Carl Laemmle, President of Universal Studios

Carl Laemmle, President of Universal Studios

Carl Laemmle

(1867 - 1939)

Carl Laemmle was the founder of Universal Pictures Company and one of the founding fathers of Hollywood and the studio system

“There probably isn’t a theatre in the city today that is as bad as my first theatre. But I loved it. Everything I had in the world was tied up to that little theatre. My friends told me that I was crazy, that I would fail, that people would soon be fed up with movies and not want to see them anymore. They told me that movies would never be a big business. (…) But in spite of all they said, I had faith in this new thing that we called the nickelodeon. I’m not a prophet and I never was one, but I’m going to tell you why I believed in the movies. You see, I was a salesman.”[1]


With these words, Carl Laemmle (born January 17, 1867 in Laupheim, Germany; died: September 24, 1939 in Los Angeles, CA), the moving pictures mogul and founding father of Hollywood summed up his success on the eve of his twentieth anniversary in the film industry in 1926. As president of the “largest film concern in the Universe,” the Universal Pictures Company, he could look back at two decades of achievement during which he had played the role of the “innovator” in an industry still in its infancy: motion pictures.[2] Contemporaries lauded his anniversary as one of the significant moments in the history of the film industry in the United States.[3] It had all begun with the early nickelodeons, built mostly in immigrant working class neighborhoods. They had a somewhat cheap and seedy reputation but were immensely popular. This so-called “nickel madness” sparked regulation and censorship efforts. Nickelodeons were regarded as an example of “the corrupt institutions and practices that had grown up in the poor and immigrant districts of the new industrial city”[4] and were stigmatized as amusement for the lower rungs of society. Upper classes failed to appreciate film’s potential as both a form of entertainment and business. Laemmle was at the forefront of organizing these individual nickelodeons into a sophisticated industry built around ornate movie palaces, film distribution, and production studios that made movies respectable as they broadened their appeal to a white, middle class audience and eventually a worldwide audience, making Hollywood a global brand.

Family Background

Carl Laemmle was born on January 17, 1867, to Julius Baruch Laemmle and Rebekka Laemmle in the Jewish part of Laupheim in southwestern Germany. His father was a cattle merchant. He was involved in real estate and land transactions in the region as well, but the family struggled financially and lived in poverty. Only three of Carl’s eleven siblings reached adulthood. The others died at birth or as children, mainly due to epidemics.[5]

As one of the youngest children, Carl was close to his mother, who took on his education before he enrolled in a Jewish school. By age thirteen, Carl was working to support his family. His mother arranged a three-year apprenticeship for him in Ichenhausen, a nearby village. It was there that Carl learned the basic rules of salesmanship such as accounting and sales—lessons that would prove extremely valuable in later life.[6]

Reasons for Migration

As an apprentice in Ichenhausen, Carl read the magazines that advertised emigrating to the United States. Highly romanticized, advertisements like these played an important role in convincing young people like Carl Laemmle to go and see with their own eyes the wonders of the New World.[7] Carl’s brother Joseph’s letters also played a role in his decision to emigrate. Joseph, thirteen years Carl’s senior, had been living in the United States since 1872. The “Amerikabriefe” he sent to his family in Germany presented an embellished and romantic picture of the foreign lands—stereotypes and exaggerations which stood in stark contrast to reality but held a magnetic power of attraction.[8] Reading his brother’s accounts of New York and Chicago, Carl Laemmle was convinced that a better world awaited him in the United States. He thus became part of the trend of chain migration, in which relatives and friends who have previously emigrated play an important role in supporting other family members’ immigration decision and in helping the newcomers adjust to their new home. Laemmle left for the United States following his mother’s death in 1883.

He embarked on the journey together with a school friend, Leo Hirshfeld, on January 28, 1884. The two young men took the steamboat S.S. Neckar from Bremerhaven to New York. Carl had received the tickets for his Atlantic crossing as a birthday present from his father, along with fifty dollars (about $1,150 in 2010$) to insure a safe passage and a new start in America.[9] Two weeks later, on February 14, 1884, the passengers glimpsed the New World for the first time.


Carl Laemmle passed through the immigration center at Castle Garden as passenger number 334.[10] Joseph was unaware of his brother’s arrival—contact had subsided in the year before Carl’s departure—and thus did not come to meet him. Carl and Leo were taken to a boarding house by the brother of one of their traveling companions and it was there, on the corner of 59th Street and Third Avenue, that Laemmle spent his first night on the new continent.[11]

Employment prospects for a young man with less than fifty dollars in his pocket and no knowledge of English were grim. Carl took the first job he was offered, as an errand boy in a drug store earning $4 (about $90 in 2010$) per week. This helped him survive. After a few weeks Carl began searching for his brother Joseph, based on the only information he had about his employment at one of the German newspapers in Chicago, Illinois Staatszeitung. As it turned out, Joseph was the secretary of the vice-president of the newspaper. He sent Carl ten dollars and a ticket from New York to Chicago.[12]

After working a variety of odd jobs in Chicago, Laemmle decided to try his hand at agriculture—common employment for German immigrants in the Midwest at that time. He was hired at a farm in Yankton in today’s South Dakota, but had no talent or drive to work the land. However, life on the farm put things into perspective for him. As he remembered later: “I found that shocking that wheat was harder on the hands than any other of my previous jobs, but there were three square meals each day and two seventy-five coming each evening at six o’clock. It was great work and made me realize the value of a dollar more than any other work I tried up to that time.”[13] After seven weeks spent as a farmer, Laemmle was back in Chicago, depending on low-paid jobs and loans from his brother to survive. He maintained close ties to the local German community, attending German theater, meeting other immigrants in beer gardens, and reading German newspapers. He did not, however, participate in any of the hundreds of German clubs in Chicago or search for work only through his ethnic ties. He remained close to his relatives in Laupheim and went back to visit only two years after his departure. Despite frequent visits to Germany in the years to come, he had made up his mind about where “home” would be and applied for American citizenship, completing his naturalization in 1889.

