Reading Uncle Carl with Antonia Carlotta:
As film scholars know all too well, no contemporary biography exists for Carl Laemmle, but no autobiography exists either. Or so many thought.
Those of us who research and write about early Hollywood history have, of course, limped through the stilted British prose of John Drinkwater, commissioned by Laemmle to write his biography, published in 1931, but he had already completed a 227-page head start that he gave to Drinkwater to "fix" and complete.
Unfortunately, the biographer cut much of what had been written and pushed out into fresh terrain, which means we lost Laemmle's prose style, decision making, focus on business matters, and areas of personal interest – even if he worked with a ghost writer – likely the same person who wrote his Saturday Evening Post columns about production and distribution. Laemmle signed those himself, but many speculate he dictated to someone. Richard Koszarski, among others, believes the columns and unpublished autobiographical draft to be in the same prose style, the identical "voice" (47).
In 1960, the son, Carl Laemmle Jr., found the 1927 unpublished autobiographical fragment among family items and donated it to a local group collecting memorabilia for a museum. Later controlled by the Department of Parks and Recreation in addition to the Parks of the City of Los Angeles, the manuscript survives intact at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library – although one might not call it "complete."1 The document covers the era from 1906 in OshKosh, Wisconsin through Laemmle's work in exhibition then his move into production, but ends before he founded the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. While the information he covered is "passed over by Drinkwater in four brief pages" (Koszarski 47), Laemmle's passion becomes clear in the unpublished version: business, accounting, less so the creative arts. Ever conservative and circumspect, he sought counsel and ran the numbers at every turn.
The founder of what is now Universal Studios began when he turned 40 in 1906 and faced the realization that his work selling clothing would never bring him a fortune. Thus he and his wife agreed to take his savings and moved to Chicago in search of a new opportunity.
Laemmle thought he would enter the five and dime store business when he passed a Nickelodeon and struck up a conversation with the proprietor. At this moment, Uncle Carl realized "motion pictures interested me as a business proposition" (49). He viewed this storefront as the equivalent of Woolworth's – he could move a tremendous amount of people through at low prices.
Although he confessed to trepidation over losing his life savings. "It would be calamitous to fritter away my ten year's savings in less than a month," he lamented. "Instantly I conjured up gloomy visions of a return to Oshkosh at my former salary, the same environment and the colorless grind of retailing clothing," he continued. Lammle even admitted, "Starting all over again was not a pleasant prospect for a man of his fortieth year, I assure you; in short, a tincture of despair stole over me" (50).
Start over he did, but not without discernment. Indeed, many passages read like the whaling chapters in Moby Dick wherein Herman Melville details the items whalers need on board when hunting in the deep sea. Laemmle consulted with the Chicago Film Exchange and advertiser Robert H. Cochrane. He poured over the cost of renting films, the equipment to screen them, the seats, carbon lamps, the screen, box office projections, as well as venue rental, which his former employer Sam Stern secured for him.
His knowledge of the technical details of the equipment likewise astounds as he recounted the problems with early equipment such as "magazines, take-ups, film guards, fire shutters" (51). Laemmle even noted that 190 "seats fell under the classification of 'Amusement Eatablishments' subject to an annual tax of $25. Had it contained ten more seats it would have been termed as a 'theatre' and an annual tax of five hundred dollars imposed" (52).
Detail oriented to the last, after opening day, he stated, "Suffice to say, I counted the nickels and found that my first day as an exhibitor had brought some fourteen hundred people to the improvised theatre" while "four thousand persons attended the second day." He reflected, "That settled it. I had already found my calling and from that day until this writing I have never lost my interest in the exhibiting of pictures, directly or indirectly" (53). Laemmle believed in the "Woolworthian" philosophy of selling large quantities at the lowest price. He had created the "poor man’s theatre" with White Front where "patrons" sought relief "from the trouble and cares of a mechanistic age" (53). Indeed, he "soon learned that a happy ending was one of the smoothest roads leading to profit and success" (54).
The opening of his second theater summoned the same business acuity. He literally listed all that he needed:
"One empty store
From his earlier reference, we know that theaters with less than 200 seats saved him high taxes annually per venue. Ever the cost-conscious businessman, he "plunged into this second" theater "with all the gusto and zeal possible!" (55). In order to save on expenses, he "collected tickets, served as relief operator, cashier and general utility man" (55). Soon after, he complained about the low quality of prints, the illegality of dupes, and the dishonesty of the film exchange, all of which encouraged him to make his "next move on the chessboard of the motion picture field" (57), which was distribution.
Laemmle's great grand niece and host of the YouTube series Universally Me about Universal Studios and her family – Antonia Carlotta – once remarked to me that she wished her uncle had finished and published this version instead of hiring Drinkwater. I concur and thought there was more to discuss, so I asked her a few questions about this important fragment of Universal history.
After working on Universally Me and being featured in the documentary about your Uncle Carl's life, you've become one of the world's greatest living experts on him. Did you learn anything new from reading this excerpt?
Right off the bat, I just couldn't help but relate to him so much when he talked about reaching the age when he should have had it all figured out, and looking into the future wondering if he'd ever find his calling, or if he'd just be going through the motions. He had all this passion pent up inside of him, and when he found film, it all clicked. I think that contributed to his success – having something he was so excited about to channel his energy into.
Yes, I've always been aware of Uncle Carl's successes (obviously), but I'd never seen them laid out so clearly as they were in these pages. Reading what he saw in the business – "small price commodity in tremendous quantities" like the Woolworth model, how he calculated costs and set up his first theaters, and then how he worked to solve specific business problems to build his company and increase his influence (distributing films himself, meeting with other exhibitors to get their insights, etc.), these passages demonstrated for me just how calculated his decisions were. I've heard a lot about "Laemmle Luck" all my life, but I think this autobiography proves it wasn't just luck – Uncle Carl had vision and perseverance.
