gold" (1936). Such setbacks came in the midst of the Great Depression, which made it difficult for Universal to recoup the costs for even their biggest hits. Efforts were soon made to stem the tide of money leaving the studio, including the dissolution of the Universal theater chain Laemmle, Jr. had established, but they came too late. Production costs on a remake of one of Laemmle, Jr.'s earliest hits, a film version of the Broadway musical "Showboat" (1935), had overrun by $300,000. Laemmle, Jr. had gone against his father's long-standing policy of funding his projects with the studio's own money by taking out a $750,000 loan from the investment consortium, Standard Capital. J. Cheever Cowdin, who co-headed Standard Capital, proposed to buy out the Laemmles, which resulted in their ouster and Cowdin's partner, Charles Rogers, assuming the presidency of Universal Studios.
Laemmle, Jr. worked briefly for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a production executive from 1936 to 1937, but produced no features during this period. He subsequently slipped into obscurity, though the films he oversaw during his brief tenure as the head of Universal would continue to enjoy popularity with generations of moviegoers. Laemmle, Jr. never married, though he was engaged briefly to the actress Constance Cummings. His father, who refused to allow his son to marry a gentile, called off the union. Laemmle, Jr. died of a stroke at the age of 71 on Sept. 24, 1979, exactly 40 years to the day after his father's own death in 1939.
By Paul Gaita