The Rise of Universal Pictures and Horror Deadful Pleasures

Kyle Edwards
Kyle Edwards

In 1906, Carl Laemmle entered the fledgeling motion-picture industry when he opened a small nickelodeon movie house in Chicago to exhibit silent short films. After rapid expansion of the company over the next few years, Carl Laemmle formed Universal Pictures in 1913, and then, two years later, he became one of the first producers to set up shop in Southern California, in a North Hollywood area newly dubbed Universal City.1 From 1915 to the early 1920s, Universal Pictures developed a form of vertical integration by producing its own films, distributing them to domestic and international markets, and then exhibiting those films in Universal Pictures-owned theatres. However, Carl Laemmle now opted against expanding the company’s theatre holdings or updating its cinemas, a period when more venturesome companies were acquiring regional chains that controlled the most profitable theatres. Instead, Universal Pictures sold off many of the exhibition outlets it did own and focused on producing “programmers”: shorts and low-budget feature films. While this production and distribution strategy minimized financial risk and provided a steady production schedule, it also threatened the company’s ability to secure favourable exhibition deals at first-run movie houses for its few, but vital, big-budget feature films.

The emergence of sound films, or talking pictures, was a boon for many Hollywood filmmaking corporations, but it only exacerbated Universal Pictures’ industrial disadvantages.2 While the majors had significant levels of capital and theater holdings to produce and exhibit sound films, major-minors like Universal Pictures owned few or no theaters and had little money with which to invest in sound technology. Moreover, if such studios were to produce talking pictures, they would have no guarantee that their films would be distributed to sound-equipped theatres, most of which would be in those large urban markets controlled by the major studios.

Universal Pictures’ “programmer” production policy was re-evaluated in 1928, the same year that Carl Laemmle ceded control of production to his twenty-one-year-old son, Carl Laemmle Jr.. Unlike his father, Carl Laemmle Jr. believed the company needed to develop an identity that could help it gain a foothold in the major market and that prestige A-level film releases were the shortest path to that destination, but he was also aware that Universal Pictures did not have a steady stream of cash to feed the larger budgets of such pictures. Creditors were not clamouring to supply capital, nor was marquee acting talent (migrating in waves from Broadway to Hollywood after the conversion to sound) eager to sign on with the studio. So Carl Laemmle Jr. formulated an alternative strategy that might deliver corporate stability and notoriety for Universal Pictures. His solution was the horror genre, which would consist of pictures with a sensationalistic subject matter, socially taboo themes, and sadistic and grotesque characters.3 Emphasizing a single production category would allow the company to achieve greater levels of efficiency and, crucially, significant cost savings in the production and distribution of each release. Moreover, if commercially successful, these films would leave an indelible impression on moviegoers and distinguish Universal Pictures from its competitors.

The implementation of Universal Pictures’ strategy also depended, however, on the degree to which it could accommodate the guidelines of the recently formulated Hollywood Production Code and its arbiter, the Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The “pre-Code Hollywood” era — that is to say, the brief period between 1930, when the Hollywood Production Code was formally introduced by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and 1934, when those guidelines were enforced by the newly established Production Code Administration (PCA) — has been mythologized as an anarchic period in which the agency tasked with enforcing the Code, the SRC, watched helplessly as studios “operated under rules of their own,” releasing film-after-film rife with “the raw stuff of American culture.”4 In such accounts, a spate of sensationalist and thematically adventurous motion pictures, rife with illicit sex, violence, and other Code-challenging content, were curtailed only upon the reinvention of the SRC as the PCA in 1934, upon the installation of Joseph Ignatius Breen as director, and upon the institution of a Code certificate-of-approval requirement.5 However, even without the support of a strict Code enforcement policy, the SRC actively worked with Hollywood studios to avoid censorship and public-relations problems and to develop film releases that would be acceptable for worldwide consumption.6 While the instructions of the SRC were not always heeded, the agency could influence film content significantly during the pre-Code era.