Business Strategies

Ten years after his arrival in the United States and now fluent in English, Carl Laemmle was able to find a job in 1894 that represented a clear step up the social ladder. He became the bookkeeper of Continental Clothing Company in Oshkosh, WI. His employer, Sam Stern, was a German immigrant of Jewish origin who had transformed a sweatshop business into a retail chain, with branches in several Midwestern cities.

In hiring Laemmle, Sam Stern acquired not only a very ambitious employee but also a very creative one. In addition to his work as an accountant, Carl pursued ideas to increase sales through better and more creative advertising. He familiarized himself with such concepts as “publicity” and “showmanship” and became known in Oshkosh for creating bold advertising campaigns, producing and distributing sales catalogues and following up with customer feedback. Also, he made the store more attractive by building inviting window displays that reflected the current season or events taking place in the city.[14] In time, Laemmle’s $15 a week job became a management position which paid $4,000 (about $107,00 in 2010$) per year.[15]

After working for more than a decade for Continental Clothing Company, Laemmle was comfortably situated in the middle class, had a secure job, a good income, and was fully integrated into the social matrix of Oshkosh. In 1898 he had married the niece of his employer, Recha Stern, with whom he had a daughter, Rosabelle, in 1903 and a son, Julius, in 1908. His fellow citizens voted him to be “one of the fifteen most eminent and enterprising business men in town” in 1905.[16] One might assume that Laemmle would have reached, at age forty, the peak of his career. But he decided it was time to move on.

In 1906, with savings of roughly $3,000 (about $75,000 in 2010$), Laemmle decided to go into business on his own. The initial plan was to open a network of cheap retail stores. He abandoned this idea one day after entering a nickelodeon, one of the early storefront theaters which brought the novelty of moving pictures to the masses. He spent some time observing the constant flow of customers paying ten cents to see the moving images in the dark and concluded that motion pictures were a far better investment. Nickelodeons quickly became the primary form of motion picture exhibition and a national phenomenon, with 7,000 to 10,000 theaters opening in a two- to three-year period.[17] In 1910, the moving pictures theaters attracted about twenty million Americans every week.[18]

Carl Laemmle acted quickly and was among the first to open motion picture theaters in Chicago. In a matter of weeks he owned a motion picture theater on Milwaukee Avenue, The White Front. Soon after, he opened a second one, The Family Theatre. His business sense and extraordinary timing contributed in large part to his immediate success. He entered the moving picture scene right at the moment when the picture drama became a worldwide phenomenon and quickly one of the most successful forms of popular entertainment.

In October 1906, Laemmle expanded his business model and opened his first film exchange, Laemmle Film Service, renting films to the new theaters appearing everywhere in America’s big cities in the first decade of the twentieth century.[19] The idea for this new business had sprung from Laemmle’s need to secure good quality films for his own theaters. He found the practice of exhibitors buying movies from manufacturers impractical. Not only were manufacturers often hard to reach and their offerings difficult to evaluate, Laemmle also realized that he could not afford to buy each film he wanted to show if he had to change the program several times a week or even daily.[20] Film exchanges solved the problem of having to purchase many expensive films that quickly lost their value after being shown for a short time. But the exchange system had its flaws, and as the owner of a theater Laemmle was quick to notice them. He initially rented films for his two theaters but became increasingly dissatisfied with this procedure. Films were not delivered on time, occasionally did not arrive at all, or would be withdrawn by a film exchange if another theater owner offered a higher price.[21] Thus, in order to ensure the independence of his theater business, Laemmle decided to open a film exchange of his own. He was so successful at renting films that by 1908, Laemmle Film Service had offices in Memphis, TN; Omaha, NE; Portland, OR; Salt Lake City, UT; Minneapolis, MN; and Indianapolis, IN. Within less than two years, Laemmle had become the largest film distributor in America.[22] His rapid ascension was nothing short of spectacular, but it can be understood by looking at his business methods and his particular style of advertising. Laemmle wanted his motion picture services to be known for their quality and name. He had experienced the lack of interest of other exchanges in offering a “square deal” for their films, and decided to make a difference. This “square deal” policy would become a stabile feature of Laemmle’s business methods.

Laemmle’s initial expansion into motion pictures proved to be a lucky strike, but also marked the beginning of a long legal struggle. As early as 1894, Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of motion picture technology, incorporated all his film-related businesses into a commercial entity, the Edison Manufacturing Company, through which he conducted his legal actions against other companies involved in film manufacturing. With his patent infringement lawsuits, Edison began harassing his competitors and succeeded in putting them out of business if they did not agree to operate under his license. By 1909, Edison pooled patents with his former main manufacturing competitor, the Biograph Company, and with Eastman Kodak, the supplier of raw film, to form the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), also known as the Edison Trust. Through this joint venture, he managed to impose a monopoly on cameras, projectors, and raw film, allowing him to collect a tax of two dollars per month from all film producers, exhibitors, and exchange owners as a royalty for his inventions.[23] Carl Laemmle considered the tax abusive, Edison’s monopoly illegal, and as the owner of the largest film exchange chain, a direct attempt to put him out of business. He challenged Edison’s monopoly under the Sherman Antitrust Act, accusing Edison of hampering free competition. The price for his boldness was the entanglement in over 300 lawsuits over the course of several years.[24]

But the legal battle was only one aspect of the confrontation. Both the Independents, under Laemmle’s guidance, and the Trust, represented by Edison, had to face an even harsher judge: the public. Laemmle understood that public opinion could exert a crushing pressure on the debate over motion pictures and decided to bring it to the court of public opinion. After forming his own production company, the Independent Moving Picture Company (IMP) in May 1909, Laemmle became the de facto leader of the opposition against the Edison Trust. His main achievement was not to have been the first to have the idea of opposition to the Trust, but to organize the loose “outlaws” of the industry—the Independents—into becoming a coherent counterforce to Edison.[25] He not only decided to be one of the Independents, but became their leader who transformed the “revolution” into a “war.” The organization of IMP, with Laemmle at the forefront, was to become the starting point of his career as a film producer.

