Universal Studios


Universal Studios Essay, Research Paper

The story of Universal studios begins with Carl Laemmle, who immigrated to America from his native Germany in 1884 at age 17. He traveled around the country, taking various jobs, until he opened his first nickelodeon in Chicago in 1906. A second operation quickly followed, and the following year he started the Laemmle Film Exchange, which he soon developed into one of the major film distributors in the country. In 1909 he began producing films with his Independent Motion Picture Company of America, or Imp, starting with Hiawatha. He soon lured away two important actresses from Biograph, Florence Lawrence and Mary Pickford, and starred them in Imp releases; Thomas H. Ince began directing Pickford in such 1911 Imp one-reelers as A Manly Man and Her Darkest Hour. Both Ince and Pickford left Imp in 1912, not long before Laemmle merged it with other smaller companies to form the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. Their pioneering 1913 feature Traffic In Souls, an expos? of white slavery, proved a huge hit. That same year, Allan Dwan was directing one- and two-reel actioners starring writer/actor Wallace Reid, such as The Spirit Of The Flag and Women And War. Laemmle also continued to raid talent from other studios: Universal's short comedies soon included such popular players as Augustus Carney (formerly of Essanay) and Ford Sterling (formerly of Keystone). Laemmle opened his 230-acre studio Universal City in 1915, the first incorporated city to consist solely of a film studio. Production took a leap forward, and by the mid teens, Universal had a hit series with the comedy shorts of Lyons & Moran. John — then "Jack" — Ford began to write, direct, and star in Westerns in 1917, with the two-reelers The Tornado and The Scrapper; Harry Carey soon took over as Ford's star in such popular five-reelers as Straight Shooting and A Marked Man. Character actor Lon Chaney, who'd been playing heavies at Universal since his short actioners and melodramas of the early teens, became a star by 1919 in such features as The Wicked Darling, directed by Tod Browning, and The Miracle Man, directed by George Loane Tucker. That same year, Laemmle let actor Erich von Stroheim write and direct his first film; Blind Husbands, a provocative drama of American innocence tested by European decadence, was a hit, critically and at the box-office.By the end of the teens, Laemmle had two key assistants, Harry Cohn and Irving Thalberg. In 1920 Cohn left to form what would become Columbia Pictures, and Laemmle made the 20-year-old Thalberg head of production at Universal. Von Stroheim had stayed behind the camera for his The Devil's Pass Key (1920), which had also done well, and Laemmle backed him on Foolish Wives (1922). But this lengthy, lavish, and spectacularly expensive melodrama — it wound up costing close to a million dollars — fared poorly at the box-office. Thalberg had feuded with von Stroheim throughout its production, and simply removed him from Merry-Go-Round (1923) before its budget could spin out of control. Thalberg also oversaw the opulent production of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923), starring Lon Chaney, but could not persuade Laemmle that the studio's future lay in such big-budget productions, or in buying up theaters to show their films. He left Universal in 1923, and Laemmle continued with the same low-budget, five-reel programmers which had been Universal's bread and butter. Chaney made one more film for the studio, his horror classic The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). Laemmle's son, the 21-year-old Carl Jr., became Universal's head of production in 1928. To finance a changeover to talkies, he sold off what theaters Universal had bought in the '20s and reduced the studio's output of shorts and programmers. He then personally supervised two A-productions that were big commercial and critical hits for Universal: the musical Broadway (1929), directed by Paul Fejos, and the classic anti-war film All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone. The studio also struck gold when it launched its horror cycle with two classic 1931 films: Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi, and Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff. A series of genre classics ensued in the next few years, most notably Whale's The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935); The Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932) with Lugosi; The Mummy (1932) with Karloff; and The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935) with Karloff and Lugosi. The studio also had hits in the early '30s with romantic dramas directed by John M. Stahl: Back Street (1932), Imitation Of Life (1934), and Magnificent Obsession (1935). Nevertheless, the Depression brought a severe cash shortage for the studio, and in 1936 Universal was bought out by Wall Street investor J. Cheever Cowdin. The Laemmles were ushered out, Cowdin became chairman of the board, and former RKO executive Charles R. Rogers became the studio's head of production. After finishing up such lavish 1936 efforts as the musical Show Boat, directed by James Whale, and the comedy My Man Godfrey, directed by Gregory La Cava, the studio returned to making