Archive for the ‘Studios’ Category

A visit to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1930

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

 STUDIOS

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A short sixteen years earlier, in 1914, the land was a bare, sandy waste of land. Now in 1930, the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer studios were valued at $25,000,000.

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In 1914 a real estate man sat in his office. He owned hundreds of acres of land on the outskirts of Los Angeles and was confronted with the problem of selling them. As it lay, that tract of land was far from pleasing to the eye which increased the problem of selling it.

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Something had to be done to draw attention to the locations, to give it a glamour which would entice home-seekers. The real estate man decided to forget those acres for the afternoon and go to a movie. But as he was leaving he stopped—Movies! Motion pictures. A studio. Workmen would need land for homes.

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Thomas Ince, then a big mogul in motion pictures, was called and offered the land to build a studio. Where?” Ince asked.

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Culver City,” replied the real estate man.

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So out to the sanded wastes went Thomas Ince. He built one rickety stage which passed for a studio and began making Western pictures. Ince’s once rickety stage had grown to be three large glassed-in studios. A few years later, Samuel Goldwyn, coming west, bought the works; stages, land and all that went with them. The romance of motion pictures and the studio which eventually became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were under way.

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Under the Goldwyn regime at that studio Will Rogers first came to pictures. Also there was Pauline Frederick, who was one of the most beautiful actresses of her day. Helen Chadwick, Naomi Childers, Sydney Ainsworth, Madge Kennedy, Mabel Normand, Jack Pickford, Tom Moore and Geraldine Farrar, at that time the “Carmen” of them all. These and many more laughed and cried their way in and out of that old studio. Most are but faint memories today.

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Rupert Hughes, Rex Beach, Gouverneur Morris, Gertrude Atherton—writers which in their day were as big as any in their game—all saw service at that old Goldwyn studio. It was a training ground for the best.

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In 1924, Metro Studios and Louis B. Mayer joined hands with Goldwyn and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer organization and studio was born. It grew into a fairy city.

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There were twenty-two complete sound stages. Two of these were monstrous things of steel and concrete. One contained a complete theater, the largest hippodrome stage west of New York City, for theatrical spectacles in films. The stage in the theater was eighty feet long, eighty feet wide and eighty feet high. It had every modern device invented. This is what you see in MGM pictures whenever theatrical sequences are shown.

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Another stage, the largest in existence, one hundred feet wide and two hundred and fifty feet long, was a steel and glass semi-enclosed building for extra large exterior scenes, such as those shown in The Trail of ’98. The rest were ordinary, huge steel and wood stages made soundproof by being lined with a composition.

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In these studios daily could be seen John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, William Haines, Marion Davies, Ramon Novarro, Greta Garbo, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford and a host of less famous players who were battling their way to stardom.

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A group of concrete buildings were to the left as you entered the main gate. The first three-story building was the one housing the executives. Irving Thalberg was one of them. Louis B. Mayer was another.

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Next there was a three-story concrete wardrobe building. In it were tailor and dressmaking shops, designers’ offices and storage space for the more and 10,000 dresses and costumes MGM kept on hand ready for a moment’s call. With Adrian and David Cox designing them, and “Mother” Coulter supervising the making of them, some famous costumes and styles went out to the world from this building.

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Just past the wardrobe was the publicity building and casting office. That small office was where so many came daily only to be told, “Sorry, nothing for you today.” Directly across from the publicity building was the commissary; a complete restaurant with dining room, lunch counters and soda fountain. It was run on a non-profit basis, being strictly for the convenience of the studio employees, the stars, extras, cameramen and directors. For years the minimum number of meals which were served there in any one day—except Sundays—was one thousand. And as many as seven thousand were fed in one day during heavy production. It was here that Louis B. Mayer entertained the entire studio at a turkey dinner each year during the Christmas holidays. Never had he had less than 2,500 guests. In addition, the commissary had its own ice and carbonating plant.

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Karl Dane and Gwen Lee point out the studios schedule

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Director’s Row was two stories and ran away from one side of the commissary. Here sat Robert Leonard, Sam Wood, Jack Conway, Harry Beaumont and other directors. Around the corner was the fan-mail department. Seven clerks handled an average of 38,000 letters a month addressed to the stars. They were in reality a miniature post office staff, sorting the letters and seeing that each star gets his sack-full every day. It was these men who addressed and sent pictures of the players to those who requested them.

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Strolling further about the fifty-three acre lot were stages back-to-back, stages stuck off in corners, and sets all over the place. There was a building for music and dance rehearsals; a recording building where the voices were recorded. Next a camera building and near it the projection rooms, where daily the “rushes” were viewed.

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Nearby was the big electrical building. The MGM studio used 2,500,000 kilowatts of juice a year. It had a “connected load” of 35,000 horsepower—more than enough to light a city the size of Reno, Nevada.

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Bungalows of the stars

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Around the corner of a stage were bungalows which nestled into the ground and looked like dream houses. They belonged to the stars. Then the make-up department, a little schoolhouse for child actors and more sets.