Relying on his abilities as a salesman, Laemmle organized a far-reaching campaign against the Edison Trust in the local and national press to win the public’s sympathy for the independent motion pictures producers and distributors whom he represented. He also employed a very successful method of marketing with broad implications for motion picture history: the “star system.” This system was an advertising strategy that promoted a motion picture by focusing on its main actor or actress. Since this approach had already proved useful for the theater stage, Laemmle believed that it could work for motion pictures as well. Edison and other members of the Trust were well aware that through billing, the actors could become very popular, more independent, and demand more pay.[26] Therefore, actors and actresses of the early silent films were known among avid nickelodeon goers simply as “Little Mary,” “the girl with the curls,” “the baby-face bandit,” etc. Laemmle realized that the star system would require a greater initial investment but could also generate greater profits in the long run. He offered Trust players more lucrative contracts and billing at the end of the film to hire them away to the Independents’ ranks. In this way, he helped to create such famous stars of the silent screen as Mary Pickford, Florence Lawrence, and King Baggot.[27]

The Supreme Court finally ordered Edison to dismantle his Trust in 1915. Laemmle had managed to win a long legal and commercial war for film independence against Edison, an icon of modern America. The decision not only pitted Independents against the Trust, but also immigrant entrepreneurs against incumbent middle class producers.

In 1912, three years before Edison’s Trust was dismantled, Laemmle and other independent film producers founded the company that would bring him not only wealth but also fame and recognition: Universal Pictures. After he became the sole owner of Universal Pictures Company in 1915, production increased exponentially and made the need for a new location for extensive film production obvious. Laemmle decided to move the entire production unit from Chicago to New York and then to California, on account of good weather, cheap land, and beautiful landscapes in reach. He built, on a former chicken farm in San Fernando Valley, the most modern film studio at the time, incorporated as a city: The Universal City. On its premises, which covered 230 acres, Laemmle built 600 sets and 90 stages, a bank, a post office, a school, living areas, and a zoo.[28] He also created an unconventional but coherent advertising strategy for his studio which has survived until the present. A firm believer in direct and unmediated advertising, he was the only film producer to open his studio to the public and offer the famous “Universal Tour” of the silent film days. He wanted people to see how films were made. The same tour is offered on the site of Universal City today as one of the main attractions of the studio.

On the Universal City lot, Laemmle produced several firsts of the early film era: the first million-dollar film billed as such (Foolish Wives, 1922), one of the first American horror films (Dracula, 1931,) and the first film in which an entire part of the city had been recreated on the set (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1923). He developed a highly complex marketing system for both his studio and its films, organizing contests, setting up publicity stunts, and writing editorials in local and national newspapers.[29] Thanks in part to Laemmle, motion pictures increasingly received positive press recognition as mass entertainment crossing class lines. The introduction of the star system changed how screen actors and movies in general were perceived. Magazines dedicated to theater began publishing film news and created columns for answering letters from movie fans. The New York Dramatic Mirror was the first publication to accommodate inquiries about screen stars and their recent productions.[30]

Laemmle encouraged this trend by having his actors and the studio’s public relations branch send out autographed photographs of Universal’s stars. He himself eagerly corresponded with the public, receiving hundreds of letters per month and trying to answer them all personally. Laemmle believed in the appeal of his personal letters and their results. They transformed him into the “face” and “voice” of his studio. The letters also provided helpful insights into who went to see which movies and why—an early marketing research strategy that allowed Laemmle to target audiences and adjust his advertising efforts accordingly. Laemmle’s communication network, built though letters, ads, and personal addresses, made him feel closely connected to those for whom the films were made. This, in turn, led to a strong connection between his name and the movies produced by Universal Pictures. At a time when stars increasingly took the spotlight in advertising and studios did not play a decisive role in selling a movie, Laemmle built on his name and image as an advertising brand.

World War I threatened this special connection between Laemmle and the American public, as well as the existence of the entire studio. Laemmle had always made a point of mentioning he was an American.[31] At the same time, he had never denied his ethnic or religious background, and had maintained close ties to Germans and Germany. He visited Laupheim annually and had a habit of employing German directors, buying German scripts, and promoting German actors. However, with the outbreak of World War I, this transatlantic connection became questionable. The American public perceived him as the German-American movie mogul at a time when a hyphenated identity was problematic and not desirable. Laemmle knew that it was not enough to “feel” American, he needed to prove it. He concluded that the best way to honor his oath of allegiance to the United States, to demonstrate solidarity with his adopted country, and to distance himself and Universal Pictures from Germany, was to produce anti-German propaganda films. Universal responded to the anti-German feeling extant in American society by propagating some of the best-known negative stereotypes. Laemmle’s “insider” knowledge of both American and German mentalities generated a particularly keen sense of outrage and imagery. The Sinking of Lusitania, a picture released in 1918, employed the stereotype of Germans as Huns. This idea was used by Laemmle to evoke the brutality and barbarism associated with invasion and foreign occupation. In another propaganda film, The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II was portrayed as evil incarnate and German soldiers as an army from hell. In The Heart of Humanity, released in 1919, Laemmle has a German officer, the “Hun,” memorably played by Erich von Stroheim, attack a Red Cross worker and throw her child out the window. The brutality of the scene confirmed the stereotype of the “evil Prussians” occupying and destroying everything in their path and perpetuated a “truth” for American audiences.

Laemmle’s decision to make anti-German films was more than a personal disapproval of Germany’s actions abroad. It was the only way to keep Universal Pictures in business and save the company from negative branding in the United States. An anti-war or neutral attitude on Laemmle’s part, at a moment when Americans were mobilizing on foreign fronts to fight Germans, would have been equivalent to financial suicide. Thus, Laemmle’s anti-German productions can be viewed in the light of economic necessity during a period of political crisis. He believed that only a clear pro-American and anti-German stand would save Universal from negative publicity. Because these films employed some of the most negative stereotypes of the German army and because they were the only anti-German propaganda films made by a German-American studio owner, these motion pictures were believed to show, more poignant that others, the “true” face of the “evil Hun” in the eyes of the public. Of course, Universal’s portrayal of the German military raises questions regarding the extent to which Laemmle dissociated between pro-Allied propaganda and the reality of the front. It is very probable that the heavy anti-German propaganda machine influenced his films, and that while he did not believe in the idea of “collective guilt” of the German people, he did consider the Kaiser and the entire German leadership—as opposed to the German people—solely responsible for the atrocities.

