Lore in my wife’s family says that her mother, a beautiful Jewish immigrant fleeing grief in the Ukraine about a century ago, ran into someone named Carl Laemmle on a ship crossing the Atlantic. As the story goes, Laemmle asked her to check in with his still-young Universal film company, as she might have a future in the movies.
Once in the United States, friends and relatives advised the young woman against it. This was probably a white slavery racket, they warned. Maybe they’d been watching pictures like Traffic In Souls, Universal’s first full-length feature, which in 1913 dramatized the trade in immigrant girls who were routed from Ellis Island to the bordellos.
At any rate, my late mother-in-law took a pass. And when I once described the episode to Lew Wasserman, then chief executive of Universal’s MCA Inc. parent corporation, he said: “Too bad. You could have been one of us.”
At the time, that tribal note—“one of us”—seemed strange to me. But I understand it a little better now, having seen Carl Laemmle, director James L. Freedman’s new documentary about the grandly familial founder of what used be called the Universal Motion Picture Manufacturing Company.
Not for nothing was Laemmle known as “Uncle Carl.” As Freedman tells it, dozens of relatives, and friends of relatives, and relatives of friends, found a place at his studio. Some of them became famous. William Wyler, the esteemed director, was the son of a mother who claimed Laemmle as a cousin. Another relative helped break the studio. That would be Laemmle’s son, Carl Jr., who was known for his free-spending ways.
Still other relatives and ‘friends of the family,’ and there were many, escaped Nazi oppression over the years, because Laemmle, a German-born Jew, got jobs and credentials for hundreds of refugees who might otherwise have been stranded in Europe as the Holocaust closed in.
This is all the stuff of Freedman’s documentary, which will have a gala screening on May 2, on the opening night of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills. Peter Bogdanovich, who will receive the Marvin Paige Hollywood Legacy award, is expected to attend.
Both he and Ron Meyer, vice-chairman of NBC Universal, are featured in the film, which manages, in just under 91 minutes, to remind us how much we’ve forgotten about the ups, downs, ins, outs, and, mostly, about the sheer humanity of a motion picture business that is after all more entertaining than most of what it projects on the screen.
Frankly, I never knew much about Laemmle’s bitter trust wars with Thomas Edison: But out of them, much of modern Hollywood was born. Universal’s All Quiet On The Western Front, I’d always admired. But it’s easy to forget that the film, with its pacifist message, told from a German point of view, fueled Goebbels’ propaganda war against the Jews.
And those refugee stories, told against dozens of clips and stills depicting “Uncle Carl,” with his impossibly engaging, gap-toothed smile, do what can only be done in a film. They make Carl Laemmle—the kind of mogul who could tell a young immigrant to stop by the studio for a shot at a job, and actually mean it (he employed no fewer than 11 female directors in those early days)—beautifully real.