Even if you don’t know movie mogul Carl Laemmle’s name, you almost certainly know his studio’s films: “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “All Quiet On the Western Front,” “Imitation of Life,” “Showboat” — and other great classics of Hollywood’s Golden and Silent eras.
Film history buffs and film critics know Laemmle well as one of the early pioneers of Hollywood.
Fewer people know about his work to get Jews out of Hitler’s Germany. Laemmle used his personal fortune to do so and attempted to sound an early alarm about Hitler’s intentions.
“Carl Laemmle” is a terrific documentary that covers all that and more, telling of his astounding and extraordinary life. Laemmle rose from a penniless German Jewish immigrant to a rich man heading one of the biggest studios in Hollywood, a rise that epitomizes the classic American Dream.
But it is his big heart and willingness to take chances on people that makes him even more worthy of being better known, as well as his visionary work laying the foundation of the film industry.
The documentary covers a lot of ground, so much that it is almost dizzying in scope. But it is fascinating stuff, and his story is full of surprises.
Born in 1867 in the small German town of Laupheim, Laemmle came to the United States in 1884, settled in Chicago and married, and became a successful businessman with a knack for salesmanship. In 1906, already middle-age, he quit his job and opened his first movie theater — a nickelodeon, really — because he saw the potential in film.
Director James L. Freedman presents a wealth of archival images and footage, including some from Laemmle’s famous films, as well as interviews with relatives, those who worked with him, film critics and directors. It is a visually rich film with a sweeping scope.
The documentary covers Laemmle’s personal life, which has moments of tragedy, as well as his career, which is pretty much a history of the early movie industry in this country. He spotted the potential in the new medium early on and opened nickelodeons that looked like theaters instead of penny arcades in order to make filmgoers more comfortable. He quickly set up a namesake film distribution service and started making his own films. He went head-to-head in court with Thomas Edison, who had established a monopoly over the budding film industry using patent rights, and won.
In 1912, about a month before Adolph Zukor founded Paramount, Laemmle began Universal Studios, which turned out such silent greats as “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” and talkies including “All Quiet On the Western Front.” He helped launch the careers of famous directors such as John Ford and William Wyler, and stars such as Boris Karloff and Mary Pickford.
Laemmle was the first to give actors name billing. He hired women as directors and produced films that tackled risky subjects such as race and women’s rights. In the silent era, Universal was the first to offer movie studio tours.
A small man with a big smile, his employees called him Uncle Carl. In fact, he hired many of his relatives, partly because he felt family was important, but also because he was willing to take a chance on people. In an era when many movie moguls had nasty reputations, Uncle Carl was a nice guy as wells as a sharp competitor, skillful businessman and far-sighted pioneer.
Woven in with these tales of Hollywood is another story, that of his dogged efforts to get German Jews out of Hitler’s Germany. Unlike the other Jewish movie moguls who had fled Eastern Europe or Russia, Laemmle actually returned repeatedly to his hometown in Germany, where he was well liked.
Returning there gave him insight into what was happening in Germany after the rise of the Nazis. Laemmle tried to get American newspapers to take notice but, when that didn’t work, he used his own money to get as many Jews out of Germany as possible, sponsoring them and even giving them jobs and housing. And he recruited others to do the same.
“Carl Laemmle” presents an inspiring story and a remarkable one on all levels, one that deserves to be better known. Hopefully, this thorough documentary will help highlight Laemmle’s unsung heroism in his tireless efforts to save German Jews and his unparalleled vision as one of the pioneers of the movie industry.
Part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival
WHEN: 4 p.m. Sunday, June 2 (opening day of the festival)
WHERE: Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema
HOW MUCH: Opening-day single tickets are $15 (or $26 for both films)
MORE INFO: Running time: 1:31. Visit stljewishfilmfestival.org or call 314-442-3179