Although Germany was severed from the international film market by a general film ban, news of Laemmle’s American Hetzfilme (hate films) reached his native country and gave rise to bitter criticism. When he visited Laupheim after the war, Laemmle was greeted by furious citizens who objected to being portrayed as beasts and child murderers in Universal films.[32] Once he returned to the United States, he embarked on a nationwide campaign to ask for help for the reconstruction of Germany. His articles and editorials, which appeared mainly in the Saturday Evening Post, were very successful, and despite the circumstances, he was able to send money, food, and supplies to Germany within months.[33] Laemmle’s initiative showed a deeper understanding of such notions as a war’s winners, enemies, and victims than demonstrated by Universal’s propaganda films. He explained his philanthropic actions as a form of humanitarian aid, a natural response to crisis or war that had to be offered despite political or national differences.[34]

Laemmle’s philanthropy in Germany was not limited to war relief. Beginning in 1920, he resumed his annual visits to Laupheim and offered donations for the rehabilitation of streets, the building of a gymnasium, and the reconditioning of the church and a monastery in nearby Ulm. He was intent on regaining his popularity in Laupheim. To this end, he did not spare any financial or personal effort. By 1929, his so-called pilgrimages prompted American journalists to write that “rediscovering Laupheim is a medicine to Mr. Laemmle and it is medicine to the cordial folk there. He is always tremendously pleased to see them and they him.”[35] He enjoyed playing the role of the “rich uncle from America” and was usually approached by large crowds of relatives, friends, and strangers who asked him for jobs in Los Angeles, the “city of dreams.” Laemmle, known as “Uncle Carl,” often fulfilled their wish and for a short time, the first language at Universal Pictures was German. Laemmle’s popularity in his native city grew so much that the mayor of Laupheim organized celebrations in his honor and in 1926 offered to name a street after him.[36]

In terms of business opportunities, Laemmle was convinced that the European, and especially the German market, would once again be receptive to American films. He was a major supporter of the nullification of the film ban, imposed after the start of the war. When the German government allowed American motion pictures on the German market again in 1921, Universal Pictures already had a major advantage due to pre-war connections with the German film business. Despite the existence of film quotas as a measure to encourage local film production, Universal Pictures quickly became one of the main exporters to Germany. In 1921 and 1922 Laemmle managed to supply over fifty per cent of the American film import quota to Germany.[37] At the same time, he became a constant presence in German newspapers dedicated to motion pictures, a usual guest on radio shows, and the main partner for German film companies seeking to improve their cooperation with the United States.

However, Laemmle’s status in Germany as a German-American film producer was never quite the same as before World War I. His philanthropy was appreciated and his expertise in filmmaking recognized. But many never forgave him for his attitude during the Great War and his propaganda films against Germany. He was often accused of “luring” German actors to Hollywood, where they were “corrupted” to act in films that did not always meet the European standard of theatrical quality. When Universal Pictures flooded the German film market with a series of adventure movies and westerns showing the heroes boxing, riding horses, chasing the “bad guy,” and winning the girl in the end, Laemmle was at the center of a critical uproar. German film critics disapproved of action films like Brass Bullet or Goliath Armstrong—although very successful with German audiences—and accused Laemmle of subverting the German narrative traditions and European film in general. They feared that the export of sensationalism and cheap melodrama, even if common on American screens, would corrupt audiences’ imagination and damage German filmmaking. Critics called for a reduction of the American film quota, which was a direct assault on Laemmle, the largest exporter of American motion pictures. Many German production companies began drawing their inspiration from classic novels and plays of “established value.” Thus, a moviegoer would encounter, for example, “Hamlet, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Stefan George, Nietzsche, Freud and Schopenhauer, or adaptions of sonnets, psychological novels and theories of relativity.”[38] Nonetheless, despite criticism the more lightweight American films remained a constant attraction, and Laemmle continued to supply them for the German market.

In an effort to expand his market and win over European audiences, Laemmle devised a new production strategy to respond to the complex demands of a transatlantic public. He went on to produce European-American motion pictures, movies that sought to combine the two filmmaking traditions and techniques. He believed, through his connection with the German language, culture, and mentality on the one hand and understanding of the American experience on the other, that he knew which films would best cater to the expectations of audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. They would be “universal.”

However, applying theory to practice proved to be more difficult than expected. Laemmle’s preference for European themes and directors was successful only in the United States, as exemplified by Foolish Wives (1922). Despite Erich von Stroheim’s lavish spending and dramatic directing performance, Foolish Wives, Hollywood’s first million-dollar production, flopped in Germany. The German public still strongly associated von Stroheim with his roles in the propaganda films so that his attempt to present, in Foolish Wives, European society from an American perspective was regarded as superficial and biased.

Universal’s screening of classic novels using American technology was Laemmle’s next attempt at conquering a slow European market. Productions such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Merry-Go-Round (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Les Misérables (1925), and The Man Who Laughs (1928) strove to ensure box office appeal yet avoid criticism as low-quality movies. At the same time, they were meant to connect the studio’s image with the idea of classic “masterpieces” and change the impression left by low-budget series and cheap westerns. With their casts of international stars, famous European directors, lavish sets, and technological innovations, many of these classics became standard works of the silent screen era. Lon Chaney’s performances as Quasimodo and Erik the Phantom were unanimously acclaimed by European and American critics alike, not only because of high-quality acting but also for the impressive make-up, costumes, and stunts performed by Chaney himself. Moreover, for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Laemmle built a replica of the façade of Notre Dame in Universal City to convey a note of realism and suspense.