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More than 3,000,000 feet of lumber a year was used in building sets; 15,000 gallons of paint; 250 tons of plaster; 4,000 sacks of cement; 15,000 tons of rock; 600 bales of plaster fiber, and 300,000 feet of wallboard. These were for the building of sets only and did not include the materials used to build stages and buildings.

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The telephone system at MGM was a 1200-unit central switchboard. It was more than enough to adequately serve a city of 3,000 people.

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In 1930, out of the 120 buildings and its 2,500 employees, 50,000,000 feet of film was used for the output of motion pictures that was sent to theaters. In any event, it was a far cry from the dinky, rickety one stage that Thomas Ince first erected, to the ten thousand people who were on the lot at one time during the shooting of Ben-Hur (1926). In 1930, Culver City boasted 13,000 as her population. That real estate agent—Harry Culver—was now a multimillionaire.

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Universal Studios, the Laemmle years, 1912-1936…

Saturday, September 15th, 2012

FILM HISTORY

Universal Studios, the Laemmle years, 1912—1936…      

 

 

 

 

By Allan R. Ellenberger

 

The 100th anniversary of Universal Studios was celebrated this year (April 30) thus making it the first of the major Hollywood studios to achieve that impressive longevity. The story of Universal, especially the years of Carl Laemmle’s control, is typical of the industry and carries a recognizable theme that reverberates through all American business successes.

 

 

 

 

When Carl Laemmle arrived in New York at 17 years-old, he had $50 and a telescope valise packed with only a few personal items from his home in Laupheim, Germany. From there he headed west like many other immigrants and found odd jobs in stores, factories, working as a farm hand in South Dakota, as a bookkeeper in Chicago and as the general manager of a department store in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Twenty-two years later, Laemmle had saved a capital of $2,500 and started on his next venture.

 

Laemmle had returned to Chicago where he waited in line for the new sensation, the motion picture shows, which was shown in a store converted to resemble the interior of a railroad coach; the motion picture representing scenery was viewed from the rear of a train. Laemmle was astonished at the long line of people willing to pay a dime for this privilege and envisioned the possibility for a new money-making opportunity.

 

With the assistance of R. H. Cochrane, a young Chicago advertising man, they acquired a store on Milwaukee Avenue where he opened the White Front Theater on February 24, 1906 (it had been the White Front store and the sign served as a name for the theater). It was on a Saturday night and he gave patrons fifteen minutes of movies and a song with beautifully colored slides. On Sunday he ran twenty shows. At five cents a head his gross for the two days was $192.05. That was the beginning of a long association with Cochrane who later became a vice-president of Universal.

 

A second theater was soon opened and from that point Laemmle entered all branches of the rapidly expanding motion picture industry. This new success brought him into conflict with the larger interests in the industry. After breaking with the Patents Company, which owned most of the patents on cameras, projectors, etc. he announced he would produce his own films. The Independent Moving Picture (IMP) Company was formed. Its first film, Hiawatha, was released in October 1909. IMP has been given the credit for introducing the star system to Hollywood, when it signed the Biograph Girl, Florence Lawrence, and billed her name above the title of her pictures in 1910. Over the next three years Laemmle battled Edison’s motion picture trust which was followed by a federal investigation, leading to the termination of the General Film Company.

 

The Universal Film Manufacturing Company was founded on April 30, 1912, and was composed of six of the leading independent producers. The name Universal was given, according to Hollywood legend, when Laemmle was presiding over a pretentious gathering of independent film producers in his office overlooking Union Square to decide upon a name. After glancing out the window at the Broadway traffic, with the usual flourishes, gave the designation—Universal. He had seen the name, it is said, on a delivery wagon marked “Universal Pipe Fittings.”

 

Following other film producers, by the end of 1912, Universal was making most of its films in Hollywood on the northwest corner of Sunset and Gower. During the first year of the studio’s operation, 250 films were produced, mostly two-reelers.

 

As Laemmle and Universal prospered, he purchased a former chicken farm, the 230-acre Taylor ranch on the banks of the Los Angeles River five miles north of Hollywood. The land was part of the ancient Rancho Cahuenga de Ramirez and on the property where General John C. Fremont and Pio Pico signed the Treaty of Cahuenga.  

 

 

 

 

Formal dedication of the studio on March 14, 1915, was an affair heralded by posters in railway stations throughout the country. Exhibitors were brought here by special trains to witness the ceremony. Laura Oakley, Universal City’s female police chief, presented Laemmle with a golden key and he officially unlocked the huge front gate of the studio as bands played. Flags were unfurled and a cheering crowd of 20,000 jammed Lankershim Blvd.  

 

 

 

Carl Laemmle and friends at the opening of Universal City in March 1915

 

Universal City came into existence and the studio was created as a small city with a population of nearly 300, with its own post office, fire department and police department. Children have been born on the lot and men and women have died there. Virginia Richdale Kerrigan, the daughter of William W. Kerrigan, one-time manager of Universal and the twin brother of actor J. Warren Kerrigan, had the distinction of being the first baby born on the Universal lot in 1915. Tragically only nine years later, Virginia’s dress caught fire at a Christmas gathering and she died from her burns.

