In the Autumn of 2022, I instructed a film study course on a selected filmography of Universal Pictures. I’ve been teaching for many years in the college town in Lawrence, Kansas. As I have done so across many topics of classic film, I start with an overview of the film genre, director including signature elements, historical context and background. Then we screen and discuss the films- like a book club for classic film. In this case, I guided the class through the most influential period of horror films. I’ll share my notes with you here- let’s start with the overview…
UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS
We’re embarking on a cinematic journey this Autumn that takes us back to the early pioneering days of horror films. Horror stories did not begin with cinema, nor did horror films initiate via sound films. But in the early years of “talkies,” there was one studio in particular- Universal Pictures- that created horror films so thrilling that they influenced the genre to this day.
Through a study of the iconic films of this specific time and place, we will also take a deeper look into the artists, technology, and historical influences that helped create these masterpieces of the silver screen. Yes, we’ll enjoy the fright of these “monsters of madness” as we did in our youth, but perhaps we’ll walk away appreciating the art form and hopefully learn something, too.
Our films will be as scheduled:
Sept 6- Intro and Kevin Brownlow’s documentary, UNIVERSAL HORROR (1998), narrated by Kenneth Branagh
Sept 13- DRACULA (1931)
Sept 20- FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
Sept 27- THE MUMMY (1932)
Oct 4- THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)
Oct 11- THE BLACK CAT (1934)
Oct 18- BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)
Oct 25- WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)
CARL LAEMMLE and UNIVERSAL PICTURES:
You cannot discuss the early years of Universal studio without Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was born on January 17, 1867 as Karl Lammle in (what is now) Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1884, working in Chicago. 20 years would pass (he also worked bookkeeping awhile in Oshkosh, WI) when he started in the motion picture industry- first in distribution by buying up a string of nickelodeons*, under the title, “Laemmle Film Service.” He expanded west and into Canada. But he resented having to pay royalties to Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company. He moved into film production and founded IMP (Independent Motion Picture Co.) out of New York. Like many other struggling independent producers (such as future studio heads Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor), Laemmle fought Edison and his “General Film Company” (aka “the Trust”) in hundreds of legal action cases. He fought against Edison’s monopolization tactics. And won. While others headed west to Hollywood to avoid the Edison battles, in 1912, Laemmle co-founded Universal Pictures in the heart of the American filmmaking industry… Fort Lee, New Jersey.
*[A nickelodeon was a pioneering pre-cursor to the modern-day movie theater. Brief in time, the height of popularity was from 1905 to 1913. For a nickel, audiences could enter converted retail space that was elaborately plastered in promotional posters on the outside but bare inside, minus the hard wooden chairs. In competition with vaudeville houses, the films were 10 to 15 minutes in length and showcased a variety of content. As spectators demanded more, intertitles became more frequently used and the movies grew in length, ushering in “features.” Motion pictures were evolving into longer, more coherent stories, and audiences upscaled into bigger venues that offered comfortable seating for those longer features and a nickel was no longer enough.]
The years 1912 to 1914 was a fast and furious period of change and growth for Carl Laemmle. IMP morphed into Universal Pictures. A few additional independents were included in this transition. During this time, Laemmle moved his filming operations from the east coast to California- which included both Hollywood and “Oak Crest Ranch” in San Fernando valley. By 1914, he built an entirely new studio in Hollywood for Universal Pictures at the “Taylor Ranch.”
Up until 1925, “Universal City” was the largest, most productive studio in the world. “Uncle Carl” as he was often called, treated his studio like family. Quite literally, as he employed family members frequently, including his nephew William Wyler. His son Carl, Jr. would step up in production roles (head of production from 1929 to 1936) and his niece Carla had a bit part in DRACULA (1931)- the first speaking lines in Universal’s first horror talkie.
The monster films at Universal began with Lon Chaney in the 1920s with hits like HUNCHBACK of NOTRE DAME (1923) and PHANTOM of the OPERA (1925). With well over a hundred roles for Universal, Chaney proved that not only was he “a man of a thousand faces” with his unparalleled artistry in makeup, and mastery of pantomime, but he also possessed magnetic acting prowess. By 1917, Chaney’s contract with Universal was allowed to lapse and he was a free agent. His career progressed untethered with some of his very best work with both MGM and Universal studios. His trajectory came to a screeching halt when his health issues intervened. He died of cancer in 1930, resulting from a throat hemorrhage.