These movies were branded “Universal Masterpiece.” Well-organized advertising campaigns preceded their openings in Berlin, raising expectations and filling theaters. Laemmle adhered closely to the original works of literature, in some cases even reproducing whole paragraphs and dialogues from the books. This measure prevented accusations of having “spoiled” classics of literature through a superficial “American” interpretation. The German public welcomed the high-quality productions, but their literary rhythm and considerable length prevented them from becoming real box office successes at the time. Nonetheless, these films set the standard for what are now called “classic Hollywood silent films” and initiated the tradition of transforming classic works of literature into film.

Laemmle’s business plans were not limited to exporting American productions to Germany. In 1925 he held negotiations for an exclusive cooperation with Universum Film AG (UFA), the largest German film production and distribution company of the 1920s and 1930s. UFA had been founded in 1917 by the German government to counteract negative international motion picture propaganda and produce public service films. The company was privatized in 1921 and became a very successful enterprise that created an impressive output of silent films, strongly competing with Hollywood for international markets. Faced with UFA’s commercial success, many American film companies felt threatened, especially since some of the films were imported by American companies to public acclaim. They were regarded as better movies, films that could move cinema closer to “art” and away from its label of cheap entertainment. Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame Dubarry (1919), presented in New York in December 1920 under the title of Passion, received enthusiastic reviews.[39] It was followed by Deception in March 1921, Lubitsch’s second film distributed in the United States. Many Hollywood companies reacted almost immediately, and by April 1921, First National and Paramount announced they would acquire almost two hundred German films and distribute them in the United States. Soon thereafter, apocalyptic newspaper headlines announced a “German invasion” of the American market.[40] These reports spurred immediate opposition at all levels. Still influenced by the anti-German propaganda, many veteran groups and family organizations criticized the idea of buying the “enemy’s” films. The American Legion attempted to boycott the showing of German films, and others expressed their disapproval by refusing to patronize the theaters showing them. The main opponents were, however, the American film producers, who felt that German competition was unfair due to the still extant quota restrictions.[41]

If a film invasion did take place, it came from the United States. It was led by several firms that sought to increase their market share in Central Europe, dominated by Germany. On April 21, 1921, Famous-Players-Lasky, led by Adolph Zukor, announced the formation of the European Film Alliance (EFA), a German-American film company meant to take advantage of the low production costs in Germany and, under the umbrella of coproduction, circumvent the German quota laws. However, the EFA project soon failed miserably due to inflation. Reichsmarks, introduced in 1923/24, were not convertible to dollars and thus profits could not be transferred to the United States.[42] But the idea of taking over the German film market remained. In 1925, a new opportunity arose for American film companies to play a more decisive role in Germany. Deutsche Bank announced that it would cease to support UFA, despite its reported profits of $1.5 million for the previous year and impressive real estate assets. Deutsche Bank’s actions can be explained by the rumors surrounding UFA’s alleged financial problems, which led to a plunge of its stocks and weakened the company, making it susceptible to a takeover.[43]

The first to announce his intention to support UFA’s bailout was Carl Laemmle. Because of UFA’s prestige, Laemmle attempted to negotiate an agreement to gain exclusive distribution rights for Universal movies in Germany. The terms of Universal’s collaboration with UFA would require Universal to pay $3,600,000 or the equivalent of 15,000 Gold Marks (about $44,800,000 in 2010$) for the right to enter the one hundred and fifty theaters owned by UFA and select the best UFA pictures for release in the United States and through Universal Exchanges in foreign countries.[44] Even if it was a high price for that period, Laemmle had clear reasons for trying to take over the distribution network and possibly some of the five production studios of the biggest German film company. Under the laws of that time, it was impossible to release an American picture or a foreign-made picture in Germany unless a German-made picture was released at the same time in the United States. If Universal had, through UFA, exclusive distribution rights in Germany, the American company would be able to release as many films as desired and thus become the industry leader on the German market. Moreover, Universal would be able to release its pictures on UFA’s adjacent markets in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Poland, and Scandinavia.[45] According to the terms of the contract between Universal and UFA, Laemmle’s company would also be able to choose six other American films to distribute through UFA’s network, in addition to its own films.[46]

From UFA’s point of view, the deal with Universal would bring two major advantages, including a loan. Firstly, UFA pictures deemed suitable would be distributed in the United States and in other English-speaking countries. Secondly, Universal planned to “lend” Universal stars and technicians to UFA productions, as a way to promote their presence on foreign markets. At least officially, Laemmle considered UFA an equal partner and planned a series of coproductions. He announced the collaboration between Universal Pictures and UFA as a “friendly relationship,” implying that the German partner would have its share of advantages in exchange for the partial “Americanization” of its structures. The closing of the deal would have meant the creation of a stable transatlantic film market, producing films for a “universal audience.” However, the deal between Universal and UFA was never finalized, due to pressure from Universal’s American competitors. Representatives sent by Famous Players, MGM, and Paramount forced UFA’s management to withdraw from negotiations with Universal, leaving Laemmle to find other market strategies for increasing production and distribution in Germany and Europe.

He came up with a new plan and opened his own company in Germany, naming it Matador Verleih and not Universal Pictures in order to avoid any suspicions. The enterprise was successful very quickly. In the two seasons of its existence, Matador brought over forty films onto the German market. In May 1928, Laemmle renamed the company German Universal.[47] The official presence of Universal in Germany increased the collaboration between European and American actors, directors, scriptwriters, composers, and other movie-making staff involved in producing Laemmle’s “transatlantic films.” He found that this kind of collaboration constituted the best advertising for his studio and provided additional proof for his claim that he was “making universal films for the universe.”

Talented directors such as Paul Leni were invited to Universal City, not only because they had attained fame in Europe, but also because Carl Laemmle believed that they had the “secret recipe” for internationally successful films. Leni was invited to direct films at Universal and bring a touch of European expressionism to American films. Hollywood films with an “Old World” influence were believed to sell better and attract more diverse audiences. Critical acclaim followed his first Hollywood film The Cat and the Canary (1927) and confirmed Carl Laemmle’s assumptions: “Paul Leni, in his first picture made by him in the New World, proved himself a master-craftsman. It is an American picture, through and through, with only artistic settings and photographic effect impinged upon from Leni’s continental past. It is hailed as the best mystery play ever made and by far the best screen adaptation of a mystery play.”[48] One of the main incentives that attracted established European directors to Universal Pictures was the financial capacity of the studio. Although their artistic freedom at Universal was often defined by marketing strategies, the prospect of working in the largest film studio of the time was motivation enough.