low-budget programmers. Producer Joe Pasternak made a series of musicals starring Deanna Durbin, starting with Three Smart Girls (1936), which saved Universal from bankruptcy. Actor Buster Crabbe also sold a lot of tickets starring in such popular serials as Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars (1938) and Buck Rogers (1939). Nate J. Blumberg became president of the company in 1938, and by 1939, Universal could flex its muscles again with such notable releases as The Son Of Frankenstein with Karloff and Lugosi; You Can't Cheat An Honest Man with W.C. Fields and Edgar Bergen; and the comic Western Destry Rides Again with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. Fields made his final classic comedies at Universal in the early 1940s: My Little Chickadee (1940) with Mae West, The Bank Dick (1940), and Never Give A Sucker An Even Break (1941). Even more lucrative for the studio were the comedies of Abbott & Costello, starting in 1941 with Buck Privates and In The Navy; by 1942, they were the industry's top box-office stars. Popular comedies also came from the team of Olsen & Johnson: Hellzapoppin (1941), Crazy House (1943), and Ghost Catchers (1944). In 1942 producer Walter Wanger teamed Maria Montez and Jon Hall and had a hit with Arabian Nights, Universal's first Technicolor film. More colorful and exotic costumers followed starring Montez and Hall, including White Savage (1943), Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves (1944), and Cobra Woman (1944). Lon Chaney Jr. also became a star at Universal in such memorable horror films as The Wolf Man (1941), The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), and Son Of Dracula (1943). Among the studio's more prestigious wartime releases were two classic thrillers from director Alfred Hitchcock, Saboteur (1942) and Shadow Of A Doubt (1943); a lavish remake of The Phantom Of The Opera (1943), starring Claude Rains; and the psychological drama Scarlet Street (1945), produced and directed by Fritz Lang. In 1946 Universal merged with the International Pictures Corp. of Leo Spitz and William Goetz; they became the new production heads and the studio changed its name to Universal-International. That same year, the studio concluded a deal with England's J. Arthur Rank organization, becoming the American distributor of their films; Universal also launched its subsidiary United World Pictures, which produced and distributed non-theatrical films — including the huge libraries of Bell & Howell Filmsound and Castle Films. Universal's committment to B-pictures waned during these years, with the studio investing in fewer and more expensive films. Its noteworthy releases of the late '40s include the noirs The Killers (1946) and Ride The Pink Horse (1947); the psychological drama A Double Life (1947), starring Ronald Colman and directed by George Cukor; the comedy The Egg And I (1947), which in turn launched Universal's lucrative 1950s series of low-budget "Ma & Pa Kettle" comedies starring Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride; the semi-documentary crime film The Naked City (1948); Fritz Lang's thriller The Secret Beyond The Door (1948); and the Abbott & Costello comedies Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and Africa Screams (1949). Through Rank, Universal handled such classics as director David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946); The Seventh Veil (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947), both starring James Mason; Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's psychodrama Black Narcissus (1946); and Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare adaptation Hamlet (1948). Cowdin resigned from Universal in 1950 and Blumberg took control of the studio. The following year, Decca Records acquired some 28 percent of Universal's common stock and became the single largest stockholder in the company. By 1952 Decca was the controlling stockholder of Universal, having bought up Rank's stock in the company, and Decca president Milton R. Rackmil became president of Universal. Director Douglas Sirk began working at Universal in 1950 and made several notable romantic dramas over the decade, including Magnificent Obsession (1953), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation Of Life (1958), all with producer Ross Hunter, and Written On The Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1957) with producer Albert Zugsmith. Zugsmith also produced the last American-made film of writer/director/actor Orson Welles: his classic reinvention of film noir, Touch Of Evil (1958). Director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart made the Westerns Winchester '73 (1950), Bend Of The River (1952), and The Far Country (1954), and the biopic The Glenn Miller Story (1954). Two other biopics Universal also scored with were Sirk and Hunter's Battle Hymn (1956) and Man Of A Thousand Faces (1957) with James Cagney as Lon Chaney Sr. Abbott & Costello made their final films at Universal during the '50s. The studio's other comedies of the decade include Harvey (1950) with James Stewart; The Perfect Furlough (1958) and Operation Petticoat (1959), both starring Tony Curtis and directed by Blake Edwards; and producer Ross Hunter's Pillow Talk (1959), which started Doris Day on