A Universal Picture

The year 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of one of the most famous studios in Hollywood history—Universal Pictures. This past month, the Detroit Movie Palaces screened some of the most important movies in Universal’s history.

The Detroit Film Theatre finished its summer DFT 101 series on August 25, 2012 with All Quiet on the Western Front, a powerful 1930 anti-war drama that won the Oscar for Best Picture and made a star of Lew Ayres.

“From the pages of Erich Maria Remarque’s widely read book of young Germany in the World War, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ Carl Laemmle’s Universal Pictures Corporation has produced a trenchant and imaginative audible picture, in which the producers adhere with remarkable fidelity to the spirit and events of the original stirring novel,” wrote Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times on April 30, 1930.

All Quiet on the Western Front, Book Cover (1929 Edition)

All Quiet on the Western Front, Book Cover (1929 Edition)

For the audiences of 1930, this movie was a revealing exploration of a war that still resonated in many people’s memories. It was also a creative use of a relatively new innovation in motion pictures—recorded sound.

“The film appeared at a time when sound was still new and film makers were groping for a correct application of the added element,” wrote Lewis Jacobs in The Rise of the American Film (1939). “It is to the credit of [director Lewis] Milestone that he conceived All Quiet on the Western Front on a visual basis; he subordinated dialogue to the image and used sound effects simply, fluently and realistically.” In DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm’s introduction to the movie, he noted that it was filmed in both silent and sound versions.

The book and movie have been thought-provoking experiences for many generations, including the DFT audience which applauded the film in a respectful, subdued manner. More than forty years ago, in the 1970 book 50 Classic Motion Pictures, David Zinman wrote, “Even forty years after its first showing, the movie evokes telling moments of tenderness and poignancy and despair, draining the emotions because it leaves no hope.”

All Quiet on the Western Front, Book Copyright and Preface (1929 Edition)

All Quiet on the Western Front, Book Copyright and Preface (1929 Edition)

Funny Men

About 10 years later, Universal used another war-related movie in a much less serious manner. The 1941 comedy Buck Privates was the first starring movie for Abbott and Costello, who brought in a lot of money for Universal over the next decade. I saw Buck Privates at the Redford Theatre on August 10, 2012, on a double bill with Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer (1948).

Those two movies were from the two periods of popularity that Abbott and Costello enjoyed at Universal (1941-1944 and 1948-1951), according to David Shipman in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (1989).

Buck Privates was a fun and fascinating period piece that also featured the Andrews Sisters, whom I found as entertaining as Abbott and Costello. It also gave a glimpse into the preparation of the United States military for World War II even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer also starred Boris Karloff. It was an example of how Universal extended the comedy team’s popularity by pairing them with actors and characters from that studio’s Golden Age of horror in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Audiences loved Abbott and Costello, but critics weren’t so kind. In his September 3, 1949 Life magazine essay on the comedians of silent film (“Comedy’s Greatest Era”), James Agee wrote, “Abbott and Costello are semi-skilled laborers, at best.”

But Universal had come across the right movies for the right time, as Abbott and Costello built on their stage and radio experience to give World War II and postwar audiences something to smile and laugh about. And the happy faces in the crowd that left the Redford after the Abbott and Costello double feature proved that they still have the power to entertain.

The following graphic from the 1975 book LIFE Goes to the Movies shows where Abbott and Costello ranked with moviegoers from 1941 to 1944.

From LIFE Goes to the Movies (1975)

From LIFE Goes to the Movies (1975)

Swimming with Sharks

The movie industry changed forever in 1975, when Universal released Jaws, which I saw at the Michigan Theater on August 7, 2012, as part of its Summer Classic Film Series. That film gave a big boost to the career of director Steven Spielberg and also helped launch a series of fantasy and adventure movies that included Star Wars, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Its marketing also was innovative, thanks to Universal studio chief Lew Wasserman.

“Instead of opening Jaws in the kind of gradual release pattern that prevailed, he might flood the nation with it,” wrote David Thomson in the 2004 book The Whole Equation. “He would then open it in several hundred theaters at once (actually 409, a number that spells death and restraint today). And he would spend almost a million dollars on television advertising, in spots aimed at the teenage audience that was lining up for a summer on the beach.

“He would make a craze of the film, and filling so many theaters at once he would outflank any critical response that might note how silly the whole thing was. He judged that Jaws and a poster image of the creature’s open mouth was a perfect ad—what else did a film need to be about but that terrific adrenaline shot?”

I wasn’t around for the opening of All Quiet on the Western Front or the Abbott and Costello movies, but I vividly remember the excitement that greeted Jaws in the summer of 1975. This was something different, what my high school friends were all talking about as they went to see the movie multiple times. Jaws still has the power to shock, as I saw during certain scenes at the 2012 showing at the Michigan Theater (like the underwater scene where Richard Dreyfuss explores the hole in a wrecked boat).

And it has worked its way into our culture, like this key chain that was given to visitors at the Michigan screening:

Jaws Key Chain, Michigan Theater, August 7, 2012

Jaws Key Chain, Michigan Theater, August 7, 2012

Scary Monsters

Universal Studios is probably best known for its horror movies, and you will have the chance to see several of them at the Redford Theatre during its September-December 2012 series. These movies include the silent The Cat and the Canary (1927) on October 27 and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) on September 28 and 29. And you can enjoy two classic monster movies on October 19 and 20 at a screening of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2012 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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