Carl Laemmle (/ˌkɑːrl.lɛm.li/; born Karl Lämmle; January 17, 1867 – September 24, 1939) was a pioneer in American film making and a founder of Universal Studios. Laemmle produced or worked on over 400 films.
Regarded as one of the most important of the early film pioneers, Laemmle was born in modern-day Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1884 and worked in Chicago for 20 years before he began buying nickelodeons, eventually expanding into a film distribution service, the Laemmle Film Service.
Laemmle was born on 17 January 1867 in Laupheim, in the Kingdom of Württemberg, in Germany, to a Jewish family, the son of Rebecca and Judas Baruch Lämmle. His parents were born with the same surname and were first cousins. As a youth, he was an apprentice in Ichenhausen. He followed his older brother and emigrated to the United States in 1884, settling in Chicago, where he married Recha Stern, with whom he would have a son, Carl Laemmle, Jr. Laemmle became a naturalized American citizen in 1889. He worked a variety of jobs, but by 1894 he was the bookkeeper of the Continental Clothing Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he introduced a bolder advertising style.
In 1906, Laemmle quit his job and started one of the first motion picture theaters in Chicago, and quickly branched out into film exchange services. He challenged Thomas Edison's monopoly on moving pictures under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. As part of his offensive against Edison's company, Laemmle began advertising individual "stars," such as Mary Pickford and Florence Lawrence, thus increasing their individual earning power, and thus their willingness to side with the "Independents."
After moving to New York, Carl Laemmle got involved in producing movies, forming Independent Moving Pictures (IMP); the city was the site of many new movie-related businesses. On April 30, 1912, in New York, Laemmle of IMP, Pat Powers of Powers Motion Picture Company, Mark Dintenfass of Champion Film Company, William Swanson of Rex Motion Picture Company, David Horsley of Nestor Film Company, and Charles Baumann and Adam Kessel of the New York Motion Picture Company, merged their studios and incorporated the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, with Laemmle assuming the role of president. They founded the Company with studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where many early film studios in America's first motion picture industry were based at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1915, the studio moved to 235 acres (0.95 km2) of land in the San Fernando Valley, California.
Universal maintained two East Coast offices: The first was located at 1600 Broadway, New York City. This building, initially known as The Studebaker building, was razed around 2004-5. The second location to house Universal's executive offices was at 730 Fifth Avenue, New York City. Many years later, 445 Park Avenue was the location of Universal's executive offices.
After moving to California, Laemmle purchased as a residence for his family the former home of film pioneer Thomas Ince on Benedict Canyon Drive, Beverly Hills. The house was razed in the early 1940s. Laemmle also maintained a large apartment for himself and his two children, Rosabelle Laemmle (later Bergerman) and Carl Jr., at 465 West End Avenue, New York City, one block off Riverside Drive near the Hudson River.
In 1916, Laemmle sponsored the $3,000 three-foot-tall solid silver Universal Trophy for the winner of the annual Universal race at the Uniontown Speedway board track in southwestern Pennsylvania. Universal filmed each race from 1916 to 1922.
In the early and mid-1930s, Laemmle's son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., produced a series of expensive and commercially unsuccessful films for the studio. His occasional successes included Back Street (1932), 1936's Show Boat (1936), and several horror movies of the 1930s that became considered classics. Carl Laemmle and his son were both forced out of the company in 1936 during the Great Depression.
He died from cardiovascular disease on September 24, 1939 in Beverly Hills, California, at the age of 72. Laemmle was entombed in the Chapel Mausoleum at Home of Peace Cemetery.
Legacy and honors
Laemmle remained connected to his home town of Laupheim throughout his life, providing financial support to it and also by sponsoring hundreds of Jews from Laupheim and Württemberg to emigrate from Nazi Germany to the United States in the 1930s, paying both emigration and immigration fees, thus saving them from the Holocaust. To ensure and facilitate their immigration, Laemmle contacted American authorities, members of the House of Representatives and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. He also intervened to try to secure entry for the refugees on board the SS St. Louis, who were ultimately sent back from Havana to Europe in 1939, where likely many died.
Asked how to pronounce his name, he told The Literary Digest, "The name means little lamb, and is pronounced as if it were spelled 'lem-lee'."
His niece, Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle, known professionally as Carla Laemmle, appeared in several films until her retirement from acting at the end of the 1930s.
His great-grandniece, Antonia Carlotta, talks about him at length in her web series Universally Me, about the history of Universal Studios.
The poet Ogden Nash observed the following about Laemmle's habit of giving his son and nephews top executive positions in his studios:
"Uncle Carl Laemmle
Has a very large faemmle."
Representation in other media
- Harold Robbins, a former Universal Studios employee, based the main character in the novel The Dream Merchants (1949) on Carl Laemmle.
- Laemmle was featured as an historic character in the movie The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones.
- David Menefee's novel, Sweet Memories (2012), features Carl Laemmle as a character.