 

Many of the 300 Universal employees lived in houses on the lot when the studio was opened in 1915. Some merely converted sets into practical living quarters and others just camped. Most of the actors had horses, for Universal was the home of the Western, which provided the studios bread-and-butter in the first two decades. The players with horses carried saddle bags in which were stuffed two uniforms. Sometimes they would appear in the mornings as Indians and after lunch, once the Indians were defeated by the cowboys, they would switch costumes and chase the images of themselves.

 

 

 

The above and following two photos were taken on a visit to Universal Studios in 1916 (Courtesy of Allan Landman / © Hollywoodland 2012)

 

 (Courtesy of Allan Landman / © Hollywoodland 2012)

 

 (Courtesy of Allan Landman / © Hollywoodland 2012)

 

One day in 1916, Harry Carey, one of Universal’s early western star attractions, was leading a bunch of cowhands down Broadway when the whole group tired of the script. Just for fun, and the undying mortification of the city’s budding social set, Carey and his dusty mounted troupe, rode up the steps and into the lobby of the stylish Alexandria Hotel.

 

Many stories of early Universal were based on nepotism, for there it thrived. Several Laemmles changed their names so that strangers wouldn’t get the impression they were there only because they were related. Some made good, others did not. But Uncle Carl, as he was known in the industry, never fired one of them. Ogden Nash, the poet, said the following about Laemmle’s habit of giving top executive jobs to family members: “Uncle Carl Laemmle has a very large faemmle.”

 

Laemmle’s greatest pride was for his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., who was originally named Julius after his grandfather in Germany. But when the senior Laemmle made him general manager of Universal on his twenty-first birthday, Julius became Junior.

 

Something else that Laemmle loved was gambling. High-stakes poker games with such cronies as Joseph Schenck and Sid Grauman would last all night and when the local action slowed a bit, Laemmle thought nothing of taking quick trips to Agua Caliente, the Mexican forerunner of Las Vegas. One night he lost $10,000 there. In one weekend, he lost three times that.

 

Universal Studios was the site of a number of industry firsts—Laemmle established the first European exchange for independent American films; he built the first electrically lighted stages so he would not have to depend on sunlight, and produced the first $1,000,000 feature, Foolish Wives (1922), directed by Erich von Stroheim, who the studio billed as “the man you love to hate.”

 

Many famous names in Hollywood history served at one time or another on the Universal lot. On it Charlie Chaplin courted Mildred Harris and Wallace Reid won Dorothy Davenport. John Ford and William Wyler (a Laemmle family member) received their early training at the studio—on Harry Carey westerns and farces with Laura La Plante. Such films as Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), both with Lon Chaney; Showboat (1929 and 1936) and the Academy Award winner, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) were made there. The studio launched the comedies of the 1930s with My Man Godfrey (1936) and introduced Deanna Durbin as a 14-year-old singer in her first great success, Three Smart Girls (1936). The studio also produced such classic soap operas as Magnificent Obsession (1936), Back Street (1932) and Imitation of Life (1934), the same titles that turned out to be box-office hits in the 1950s in remakes refurbished with color. And of course, there are the famed monster films which include Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933).

 

 

 

 

All studios were famous for their publicity stunts, but one at Universal had repercussions for many years to come. For the film, The Black Cat (1934), an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story, the studio advertised a county-wide contest for a cat to play the title role. Every child in town showed up. By the time the pre-selected winner was announced, cats were loose everywhere. Few chose to return home, and for decades (and possibly to this day) the studio lot teemed with their descendants.

 

 

 

Cast of Show Boat–Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger and Helen Westley

 

The Laemmle era came to an end in 1936 when the studio produced a lavish remake of Show Boat, featuring several stars from the Broadway stage version. Carl Jr.’s disturbing spending habits, the studios attempts at high-quality productions and the costs of modernizing and upgrading during the depression brought about their decline and being placed into receivership. Stockholders demanded that the Laemmle’s take out a loan from Standard Capital Corporation to make Show Boat, using the family’s controlling interest as collateral. When production problems created a huge overrun, the loan was called in and Universal could not pay. Standard foreclosed and seized control of Universal. Ironically when Show Boat was released it was a financial success but it was not enough to save the Laemmles who were forced to leave the studio on April 2, 1936. Carl Laemmle died three years later at the age of 72.

 

Despite low periods in its history, Universal Studios has survived. Over the past seventy-plus years Universal has had several owners and name variations. It is the debris from the Laemmle years, 1912 to 1936, that saw hundreds of films made on the 230 (and eventually 410) acres and that form most of Universal today. It doesn’t look much like a chicken farm any more.

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Universal Reopens Courthouse Square

Friday, June 19th, 2009

STUDIOS

Universal Studios backlot reopens

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The University of Southern California marching band, left, announces the rebuilt Courthouse Square film location at Universal Studios reopening for tours in Los Angeles on Thursday, June 18, 2009. The Courthouse Square, now fully restored, after the four-acre June 2008 fire in the historic backlot. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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