Carl Laemmle

Active - 1923 - 2003  |   Born - Jan 17, 1867   |   Died - Sep 24, 1939   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Western, Adventure

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Biography by Sandra Brennan

The father of the great Hollywood star system and the original movie mogul, Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, was an influential figure indeed. He was born to a middle-class Jewish family, the 10th of 13 children in Laupheim, Germany. By age 13 he had become a bookkeeper and four years later he was an office manager. In search of new opportunities, he moved to the U.S. at age 17 and began working as a courier for a New York drug store in 1884. After holding down several odd-jobs in Chicago, Laemmle settled in Oshkosh, Wisconsin where he became the manager of a clothing store.

Following marriage to his employer's daughter, Laemmle moved back to the Windy City and spent his savings on one of the nickelodeons that had become so popular amongst the working class. It was a lucrative venture, and in early 1906, he was able to open another and two months later still another. Because he found the local film exchange an unreliable source of new film, the enterprising Laemmle launched his own Laemmle Film Service the following year. It too proved profitable and it wasn't long before he was among the biggest film distributors in North America. His largest competitor was the powerful, notoriously ruthless Motion Picture Patents Company. Unlike other small distributors, Laemmle refused to succumb to their pressure and would neither sell his business to them nor shut it down. Instead he founded the Independent Motion Picture Company of America (IMP), made Hiawatha, and launched an unprecedented publicity campaign designed to both promote the film and slander the Patents Company. In 1910, he stole the beloved "Biograph Girl," Florence Lawrence from them.

As soon as Lawrence signed to IMP, flamboyant, daring Laemmle planted a newspaper report announcing the tragic death of the "Biograph Girl." The next day he published an ad deriding the false report and proudly pronounced Lawrence as the new "Imp Girl." His next catch was Mary Pickford. With her, Lawrence and others, Laemmle further broke with tradition by playing up their glamour, inundating the news with their exploits and publicly using their names at every opportunity. In this way, Laemmle began the star system that continues today. In the midst of ongoing battles with the Patents company, Laemmle began buying up smaller companies and created the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, becoming one of the bigger studios in Hollywood. Located on a 230-acre parcel, he launched the studio in 1915 in a huge public ceremony attended by over 20,000 fans. Calling it Universal City, that is exactly what Laemmle's studio became.

A small, portly and eccentric man, it wasn't long before Laemmle was called "Uncle Carl" by his myriad of employees (whom he treated like family). During this time, Laemmle helped such studio giants as Irving Thalberg and Harry Cohn get their start. When his son Carl Laemmle, Jr. turned 21, Carl, Sr. turned over the company to him. It was a mistake that nearly ruined the studio, for Laemmle Jr. proved to be too extravagant to be able to successfully helm the company through the Depression. Thanks to his son's mismanagement, the elder Laemmle ended up selling the once-great studio for a mere $5 million. He died four years later, just as Universal was beginning to once again rise to its former greatness.

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