If Laemmle had difficulty finding the right formula for success for an international audience during the silent era, the advent of sound complicated almost every aspect of film production, distribution, and exhibition. The emergence and success of the “talkies” in the late 1920s called for a reorientation of the studio’s policy and an investment in new technologies. The economic crisis further complicated matters, especially for the entertainment industry and a company like Universal with studios working simultaneously on two continents.

Unwilling to give up silent film theaters, but unable to fully conform to the “talkies” trend just yet, Laemmle conceived a dual strategy for Universal. For several years, each film was produced in both a silent and a sound version. Moreover, in order to boost the international appeal of Universal Pictures films, Laemmle decided to invest in dubbing, the technology of simultaneous translation.[49] Despite his legendary precaution, he was fascinated by the possibilities created for films by sound. For the 1929/30 season, German Universal announced the opening of three sound films, all originally in German and dubbed in French and Spanish. Dubbing took place in the new soundproof studios at Universal City and was very expensive, but Laemmle was adamant about reaching out to the “universal audiences” in their own language.[50]

The film which was to fulfill Laemmle’s desideratum of a “universal audience,” both through technology and subject matter, was All Quiet on the Western Front. It was also the movie that represented a major turning point in Carl Laemmle’s life. He decided to buy the rights to screen the controversial anti-war novel at the suggestion of his son, Laemmle Jr., who was in charge of Universal’s production at the time. Written by Erich Maria Remarque and published in January 1929, All Quiet on the Western Front quickly became a best-selling novel, with sales reaching one million copies in Germany alone and translations into twelve languages within the first year of its publication. The book’s central theme was the Great War. As a former soldier, Remarque had experienced the destructive effects of war up close and was left with feelings of confusion, anger, and senseless sacrifice. Although he pointed out in the preface that All Quiet was neither a confession nor an accusation, the public understood both the autobiographical component and the author’s underlying criticism. The book stirred a huge controversy over the essence of the war experience and Remarque was threatened to have it banned from the German market.

In the midst of the raging debate, Laemmle sailed to Europe and negotiated with Remarque to acquire film rights. He obtained the right to screen the book for $40,000 (about $509,000 in 2010$), an unprecedented amount at that time. Also, Laemmle offered Remarque a part in the film coupled with an offer to write the script. Although he declined the offer to be part of the film production, Remarque feared that Hollywood commercialism would destroy the book’s message and stipulated in the contract that the film adhere as closely as possible to the original. Confident that the book would be well-received by the American public, Laemmle agreed to all of Remarque’s terms.[51]

All Quiet told the story of four German schoolmates who enrolled in the army, bursting with optimism and patriotism. They soon come to realize, however, that the actual war had nothing to do with patriotism. The last scene, which showed the central character, Paul Bäumer, being killed by a sniper as he reached out of the trench to touch a butterfly, symbolically encompassed the message of the book and underlined the absurdity of the war, not only for German soldiers but for everyone involved.[52] The film was received enthusiastically in the United States when it opened on April 21, 1930. It immediately became a box-office hit and was listed among the best ten films of the world. That same year it received the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture and Lewis Milestone got an Oscar for Best Director. It was clear that audiences no longer perceived the subject matter as a “German story,” but a universal account of the horrors of war.[53]

All Quiet’s success also represented a personal victory for Carl Laemmle, who wanted to compensate for the damage he had done with the Hetzfilme during the war. The film’s theme was the best opportunity, in Laemmle’s opinion, to create a sympathetic portrayal of the Germans, contrary to popular Hollywood stereotypes, many of which he himself had helped to propagate. With this reasoning, Laemmle had little reason to believe that the movie would not enjoy the same success in Germany. Press and trade officials previewed All Quiet in Berlin at the Nollendorfplatz Theater on December 4, 1930. For Laemmle, the surprise came with the morning reviews, which differed drastically from the French and the English ones.[54] Most of them characterized the film as an insult to the German people. Nationalist newspapers labeled it as a “Jewish lie” that discredited the bravery and discipline of the German army. The film was criticized for having been dubbed and edited for German audiences.[55] Laemmle once again was accused of being a traitor. National Socialist groups led by Joseph Goebbels organized street demonstrations and general boycotts of the theaters that showed the movie. Eventually the government gave in to the Nazi’s pressure and the Supreme Film Censorship Board banned the film from German screens.

Laemmle tried to oppose the banning of All Quiet, explaining that the film indicted no nation or particular group of individuals, but recorded the human experience of the war.[56] His efforts were futile, however, since the Nazi party had begun to influence the main political decision-making mechanisms of the Weimar Republic. National Socialist newspaper headlines celebrated the banning of All Quiet as a victory against Germany’s government: “Victory is ours! We have forced them to their knees!”[57]

What should have been Laemmle’s greatest success in Germany proved to be a bitter experience and represented a turning point in his involvement in German filmmaking. Although he had wanted to continue his collaboration with German companies, such as Tobis, for example, those plans were short-lived. In 1933, the National Socialist Party took over Tobis, which merged with the Austrian Sascha Film two years later. Under the name of Tobis-Sascha-Film AG the company produced mainly propaganda films. By 1934 Rota-Film, a company controlled by the new Nazi government, took over Universal’s offices in Berlin and prohibited further import of American films. Laemmle was forbidden to enter Germany and his German assets were confiscated. The street bearing his name was changed and his philanthropic enterprises labeled “Jewish corruptive lies.”[58]