a series of hit romantic comedies. Universal's Rank releases of the early '50s included such stand-outs as the Alec Guiness comedies The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Man In The White Suit (1951), the war film The Cruel Sea (1953), and the Kay Kendall comedy Genevieve (1953). In 1962 Decca was consolidated with Music Corporation of America, or MCA, which became the new owner of Unversal, under the leadership of Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman. Universal Pictures Company became the theatrical-film-producing division of MCA, and a subsidiary of Universal City Studios, Inc., in 1966. By then, guided by Wasserman, Universal was focusing more and more on television production — not just series but also movies made for the small screen, a genre Universal started with Fame Is The Name Of The Game (1966). Yet Universal continued to release notable theatrical films over the decade. The epic Spartacus (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick, and the musical Flower Drum Song (1961), produced by Ross Hunter, were both big hits. Universal's popular comedies of the decade include That Touch Of Mink (1962), Father Goose (1964), and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Alfred Hitchcock made a noteworthy series of films: his horror classic The Birds (1963), the psychological drama Marnie (1964), and the espionage tales Torn Curtain (1966) and Topaz (1969). Universal also released John Huston's biopic Freud (1962) with Montgomery Clift; the courtroom drama To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) with Gregory Peck; Charles Chaplin's last film, A Countess From Hong Kong (1967); and two crime films from director Don Siegel, Madigan (1968) with Henry Fonda and Coogan's Bluff (1969) with Clint Eastwood. In the '70s, Siegel and Eastwood also made Two Mules For Sister Sara (1970) and The Beguiled (1971) for Universal. Siegel went on to direct the memorable crime film Charlie Varrick (1973) with Walter Matthau. Eastwood began his own series of films for the studio, starting with his debut as a director, Play Misty For Me (1971); his other releases include Joe Kidd (1972), High Plains Drifter (1973), and The Eiger Sanction (1975) before he switched to Warner Bros. By then, however, Universal could bask in the mega-hit grosses from Jaws (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg. The studio's other major releases of the decade include The Sting (1973) with Paul Newman and Robert Redford; George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973); Ross Hunter's final Universal production, Airport (1970); the comic actioner Smokey And The Bandit (1977) with Butr Reynolds; the low-brow comedy National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) with John Belushi; and Michael Cimino's look at the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter (1978).Universal boasted further blockbusters in the '80s: the series launched by Back To The Future (1985); the romantic drama Out Of Africa (1985), produced and directed by Sydney Pollack; the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Twins (1988); the fantasy/drama Field Of Dreams (1989) with Kevin Costner; and director Ron Howard's comedy Parenthood (1989) with Steve Martin. Above all, there was Spielberg's classic science-fiction fable, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Other popular releases of the '80s include the Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter (1980); the political drama Missing (1982), directed by Costa-Gavras; the violent remake Scarface (1983), starring Al Pacino; the comedies Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985) from writer/director John Hughes; the animated feature An American Tail (1986) and its sequel; and writer/director Spike Lee's provocative drama of race relations, Do The Right Thing (1989). But the studio also offered several memorable and rather unusual films that have found their audiences over the years: writer/director David Cronenberg's horror tale Videodrome (1983); Francis Coppola's stylish S.E. Hinton adaptation, Rumble Fish (1983); the semi-surreal Repo Man (1984) and Walker (1987) by writer/director Alex Cox; David Lynch's science-fiction epic Dune (1984); the Malcolm Lowry adaptation Under The Volcano (1984), directed by John Huston; director Peter Bogdanovich's touching drama Mask (1985); and the controversial religious film The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988), directed by Martin Scorsese. Japan's Matsushita Electrical Industrial Company purchased MCA in 1990 for upwards of $6.6 billion — then the most costly sale of an American company to Japan. Despite this change of control, Universal has remained a leader in American film production. The recent hits from the studio include the comedy Kindergarten Cop (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger; Scorsese's remake, the thriller Cape Fear (1991); the Fannie Flagg adaptation Fried Green Tomatoes (1991); and two blockbusters from Spielberg, the dinosaur-filled Jurassic Park (1993) and the fact-based Holocaust drama Schindler's List (1993). With such a track record, Universal seems assured of retaining its prominence in the next century of American cinema.

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