What's the most interesting thing you learned?
We believe Laemmle abandoned this project and hired John Drinkwater to write his biography instead. What do you think about that decision now that you've had some time to read the autobiographical version?
I find the Drinkwater book so boring sometimes, and I'm so disappointed Carl didn't release this instead. It's so much more conversational. I love hearing the journey in his words. It also addressed a lot of questions I always had. Whether he quit or was fired from the clothing store in Oshkosh, what really led him to Chicago, and how he and Robert H. Cochrane got into business together.
While the focus of the manuscript is on the business and accounting side, Laemmle does wax poetic at times. He writes, "I nourished a genuine love for this industry. The lights and shadows transmuted upon the screen beckoned me to become part and parcel of their dream world. Instead of dealing with inanimate merchandise, it concerned itself with the actions of living beings and as such exercised a deep fascination over me. The shouts and murmurs of the patrons who entered the movie establishments intensified this feeling." What are your thoughts on this more emotional, passionate side of him? Does it seem genuine?
First, the cynical answer: Uncle Carl was a business man, and it would be bad business to speak poorly of the industry he decided to dedicate his life to. If he didn't wax poetic, what would that say about his movies? What would that mean for his studio? I think he'd talk it up no matter how he felt about it. When it came to his work – as the Introduction says – Carl "made sure that his customers identified him personally with the various firms he controlled" (47), and this autobiography was no exception. As much as he was educating others and remembering his humble beginnings, there's no doubt he saw this autobiographical work as another opportunity for promotion. That being said, I don't think that means Carl wasn't actually genuine in his words.
Then, he was truly passionate?
I think the passion and emotion are real. I think Carl always had a surplus of energy (or passion) that he was looking to channel into something. Where some people derive their passion from something really specific, I think that Carl always felt he had so much potential, but he didn't know where to direct it. He wanted to accomplish things, he had a competitive spirit, but those traits could be applied pretty broadly.
I see this back in his youngest years when as the smallest kid in his class or he outran everyone, to his teenage years when he worked so hard to make his way to the United States, and then at the clothing store, which wasn't his passion, but where he excelled.
At the clothing store, he'd craft big promotional schemes – a famous example is one Thanksgiving when he offered a free turkey if you spent $3 or more on boy's suits. He ended up getting into competition with other local stores and was practically giving away free turkeys by the end.
I guess all of that is to say that Carl always had emotion and excitement within him, but he never found his thing until he discovered movies. Suddenly, passion and opportunity clicked. I can see how sharing stories on screen and seeing their impact with the audience would have given him a real rush. And not only did he find something he was passionate about, but he got to build and shape an industry to be what he wanted. And then he discovered he could use that industry to shape society too.
How would you re-focus his autobiography if you could go back in time and give him advice. In other words, what are you not seeing here you might like to?
That’s such a tough question! From this specifically, I love hearing about the business side, the way his mind works, and the steps he took to get started. This is especially inspiring for me as I'm trying to find my way and figuring out my next steps. What I wish we got more of, though, is what was going on behind-the-scenes in his life at this time. In 1907, he had a wife and a five-year-old at home. What's his relationship like with them? How much time does he get to spend at home? Does he have balance, or is he working himself to death?
I think there's more I'd like to know about all of his relationships really. He talks about meeting people, hiring people, picking their brains even, but it's always quite surface level. He must have had a certain charm for getting so many people to help him out or take a chance on him, and we do know Carl was loyal because he brought many of these people with him to Universal later on. I think the people in his life are an important part of his journey, and we don't get to see much of that side of him.
Since this is The Business of Motion Pictures I suppose it wasn't his angle, but I wish we had a bit more of the emotional too. It's great to hear about a problem that arose and how he solved it, but it was often presented as, "Here was the problem and here was the solution." I wish we got like...did he stay up late all night stressing? Who were his confidants? What was the actual process to learn, brainstorm, and get to the next step? I want to hear more of the mess and the setbacks along the way.
And what if he could have written an autobiography toward the end of his life?
If he could have written an autobiography later in life, I'd like to read about Uncle Carl's work saving Jewish families in the 1930s. He wrote letters to relatives and politicians alike, pleading with them to join the fight the way he had. To Secretary of State Cordell Hull, he talked about his "heartbreaking effort" to get his visas approved. He goes on to add: "My heart goes out to [the Jews in Germany] and I have never in all my life been so sympathetic to any cause as I am to these poor innocent people who are suffering untold agony without having done any wrong whatsoever."
Those stories alongside the purchasing of the rights and production of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) would indeed make compelling prose.
Why Laemmle never finished or published this version of his autobiography, we may never know.
Perhaps he feared his focus on the "business of motion pictures" would bore some readers more interested in the stars, the movies themselves, the plots, human drama, and his family life. Perhaps he lacked the time and focus needed to complete a book himself.
Whatever the case, this long lost fragment of Universal history provides compelling insight as to the "vision and perserverance" needed to found and grow one of the preeminent studios in the world today.
Carlotta, Antonia. Interview with the author. December 2020.
Koszarski, Richard. “Introduction.” Film History, vol. 3, no. 1, 1989, pp. 47-71.
Laemmle, Carl. This Business of Motion Pictures. Unpublished Autobiography. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Portions reprinted in Film History, vol. 3, no. 1, 1989, pp. 47-71.