The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will salute the 100th anniversary of America’s oldest continuously operating movie studio, Universal, with a monthlong slate of horror-movie screenings at its Beverly Hills theater in October.
Why horror? Because Universal practically invented the genre.
It may seem hard to believe today that a company with huge movie-theme resorts in Hollywood, Orlando, Singapore and Japan was once derided as a second-class studio that turned out cheap pictures — especially horror movies.
Universal’s revenues in 2011 were an estimated $4.24 billion. Its logo of a spinning globe is known around the world. But its beginnings were considerably more humble.
Carl Laemmle, a German-Jewish immigrant who ran a clothing store in Oshkosh, Wis., went on a buying trip to Chicago in 1905. He was fascinated by the popularity of nickelodeons, where people paid a nickel to hand-crank short moving pictures on individual viewing machines.
Soon he was buying nickelodeons. When Thomas Edison tried to monopolize moviemaking and charge a fee to theater owners, Laemmle was among those who decided to make their own movies and avoid his fee.
That led to the founding of Universal on April 30, 1912. Laemmle was among the first to give screen credits to actors, which led to the studio star system. He also opened the studio to tourists early on, and soon bought out three founding partners.
But he was a cautious businessman. He didn’t buy a chain of theaters, and he didn’t believe in borrowing money.
Instead, Universal churned out inexpensive melodramas, westerns and serials. Lon Chaney, a master of disguises who became known as the Man of 1,000 Faces, starred in silent versions of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925).
Those hits led to more scary pictures; “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “Dracula” and “The Invisible Man” all got their start at Universal in the 1930s and early 1940s. So did Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in a series of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and screen adaptations of radio’s “The Inner Sanctum.”
There was the occasional bigger picture. “All Quiet on the Western Front,” starring a young Lew Ayres, won the third best-picture Oscar in 1930, in the earliest days of talkies. “Showboat” nearly bankrupted the studio. So did director Erich von Stroheim, who insisted on lavish production values.
“Destry Rides Again,” in 1939, marked a comeback for Marlene Dietrich opposite Jimmy Stewart and is a personal favorite among westerns.
Universal couldn’t afford a system of contract players, but it gave notable early billing to Margaret Sullavan, Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, who became the biggest movie stars in America.
Under new studio head William Goetz in the late 1940s, Universal distributed David Lean’s “Great Expectations” and Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet.”
But inexpensive serials like The Dead End Kids, Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule, popular in neighborhood theaters, were more Universal’s speed.
Doris Day, Lana Turner, Cary Grant and director Alfred Hitchcock all made movies at Universal in the late 1950s as other studios were forced to abandon exclusive contracts with talent.
MCA, originally a talent agency, took over Universal in 1962 and got the studio into the television business in a big way. Universal was at last at the top of the heap, making top-flight pictures with major stars.
Notable Universal films from this era forward: “Anne of the Thousand Days,” “Mary, Queen of Scots,” “Rooster Cogburn,” “Airport,” “The Sting,” “American Graffiti,” “Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic Park” and “Back to the Future.”
Matsushita Electric (Panasonic) bought the studio in 1990, then sold it to Seagram in 1995. Seagram was sold to Vivendi, which in 2004 sold Universal to General Electric, the parent company of NBC. Comcast acquired a 51 percent share in January 2011.
That long list of corporate buyers should make clear that big-studio moviemaking has increasingly become more about business and less about the art of filmmaking. And that, in turn, is reflected in the kind of movies being shown in multiplexes today.
Horror movies, by the way, remain an inexpensive and lucrative genre.