Carl Laemmle was born Karl Laemmle in 1867 in Laupheim, Germany, to Jewish parents Judas Baruch and Rebekka. He attended a Jewish schoolhouse and also attended the Laupheim Latin school for two years. In 1884, at thea ge of 17, he immigrated to America after his mother’s death, because he had promised her that he would not leave as long as she was alive. He joined one of his uncles in Chicago and worked at various jobs there until he established himself at the Continental Clothing Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he became director. He married the niece of the owner, Recha Stern, who had immigrated from Hintersteinau, Hessia. At the age of 39, and after twelve years in Oshkosh, he left for Chicago in 1906 to open his own clothing store.
Laemmle was immediately impressed by the popularity of the storefront nickelodeons he saw in Chicago, and decided that the new form of film entertainment had unlimited potential for growth and profit. In 1906 he opened his first nickelodeon, the White Front Theatre on Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue. Observing how expensive and difficult it was to purchase films to show from the production companies, he opened his own film distribution center in Chicago that same year.
Laemmle’s vision of opening a major studio in Los Angeles became reality on March 15, 1915, with the grand opening of Universal City. The 750- acre property in the San Fernando Valley was to be not just a studio, but an entire city devoted to entertainment and the making of moving pictures. Its amenities included a zoo, school, hospital, shops, cafeteria, police department, fire department, and library. There were also thirty bungalows for employees to live on the lot. From its beginning, Universal offered tours of the studio lot and stunt shows. Laemmle’s motto for Universal was “to provide universal entertainment for the universe.” In its first year the new Universal studio produced 250 movies. The entertainment conglomerate now known as NBC-Universal has operated for more than a century at the same location.
Laemmle made his son Carl Laemmle, Jr. head of production in 1929 on his namesake’s 21st birthday. Due to the effects of the Depression, world economic crisis, and the expense of two lavish productions supervised by his son, Laemmle was forced to sell his interest in Universal in 1936 to Standard Capital Bank. He died in Beverly Hills in 1939.
Carl Laemmle – The Visionary
Carl Laemmle was a true pioneer in the moving picture industry. Many innovations and “firsts” can be directly attributed to his foresight. He was one of the first to recognize the potential of the new medium, even though he was the oldest of his fellow Hollywood film moguls. His tenacity in fighting the Trust won the independence for production companies and film distributors that allowed for the growth of the industry.
He was one of the first to produce animated films, making “The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918 and animated shorts with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The first Oswald film was produced by Walt Disney and distributed by Universal in 1927. Disney later turned down Laemmle’s offer to buy the rights to the character of Mickey Mouse.
Among his peers, Laemmle was one of the first to recognize the very real dangers to Jews in Hitler’s Germany.
Carl Laemmle – The Humanitarian
In 1932 Germany did not have the funds to send a team to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Laemmle initiated a fund to help Germany financially so that it could send a team. For the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he provided funds to send a U.S. basketball team which included many players from the Universal company team. The 1936 Olympics was the first time basketball was an official medal sport. The U.S. won the gold medal.
After Hitler’s rise to power, Laemmle offered to provide affidavits vouching financial solvency for German Jews who wanted to come to America. He personally sponsored more than 600 German Jews, and when Nazi authorities and the American consul in Stuttgart questioned the large number, he hectored friends and relatives to provide affidavits offering to reimburse sponsors if a financial outlay was required. His humanitarian efforts to save European Jews were unequaled among all of the studio executives in Hollywood.
Carl Laemmle – The Immigrant
Carl Laemmle maintained very close ties with his home town in Germany and visited annually when he could. When in Laupheim he stayed at a guest house known as “ Gasthof Zum Ochsen”, and he even built a replica of the inn on the Universal lot. His penchant for hiring German and Austrian talent can be explained in part by his desire to converse in his native tongue. The language most common at Universal City during Laemmle’s tenure was German.
But despite his abiding love of the Vaterland, Laemmle’s life story is a case study in the fate of German-Americans in the turbulent twentieth century. During WWI, anti-German propaganda in the U.S. caused public opinion to turn hateful toward all things German. The patriotism of recent German immigrants was called into question. To prove his loyalty to America, Laemmle produced anti-German propaganda films, the most famous being “The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin”. In these films, Laemmle created the stereotypes of the evil, ruthless, brutal, militaristic German that have survived in Hollywood ever since. When word of the films got to Germany, the public was dismayed and the reception Laemmle received during his visits cooled.
Yet, Carl Laemmle came to the rescue of Germany after World War One and tried to influence American public opinion to realize that the German populace was not the enemy. Laupheim recognized his efforts and generosity and once again welcomed him warmly. A street was named in his honor, and he was made honorary citizen. But politics intervened again. When Laemmle wanted to spread the anti-war message of his wildly successful film version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” to Germany , he ran afoul of the German censorship board and the rising radical right movement there. The film was seen as anti-German and screenings in Berlin were disrupted by Joseph Goebbels and his henchmen.
And so, although Laemmle used his close ties to Germany to scout talent, create Deutsche Universal, and obtain rights to film Erich Maria Remarque’s bestseller, his love for Germany would be called into question. After Hitler came to power, Carl Laemmle Strasse in Laupheim was renamed—a public street named after an American Jew was no longer desired.
Today, Laupheim honors its native son in many ways. A plaque commemorates the house of his birth. A high school bears his name, and the city museum has dedicated several rooms to his story. A fountain in the town center reminds passersby that their “Uncle Carl” was the founder of Universal and the producer of classic films. The immigrant Carl Laemmle is honored today on both sides of the Atlantic.