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For many years, Carl Laemmle has been pushed to the margins of film history. While other so-called "movie moguls" of the early American cinema scene have multiple contemporary biographies written about them, Laemmle has none – at least none in the English-speaking world. So the question must be asked: why has Laemmle been neglected while many – Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, Cohn, and so on – have been scrutinized in books focused on their lives and theirs alone?

We need not dig deep for the answers.

First, Laemmle lost the venue itself, Universal Pictures, after his son, Carl Jr., convinced his father to take out a $750,000 loan from Standard Capital in New York to complete Show Boat (James Whale, 1936). According to Laemmle's great grandniece Antonia Carlotta in her popular YouTube series "Universally Me," Uncle Carl had ninety days to pay back the loan before the lending agency could assert its option to buy the company for $5.5 million. The film went over time and over budget, Standard Capital raised the money to buy Universal, and both Laemmles retired from the company in 1934. The elder died just five short years later in 1939.

Second, after years of hiring women directors, Carl Laemmle, as did some of his cohorts, followed the emerging corporate standard and moved men into the majority of those positions. Likely it doesn't help, especially among feminist scholars, that the following quote from a popular 1927 magazine exists. When asked why more women weren't being hired to direct pictures, Laemmle replied, "It costs from fifty thousand dollars to a million or two to make a picture, and I can't afford to bet that much money on uncertain physical strength...I would rather risk my money on a man."

Losing the company so early in film history and dogged with such a quote, Laemmle may seem irrelevant to some. But to brush him aside risks losing important fragments that complete the total picture of early cinema: women were partners in the founding and growth of Hollywood. As Karen Ward Maher, Jane Gaines, Mark Garrett Cooper, and others have shown, immigrant men from Eastern Europe may have had a hand in sculpting Hollywood – Neal Gabler has thoroughly documented this fact – but women came alongside them in leadership roles – not just as actresses.

After buying hundreds of acres in the San Fernando Valley, Laemmle built Universal City. According to Shelley Stamp, one of his directors, Lois Weber, ran for mayor "on an all-female, suffragist ticket" in 1913 "after California granted women the right to vote." She initially lost, but when "studio manager A.M. Kennedy" left, she took over as mayor with actress Laura Oakley as Chief of Police and Ethel Grandin as Prosecuting Attorney. A writer for the New York Telegraph announced, "There is but one woman mayor in the world." According to this reporter, Universal City was "the only bona fide woman's sphere on the map, where women do all the bossing, and where mere man is just tolerated – that's all, just tolerated." Not only was Weber America's first female director, she became the highest paid, most prolific, and most popular. In 1917, she left to form her own company, Lois Weber Productions, and negotiated a distribution deal with Laemmle. She may have worked for him as a director and a mayor, but now she became his peer, a fellow studio owner. Weber was also elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association – the only woman at the time – and served on the board of the MPDA.

A Canadian actress, Mary Pickford worked on the stage with such impresarios as Belasco. In between engagements, she began working for Carl Laemmle and others in film. Adolf Zukor was able to lure her to Paramount, but it was Laemmle who began marketing actresses as stars: Pickford was among the first. By 1919, due in no small part to Laemmle's marketing genius – as well as Zukor's "Famous Players in Famous Plays" mentality – Pickford had the business acumen and power to co-found United Artists with no less than D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, and her then husband Douglas Fairbanks. Again, an actress Laemmle had hired now came alongside him as a peer, a fellow studio owner. Pickford went on to many leadership roles in Hollywood such as founding the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Motion Picture Relief Fund – she was also elected its vice president.

Jeanie Macpherson wrote and directed at Universal Pictures as well. With the knowledge she gleaned there, she was hired by the Jessie L. Lasky Feature Play Company and became Cecil B. DeMille's screenwriter/collaborator, credited on thirty-two pictures between 1915 and 1930, including such landmarks as The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927). According to Gaines, Macpherson moved on to even more significant leadership roles. She sat on the board of Palmer Photoplay Company as well as co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

With The Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP) and then later Universal Pictures, Laemmle nourished many women who maintained leadership roles while they were with him and then came alongside him as colleagues and peers within the broader industry. While this contribution may be reason enough to grant Laemmle a new biography, two other good reasons exist as well. He was dedicated to making important pictures about race such as Imitation of Life (John M. Stahl, 1934), which has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Time magazine also selected the film as one of "The 25 Most Important Films on Race." Another Oskar Schindler, Laemmle also spent the last few years of his life rescuing Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis, often at his own expense. He signed affidavits and encouraged his well-connected friends to sign them as well. While other studio chiefs eschewed their Jewish roots, Laemmle fought the governments in Germany and the United States. He even wrote a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State in which he argued, "It seems to me that you ought to go out of your way to be of assistance in service of a noble cause. Surely, there isn’t anything in it for me except to be of help to poor helpless people." Laemmle achieved some success. By the time he died, he had saved more than 300 Jewish families from Europe and brought them to the United States.

But to circle back around to the main point of this article, a detailed examination of Laemmle in the context of women and leadership in the early years of American cinema reminds us that men weren't the only ones "inventing" Hollywood. Women did much to build the industry as well. For his work with women, his work on race, and his work rescuing Jews, a contemporary, English-language biography about Carl Laemmle is long overdue.


Today, Donna Langley is Chair of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group and carries on the tradition of women in leadership from the very first days of Universal Pictures.

From Leslie Kreiner Wilson, Pepperdine University

May 2020


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