In 1936, Laemmle suffered yet another setback. The high costs of producing talking features, combined with the full impact of the economic crisis on the American motion pictures market, forced Laemmle to accept the sale of Universal Pictures and resign. In the past he had repeatedly been criticized for his hiring policy. His rampant nepotism (“Laemmle’s fammle”) was obvious, with a journalist noting that “Carl Laemmle’s hobby is the wholesale importation of relatives and friends from Germany. Immediately they are given jobs in the home office, Universal City and various branches. While Einstein was in Hollywood, the standing gag was that Laemmle knew more about relativity than he did.”[59] Few of those receiving well-paid jobs at Universal proved to be as valuable as his nephew, William Wyler, or his protégés, Paul Kohner and Irving Thalberg. Even Carl Laemmle Junior, who had replaced Laemmle Sr. as production chief in 1929, could not avert the crisis that hit the studio. Father and son made a series of bad management decisions that included taking out expensive loans from a banking concern which then had the option of buying the Laemmles’ share in Universal Pictures. When Laemmle was unable to pay back those loans, he was forced to sell Universal after weeks of fierce negotiations and “[holding up] the final closing of the deal until the last minute.”[60] He was heartbroken when he had to leave the studio he built and ran for two decades. Laemmle’s final speech as a major representative of the motion picture industry was filled both with regret at leaving and with the hope of having made an essential difference in a new industry with which he identified for thirty years.[61]

After leaving Universal, Laemmle became more involved in philanthropy. Although he could not enter Germany, he remained in permanent contact with his family, friends, and former employees in Laupheim and Berlin. Acutely aware of the worsening conditions facing Jews in Germany after the Nazis’ rise to power, Laemmle issued affidavits for more than 300 German Jews. When he exhausted all possibilities of obtaining more, he appealed to his friends, relatives, and former employees, pleading with them to support him in this humanitarian effort. His actions are even more remarkable when seen in the broader Hollywood context. As film historian Neal Gabler has argued, many famous film producers of Jewish origin refused to take a stand. Zukor’s opinion was drastic: “I don’t think that Hollywood should deal with anything but entertainment. The newsreels take care of current events. To make films of political significance is a mistake.”[62] The general initial response to what was happening in Europe, fostered mainly by the film mogul Louis B. Mayer and other older executives, was that “Jews should not stick their necks out.”[63] Screenwriter Maurice Rapf, the future pioneer of cinema studies, pointed out in an interview that the real reason for Hollywood’s displayed neutrality towards Hitler was economic:

There was a feeling that because it was known as a Jewish industry, it should not take a leading role in doing any activities such as organizing anti-Nazi organizations or making films against the Nazis. I always thought it was a cover-up for lack of real zeal about the Nazis. You have to face the fact that they began to have a lot more zeal about the Nazis when the Nazis closed down distribution offices in Germany, which they did about 1934. It was a matter of business.”[64]

Another important aspect that influenced the movie moguls’ decision to keep out of debates about Hitler was the fact that Hollywood was not immune to anti-Semitism. For Laemmle, however, this time economic and financial worries were irrelevant. In 1938, one month before the Night of Broken Glass, the anti-Semitic pogrom that saw the destruction of thousands of Jewish shops, buildings, and synagogues, Laemmle wrote to his nephew, William Wyler:

Dear Mr. Wyler: I want to ask you a very big favor. The Jewish situation in Germany has been getting on my nerves for a long, long time. I feel that these poor, unfortunate people need help the worst way. I have been over there recently and know what they are going through. I have issued so many personal affidavits that the United States government won’t accept any more from me except for my closest blood-relatives. Nevertheless, while I was over there, I was worried so much by the distressed people that I promised about 150 of them I would move heaven and earth to find sponsors for them. And that’s why I am writing you this letter.”[65]

Led by his former protégés, Paul Kohner, the famous talent agent, and William Wyler, his nephew—both also immigrants—Laemmle helped form an anti-Nazi stronghold in Hollywood. Wyler became one of the leading film directors in Hollywood and contributed to the American war effort by joining the air force and filming a documentary about a B-17 “Flying Fortress” air raid over Germany. Finally, Laemmle managed to win the support of important German personalities, such as Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein. In his testament, he established a foundation, headed by his children, whose main purpose was to help those persecuted in Germany and support their immigration to the United States.


[1] Universal Weekly, February 20, 1926, Vol. 23, Nr. 2.

[2] Thomas Alva Edison was the de facto inventor of the technology that made motion pictures possible, but his vision in terms of the possibilities of cinematography was limited. He sensed and took advantage of commercial opportunities but ignored the cultural factor.

[3] As William H. Hays, the first president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Academy, said: “For more than twenty years, and that is a long time as motion picture history goes, Mr. Laemmle has been an active leader in those movements looking to the advance of the industry. He has given unstintedly of his time and of his talents, not simply for the development of his own organization, but for the benefit of the business as a whole. The entire industry appreciates the work of this splendid man and is proud of his unfailing loyalty and sterling character.” Will Hays, Motion Picture News, November 30, 1929. Other newspapers, trade publications, and magazines such as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, etc. also lauded Laemmle as a pioneer in transforming motion pictures from a technical wonder into mass entertainment.

[4] Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America. A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 18.

[5] The names and birth dates of the children of Julius and Rebekka Laemmle are as follows: Joseph (1854-1929), Jette (1855-1857), Fanny (1856-1863), Hannchen (1858-1863), Benno Baruch (1860-1863), Ludwig Liber (1862), Siegfried (1863-?), Karoline (1864-1924), Marco (1868), Louis (1870-1939), Nathan (1871) and Carl (1867-1939). Carl Laemmle exhibition, Museum zur Geschichte von Christen und Juden, Laupheim.

[6] Rising from errand boy to accountant, Carl Laemmle was allowed to write business letters to the customers and take part in business travels during the last year of his apprenticeship. John Drinkwater, The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle (London: William Heinemann LTD, 1931), 16.

[7] Horst Rößler, “Massenexodus,” in Deutsche im Ausland – Fremde in Deutschland. Migration in Geschichte und Gegenwart, ed. Klaus J. Bade (München: C.H. Beck, 1992), 150.

[8] Thomas Piltz, ed., Three Hundred Years of German Immigrants in North America,/ Dreihundert Jahre Deutsche Einwanderer in Nordamerika, 1683-1883. (Munich: „300 Jahre Deutsche in Amerika“ Verlags-GmbH, 1983), 66.