Such was the case for the series of horror films produced by Universal Pictures in the early 1930s. As revealed in documents in the Production Code Administration File at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Margaret Herrick Library, Universal Pictures ‘Dracula’ (1931), ‘Frankenstein’ (1931), and ’Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1932) challenged the very tenets of the recently drafted Production Code and forced the SRC not only to redefine its role in relation to scripts and film texts containing questionable subject matter but also to articulate a set of clear descriptive markers for burgeoning genres, in this case “horror.” Although the SRC did not initially expect institutional observers or consumers to be offended, provoked, or disturbed by the themes, images, and sounds in these films, the agency ultimately played a key role in defining the boundaries for the genre and, moreover, helped to formulate the strategies with which Universal Pictures could circumvent objections by the United States of America and international censorship boards.7

‘Dracula’ (1931)
‘Dracula’ (1931)

In pursuit of its new production emphasis, Universal Pictures acquired the theatrical and literary rights to ‘Dracula’ in 1930 and initiated the Code review process in June of that year by sending a letter to Studio Relations executive Colonel Jason Joy that announced intentions to produce the film, along with copies of John L. Balderston’s play and Abraham Stoker’s 1897 novel.8 Universal Pictures hoped to elicit “censorship angles” on both texts since they planned to adapt freely from both sources. After receiving multiple drafts of Dracula’s screenplay over the next three months, Colonel Jason Joy reported to Carl Laemmle Jr. that he had found nothing objectionable in the developing script.9 A lengthy “final script synopsis” written by an SRC staff member in October 1930 described ‘Dracula’ as a “tale of horror and mystery,” intermittently relieved by a romantic subplot.10 Whereas the SRC reviewer had indeed identified anxiety-inducing moments in the six-page script synopsis, these features were interpreted as elements of exoticism and sensationalism, adding to the entertainment appeal of the famous story. By all accounts present in the Code review files, this opinion represented the consensus at the SRC, which found little to criticize in the numerous script drafts of ‘Dracula’ exchanged between Universal Pictures and the SRC in the summer and fall of 1930. (Joy’s only advice was to eliminate derogatory references to Dutchmen and the “Napoleans and Mussolini’s” of Europe.)11 In other words, while the SRC had begun to articulate the elements of the horror genre — sensational imagery, exotic settings, for example — it had not yet determined that they were objectionable and needed to be tempered or eliminated entirely. This indeterminacy gave Universal Pictures — and the genre — a historic opening.

Universal Pictures moved quickly on the production of ‘Dracula’ and had a cut of the film ready for SRC reviewers by January 1931. The SRC still found only seemingly inconsequential details to criticize. As a “Code report and story synopsis” of the film by reviewer James Fischer concluded, “The picture satisfies the requirements of the Code and contains nothing to which the censors could reasonably object.” Regarding the depraved, bloodthirsty eponymous character, James Fischer predicted, “Dracula is not really a human being, so he cannot conceivably cause any trouble.” James Fischer ends his report by categorizing ‘Dracula’ as a “family picture.”12 Any objections James Fischer might have been able to identify were offset by the film’s fictional subject matter, an impression encouraged by the fantastic nature of the story and its foreign locale.

However, when SRC junior executive Lamar Jefferson Trotti screened a version of the film’s trailer just two weeks later, he expressed reservations. Although Lamar Jefferson Trotti found “nothing reasonably censorable” in the trailer, he added that as a potential moviegoer he would avoid what promised to be such a “gruesome” picture, citing as evidence one line by a primary female character: “The Dracula opened a vein in his arm and made me drink his blood.”13 The Code review file contains no other direct correspondence about ‘Dracula’ prior to its United States of America release later that month when the film opened to strong box-office receipts and generally positive reviews. While the SRC had identified possible objectionable moments in the ‘Dracula’ script, trailer, and feature film, those elements did not fall under Code guidelines, nor did they seem particularly offensive to staff and executives at the SRC.14 For now, Universal Pictures’ opening was secure.

Hot off the success of ‘Dracula’, the production company hoped to capitalize quickly by adopting another popular story featuring depraved characters, foreign locales, and a fantastic, science-fiction plot. Like ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’ was an internationally known novel, play, and cultural myth. Perhaps more attractive to the still struggling studio, Frankenstein’s theatrical rights were much cheaper to acquire, and the literary rights were in the public domain and thus free of charge. However, while the SRC signed off on ‘Dracula’ without incident, its attitude had changed slightly when Universal Pictures submitted a script draft of ‘Frankenstein’ in August 1931. A letter from Colonel Jason Joy to Carl Laemmle Jr. expressed optimism that the story could pass censorship boards, but it also offered a stern warning: “[…] the only incidents in the script about which to really be concerned are those gruesome ones that will certainly bring an audience reaction of horror. We think you ought to keep thoroughly in mind during the production of this picture that the telling of a story with a theme as gruesome as this will not permit the use of superlative incidents of the same character.”15

Here, Colonel Jason Joy twice uses an adjective, “gruesome,” that would become more prominent in discussions of Universal Pictures’ early 1930 films. And the apprehension on Colonel Jason Joy’s part is not necessarily related to the presence of “gruesomeness” in the script and film, but in its ability to instil “horror” into a prospective audience.16 Whereas ‘Dracula’ used horror for entertainment and fantasy, Frankenstein’s deployment of such themes and images seemed more dangerous because of the potential affective response — i.e., terror — it might induce in the audience.

