HMWYBS: A Shadow Of A Doubt About Universal Studios

I’m about to commit film geek blasphemy: I’m going to talk about an Alfred Hitchcock movie without mentioning the master of suspense himself. The only reason I know I can get away with this is because there is a talented group of bloggers over at The Film Experience who will examine Shadow Of A Doubt from all angles – literally. Thanks to them, I have the freedom to address something that caught my eye before the credits rolled, specifically this very different Universal Studios logo:

UniversalLogo1936

It’s not unusual for a company to update its logo as time, mergers, and aesthetics permit. Last year was Universal Studios’ 100th anniversary, and NBC/Universal made a very big deal of rolling out a special anniversary logo, which looked very similar to almost every Universal logo of the past 75 years. But the shiny art deco disco ball shown above is unique to the Universal logo oeuvre, which is mainly comprised of variations on Lettering Circling The Earth. This Shiny Space Ball logo, designed by Alexander Golitzen and filmed by John Fulton, seems to indicate a glitzy, glamorous time in studio history. However, like any good Hollywood setpiece, it’s a lie. This logo was introduced in 1936, a tumultuous transitional period for the studio. The story behind the logo’s origin is fit for a screenplay: it’s got gambling, bankruptcy, musicals, and movie moguls.

Let me start at the beginning and work up to 1936. Universal Studios was started in 1912 by a group of businessmen led by Carl Laemmle Sr., a self-made millionaire (as so many of the studio chiefs were). Laemmle loved money, and had a talent for promotion. Laemmle was the first exec to use stars’ names (or his own) to promote his films. He also started studio tours for starstruck Hollywood tourists. Laemmle’s policy was never to lie to the audience, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t bend the truth a bit. When another studio put out a documentary called Roosevelt in Africa about Teddy Roosevelt, Laemmle and Universal churned out In Africa, which, though it lacked Teddy Roosevelt, made more money than the original because Laemmle charged less to distributors. Think of early Universal like Anchor Bay Films. As the studio system settled, Universal Studios found its niche as a B movie studio, next to Columbia and Republic Pictures.

This isn’t to say that Laemmle Sr. didn’t value quality.  Laemmle was a businessman, not a troglodyte. Thanks to Laemmle Sr., the famous Universal Horror movies of the ‘30s were produced. Still, these films are examples of the best of low-budget filmmaking. In 1928, Carl Sr. began transitioning control of Universal over to his son, Carl Jr., who had bigger dreams for the studio. Carl Jr. decided to stop grinding out (sorry) the B movies that made up the meat (sorry) of Universal’s filmmaking product, and instead to turn Universal into an A-List studio like MGM. He updated Universal’s facilities to start making 100% talkies, and began borrowing loans to make bigger movies. Despite the rise of prestige pictures like All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), Universal started hemorrhaging money.

The boat that sank a studio

The boat that sank a studio

Carl Jr.’s Whopper (sorry) was to be a lavish production of Show Boat, the hit musical inspired by Edna Ferber’s book. The film assembled a (mostly borrowed) all star cast, including Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Allan Jones, and Paul Robeson, and was directed by James Whale (director of Frankenstein). For this musical, Carl Jr. borrowed $750,000. Even still, the production went $300,000 over budget. Carl Jr. was in a pickle (sorry). In 1936, Show Boat opened to critical and financial success (as well as a bit of controversy), but it was too little too late. Carl Jr. had proven he couldn’t cut the mustard (sorry). The company fell into receivership, and the Laemmles’ controlling stock was bought by J. Cheever Cowdin, a banker who was even tighter with money than Carl Sr.

From 1936 to 1946, Universal slipped back into its role as Best of the B Studios. The new, shiny logo was introduced, but otherwise it was business as usual. Fortunately for the studio (although unfortunately for the Laemmles’ pride), business as usual involved hiring two comedians named Abbott and Costello, taking over the Basil Rathbone Sherlock series from 20th Century Fox, and a series of more and more ridiculous monster movie sequels. In 1946, Universal merged with a British company called International Pictures, becoming Universal-International. Under J. Arthur Rank and William Goetz, Universal-International produced prestige pictures such as Great Expectations and Olivier’s Hamlet. Postwar Universal finally became the company Carl Jr. had dreamed of a decade earlier.

The drama of Universal Studios obviously continues past 1946, but our tale ends with the Laemmles’ downfall. Carl Sr. retired with much fanfare and died a few years later. Carl Jr. did not start a hamburger chain (despite my bad puns), but his cousins started an independent movie theater chain that still exists in Los Angeles. Carl Laemmle Sr.’s founding principle – make lots and lots of money, however you can – has held the once-small studio through many difficult times, when giants of the studio system like MGM folded. So next time you see a studio logo card in front of a movie, take the time be dazzled, or nostalgic, or inquisitive about it. The story before the title card can be just interesting as the one after it.

universal-pictures-100th-anniversary-logo1

Do you have a favorite studio logo? What about a favorite studio story? Share in the comments below!

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About Anne Marie Kelly

Classic Film history & restoration nerd. Writer of A Year With Kate and Women's Pictures for The Film Experience. Follow me on Twitter @WeRecycleMovies.
This entry was posted in Film and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to HMWYBS: A Shadow Of A Doubt About Universal Studios

  1. Mrs says:

    We do need to thank Carl Jr for giving us one of the few film appearances of Paul Robeson

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  3. Pingback: 4 Films to Vote for the National Film Registry | We Recycle Movies

  4. Wes Clark says:

    Fascinating… but how was that mirror ball logo made? And the spinning stars? I have watched that thing over and over and don’t have a clue how they got those art deco letters to circle the globe. And what makes all those spinning stars? What a complicated contraption!

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