By the end of the 1920s, the film industry had embraced sound productions as its exhilarating new future. Jewish German emigrant Carl Laemmle, motivated by the threat of Hitler’s rise of power, pushed hard to make a serious anti-war film, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930). It won Universal’s very first Academy Award for Best Picture that following year. With Lon Chaney’s absence, Universal needed to find a replacement for audience’s growing fascination for horror. Soon, actor Boris Karloff and makeup genius Jack Pierce would forever alter Universal history. But, not before a thick-accented Hungarian would come along to set the tone. Instrumental in creating these epic Pre-Code monsters, directors including Tod Browning and James Whale would bring their visions to the big screen.
Making up from losses from the Depression combined with overspending on productions (“Junior” had the reputation of not controlling costs he incurred with his successful talkies), both Sr. and Jr. Laemmle were forced out in 1936. Carl Laemmle died in 1939 at the age of 72 years old. Universal would rebound, and even shed new light on their beloved monsters- often via comedy.
Another legacy that Carl Laemmle must be remembered for was his life-saving humanitarian actions. From 1932 to his death in 1939, Laemmle personally saved over 300 Jewish families- that’s more than 1,000 men, women, and children- from Nazi extermination. Like an American version of Oskar Schindler, he fought the many obstacles of government red tape by personally financing their passage to the U.S., by housing them, and by signing affidavits to prove they would be covered and not a burden to Depression-worn United States. He also convinced his children and Hollywood friends to do the same on his behalf (although he was financing it) when the State Dept. grew concerned in case these refugees outlived their benevolent benefactor, “Uncle Carl.”
We will explore seven films that each reflects the essential elements and style of these early Universal horrors. We will further discuss:
-European influence (and “the Nazi problem”)
-sex factor in horror
-the Great Depression
-supernatural themes (religion vs secular) and religious objections
-tricks of the trade
-less is more with horror
-mad scientists, “the outsider,” and other themes
-Jack Pierce makeup artistry
-sequels, spinoffs, parodies, teaming up characters (monster mashups), and enduring influences
** By definition, German Expressionism “was an artistic movement that began in earnest at the start of the 20th century. It is characterized by the use of twisted shapes, vivid colors, and jarring contrasts to create images with emotional intensity.” What exactly does that mean? Visual elements that are hyper exaggerated and reflective of the fears and inner angst of the German society of the 1920s can be best described via on-screen examples such as: THE CABINET of DR. CALIGARI (1920), NOSFERATU (1922), METROPOLIS (1927). We will revisit terms like ‘German Expressionism’’ as we delve deeper into each film and the artists.
UNIVERSAL MONSTER FILMS:
1931… DRACULA, DRACULA (Spanish version), FRANKENSTEIN
1932… MURDERS in the RUE MORGUE, THE MUMMY
1933… THE INVISIBLE MAN
1934… THE BLACK CAT
1935… THE BRIDE of FRANKENSTEIN, WEREWOLF of LONDON, THE RAVEN
1936… DRACULA’S DAUGHTER
1939… SON of FRANKENSTEIN, TOWER of LONDON
1940… THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, THE MUMMY’S HAND, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN
1941… MAN-MADE MONSTER, THE WOLF MAN
1942… THE GHOST of FRANKENSTEIN, INVISIBLE AGENT, THE MUMMY’S TOMB
1943… FRANKENSTEIN MEETS the WOLF MAN, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, PHANTOM of the OPERA, SON of DRACULA, THE MAD GHOUL
1944… THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, THE MUMMY’S GHOST, HOUSE of FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY’S CURSE
1945… HOUSE of DRACULA
1946… HOUSE of HORRORS, SHE-WOLF of LONDON
1948… ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN
1951… ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET the INVISIBLE MAN
1954… CREATURE from the BLACK LAGOON
1955… REVENGE of the CREATURE, ABBOTT and COSTELLO MEET the MUMMY
1956… THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US
3 thoughts on “Universal Horrors: a Film Study”
Hi, What a wonderful and informative email. Thank you so much for new information, written in a very engaging manner. You made my day. I look forward to receiving Outspoken & Freckled in the future. I wish you well. Marion
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What a great course! I like horror even less than I like musicals (and that’s saying something), but I would take take your class. I would really like to see that Kevin Brownlow documentary, too — I’m late to the Brownlow party, but I finally discovered him during the pandemic, when I saw his Hollywood series. Do you know if it’s accessible anywhere via streaming?
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I very much appreciate the compliment, even if it isn’t your cup of tea in genres. These classes have been so much fun to do. We’re in the middle of my 2nd John Ford class right now, which has led to amazing conversations. I figured it why not share my old class handouts, too? The Brownlow doc I own is a burned DVD copy, but you can see it on YouTube with Spanish subtitles in English language: https://youtu.be/58L_iy6UV_4