Universal Pictures addressed some of Colonel Jason Joy’s concerns, as evidenced in an August 1931 letter from SRC executive Fred Beetson to Carl Laemmle Jr., which reported that a Code review of ‘Frankenstein’ foresaw few censorship difficulties for the film.17 However, numerous state censorship boards rejected the film. For example, Kansas censors demanded the elimination of several dialogue sequences, at least one dozen shots, and entire scenes. Asher wrote to Colonel Jason Joy defending the film’s entertainment value and dramatic integrity in its present cut, and hoped that the SRC would argue against the demand for cuts.18 But internal discussions at the SRC suggest that the reviewers were beginning to formulate a strategy to limit the proliferation of films like ‘Frankenstein’ rather than defend them. This correspondence also reveals that the SRC was beginning to regret its endorsement of ‘Dracula’ months earlier. In a January 1932 memo from to Will Hays, Colonel Jason Joy described a group of films that threatened the public perception of Hollywood producers and the legitimacy of the film as an entertainment medium: “If something […] could be done about the so-called horror pictures we would be very much happier than we are. The fact that the supply of such stories is necessarily limited will lead eventually to straining for more and more horror until the wave topples over and breaks. Universal [Pictures] now has two more such stories in mind for production […] and all the others are more intrigued by the fact that Frankenstein is […] taking in big money at theatres. Talking out here won’t have much effect, with the cycle as successful as it is. If the scattered […] instances that come to our attention reflect the general attitude, resentment is surely being built up. How could it be otherwise if children go to these pictures and have the jitters, followed by nightmares? I, for one, would hate to have my children see Frankenstein, Jekyll, or the others, and you probably feel the same way. Not only is there a future economic consideration, but maybe there is a real moral responsibility involved, to which I wonder if we as individuals ought to lend our support.”19

As in his warning to Carl Laemmle Jr. about Frankenstein’s gruesome elements, in this memo Colonel Jason Joy strikes the Platonic note that aesthetically charged themes and images can leave indelible impressions on spectators, especially children. Colonel Jason Joy also has moved from isolated examples to a group of films described under a generic moniker: “so-called horror pictures.” The ascription of a film genre allows Colonel Jason Joy to formulate ‘Frankenstein’ and other films as a distinct class of social and psychological threats to spectators and to the reputations of Hollywood and the SRC. The potential upwelling of “resentment” from censors and consumers thereby requires that the SRC, according to Colonel Jason Joy’s logic, assume responsibility for defining acceptable content in this case and upholding the “moral” role of Hollywood more generally.

Colonel Jason Joy’s erroneous prediction that studios would exhaust the supply of stories for this burgeoning genre refers to the fact that most of the “so-called horror pictures” up to that point were adapted from literary and theatrical sources. Soon these studios would simply run out of pre-existing stories, at which point studios would be hard-pressed to generate new material and sustain the genre. But these early sound-era horror films were not adapted from shallow, anonymous novels, short stories, and plays; rather, ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’, and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1931) relied for their name recognition and cultural legitimacy on the international popularity, respectability, and literary depth of these pre-existing texts and their famous authors. For example, when ‘Frankenstein’ faced stiff resistance from Quebec censors, Universal Pictures and the SRC collaborated on a solution that would appease censors but also maintain the coherence and integrity of the narrative. Instead of removing large sections of the film, they considered inserting a prologue that featured a dialogue among Frankenstein’s author, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their friend George Gordon Byron to discuss the reasons for composing the book.20 Another option eventually agreed to by Quebec censors and the Canadian Universal Film Company was to diminish the stature of the (female) author and the text as serious literature by featuring a sustained shot of the book jacket behind scrolling text, assuring viewers that “The story of ‘Frankenstein’s pure fiction. It was written by the wife of the famous English poet Percy B. Shelley on a challenge from him and Lord Byron as to who would write the most fantastic tale. Like a “Trip to Mars” by Jules [Gabriel] Verne and other imaginative books, it delves into the physically impossible. For almost a hundred years this story has furnished entertainment for countless people, and, though no moral is intended, it might tend to show what would happen to a man if he delved into something beyond his ken.”21

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