Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 17, 2019 3:33 pm 
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A great Hollywood motion picture story

ThOS is a slick promotional documentary film history narrated by great-grandniece, Antonia Carlotta Laemmle and by Bob Balaban and Peter Bogdonovich and several film historians. It sells us on the idea that Carl Laemmle is the seminal Hollywood personality we should all know about. As the director of Universal Studios (founded in Fort Lee, NJ in 1912, when he was 45), he was responsible for having 11 female directors working at one time, and sent out a movie with an African American woman and a Caucasian woman as business partners. With Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, he fostered a "humanizing" of monsters. The film goes back to Karl's emigration - sent by his father - to the US in the 1880's at the age of 17, and gradual progression of many jobs, starting as an errand boy in New York, then later for a while in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which had a big majority of Germans. At first, he had spoken virtually no English.

Then at some point he began renting and selling films, starting out at that in Chicago, becoming a movie man, getting investors because of his entrepreneurial charisma. We learn of the monopolistic and manipulative business practices of Edison and Eastman in the early days of filmmaking - and of the fight of Laemmle and the other independents to compete with Edison's controlling "Trust." Edison exploited actresses; Laemmle stole them away and promoted them by their own names, such as Mary Pickford and Florence Lawrence, starting the star system, then founded his "Universal Studios." Edison sought to dominate the market by suing his rivals for patent violations. He sued Laemmle 289 times, but lost every time. The move from New York to California was partly done to get away from the eastern courts and under a more anti-trust regime. Also the sunny weather and 200 acres of a San Fernando Valley chicken ranch for the studios - which could still give eggs to visitors who paid for a studio tour to watch films being made.

Trouble came for Laemmle's Universal in the wave of anti-German fervor during WWI. German internment camps were set up - supervised by a young J. Edgar Hoover and Laemmle wound up making anti-German propaganda films for the government starring Erich von Stroheim as a negative stereotype. Yet Laemmle maintained his warm relationship with his beloved hometown in Germany, Laupheim. which didn't condemn him for the anti-German films and even named a street for him - Lämmlestrasse (hie original German name was Karl Lämmle).

Universal was perhaps the biggest studio in the world in the silent film era. In the late Twenties, Laemmle's son Carl Jr. took over management of the studio. He hired the son of a neighbor at his summer home in Edgemere, New York and made him his secretary: Irving Thalberg. Thalberg had a congenital heart disease and did't live beyond he age of 37, but he was brilliant, and became the "Boy Wonder" of movie production and discovered stars such as Rudolf Valentino, Stan Laurel, and Lon Chaney. He also became the model of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. Lois Weber was an important, activist director. Between 1912 and 1919 women directed 200 mostly feature films at Universal. Laemmle's trust and risk taking got him two major Oscar winner directors, John Ford and William Wyler (the latter imported from Mulhouse, northeastern France).

Laemmle's extraordinary nepotism- he had 70 relatives on the payroll at one point - culminated in hiring his son Junior as studio director, but Junior was hard working and talented. He pushed asked Westerns and slapstick and brought in monster movies, prizewinning ones like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, The Man Who Laughs plus Dracula and Frankenstein.

This film has a lot to say about the Thirties and the rise of HItler, which made Laemmle pull out of Germany professionally and personally (while other studios didn't). The great pacifist hit All Quiet on the Western Front was a key moment, driven out of the theater by Hitler's Storm Troupers. Then Laemmle Senior began focusing on the project of getting his many relatives - and lots of other Jews - out of NaziGermany. The Nazis were happy to see them go; the trouble was, they were not welcome elsewhere. He got them into America by giving them jobs at Universal. By 1936 Carl and Junior were forced out of Universal due to financial failures and neither made any more movies. Uncle Carl had done a lot of good. He died of a hart attack in 1939 at 72. Against difficult odds, he had saved 300 Jewish families from Nazi Germany. This seems like a labor of live by William J. Freedman, whose only other feature is the HBO bio Glickman about Marty Glickman, the first jock turned sportscaster, who faced anti-semitism in the Thirties to become outstanding in a new field. Like Laemmle. This walks us back over a bigger set of events.

Carl Laemmle, 90 mins., debuted at Miami Jewish Film Festival Jan 2019, also playing at Toronto Jewish Film Festival and the San Francisco one, at which it was screened for this review.
SFJFF showtimes:
Friday July 19, 2019 11 am Castro
Sat July 20 11:30 a.m. CineArts
Sat July 27 12 pm Albany Twin
Fri. Aug 2 2 pm Smith Rafael

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