[9] Official emigration procedures requested the proof of a capital of 400 Gulden. It is highly probable that Julius Laemmle borrowed the money to support his son. Carl Laemmle exhibition, Museum zur Geschichte von Christen und Juden, Laupheim. All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[10] Carl Laemmle exhibition, Museum zur Geschichte von Christen und Juden, Laupheim.

[11] Drinkwater, 27.

[12] Drinkwater, 29.

[13] Carl Laemmle in Neal Gabler, An Empire of Their Own (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 49.

[14] Clive Hirschhorn, The Universal Story (London: Octopus Books Limited, 1983), 8.

[15] The Milwaukee Journal, July 22, 1931.

[16] The Milwaukee Journal, July 22, 1931

[17] Robert C. Allen, “Motion Picture Exhibition in Manhattan, 1906-1912: Beyond the Nickelodeon,” in Film Before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 163.

[18] Russel Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters, 1905-1914: Building an Audience for the Movies,” in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 86.

[19] Motion Picture News, November 30, 1929.

[20] Tino Balio, The American Film Industry (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 17.

[21] Charles Musser,The Emergence of Cinema. The American Screen to 1907 (New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1990), 435.

[22] Gabler, 54.

[23] William K. Everson, American Silent Film (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), 28.

[24] Laemmle was not the only one cited in those court cases, but he was the unofficial representative of the Independents and thus the main target of Edison’s accusations of breaking his monopoly on his technology. Laemmle succeeded in defeating Edison by prompting the U.S. government to file a petition against Edison’s Trust on August 16, 1912. The final decision was handed down in October 1915. U.S v. Motion Picture Patents Company and Others, Defendants (1912) in Film History 1, no. 3 (1987): 187-304.

[25] The first to leave the Trust and declare his opposition to Edison’s business practices was William Swanson, president of the Film Service Association. Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915, vol. 2 of History of the American Cinema, ed. Charles Harpole (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990), 73.

[26] New York Dramatic Mirror, July 16, 1910.

[27] Universal Weekly, February 16, 1929, Vol. 29, No. 2.

[28] The Washington Post, June 20, 1915.

[29] The Atlanta Constitution, March 24, 1915, 8; The Atlanta Constitution, March 31, 1915, 3; Chicago Daily Tribune, April 14, 1915, 16.

[30] Bowser, 119.

[31] In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Laemmle stated: “This country has given me more than my wildest dreams. When I took my oath of allegiance, I made no reservations.” Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1931.

[32] Photoplay Magazine, June 1929.

[33] Carl Laemmle exhibition, Museum zur Geschichte von Christen und Juden, Laupheim.

[34] As he put it in an interview: “I could forget the fact that these people were America’s enemies. They never were in their hearts, and were misguided and forced by a foolish, power-seeking Kaiser to become part of his ‘war machine.’ The wish to help was stronger. We all feel that this is needed in the name of humanity.” Werner Skrentny, “Bestellen Sie bitte Herrn Friedland einen Glückwunsch!” in Deutsche Universal: Transatlantische Verleih- und Produktionsstrategien eines Hollywood-Studios in den 20er und 30erJahren, ed. Erika Wottrich (Munich: Text+Kritik, 2001), 97.

[35] Universal Weekly, October 26, 1929, Vol. 20, No. 12.

[36] Carl Laemmle exhibition, Museum zur Geschichte von Christen und Juden, Laupheim.

[37] Thomas J. Saunders, “Die Universal in der Weimarer Republik – Firmenpolitik und Firmenbild,” in Wottrich,12.

[38] Daniel J. Leab, “Screen Images of the ‘Other’ in Wilhelmine Germany & the United States, 1890-1918,” Film History 9, no. 1 (1997): 61.

[39] Moving Picture World, December 11, 1920, Vol, 47, No. 6.

[40] In Laemmle’s opinion “the United States has nothing to fear from an invasion of German films. I believe America should welcome the best films not only from Germany but also from every other nation where productions are made.”The Atlanta Constitution, May 15, 1921.

[41] Jan-Christopher Horak, “Rin-Tin-Tin in Berlin or American Cinema in Weimar,” Film History 5, no. 1 (March 1993): 50.

[42] Jan-Christopher Horak, “Sauerkraut & Sausages with a Little Goulash: Germans in Hollywood, 1927,” Film History 17, no. 2/3 (2005): 246.

[43] Jan-Christopher Horak, “Rin-Tin-Tin in Berlin,” 55.

[44] Universal Weekly, December 5, 1925, Vol. 22, No. 17.

[45] Universal Weekly, December 19, 1925, Vol. 22, No. 19.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Saunders in Wottrich, 15.

[48] Universal Weekly, May 28, 1927, Vol. 25, No. 16.

[49] Universal Weekly, August 3, 1929, Vol. 29, No. 26.

[50] Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1930.

[51] New York Times, October 6, 1929.

[52] Alan F. Bance, “Im Westen Nichts Neues: A Bestseller in Context,” The Modern Language Review 72, no. 2 (1977): 361-367.

[53] The Washington Post, October 5, 1930.

[54] Modris Eksteins, “War, Memory and Politics: The Fate of the Film All Quiet on the Western Front,” Central European History 13, no. 1 (1980): 62.

[55] Jerold Simmons, “Film and International Politics: The Banning of All Quiet on the Western Front in Germany and Austria,1930-1931“ Historian 52 (November 1989): 46.

[56] Exhibitors Herald World, December 13, 1930, 25.

[57] Der Angriff, December 12, 1930.

[58] The street never took back Laemmle’s name. After World War II it was renamed “Anna-von-Freyberg-Straße.” Carl Laemmle exhibition, Museum zur Geschichte von Christen und Juden, Laupheim.

[59] Citizen News, December 24, 1931.

[60] Dayton (Ohio) Herald, March 14, 1936.

[61] Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1936.

[62] Gabler, 338.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Gabler, 341.

[65] Carl Laemmle to William Wyler, October 6, 1938. William Wyler Collection, File 633: Immigration. Margaret Herrick Library, Los Angeles.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Carl Laemmle
  • Coverage 1867 - 1939
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018