Carl Laemmle: Founder of Universal Studios and Humanitarian

Today’s post comes from Jim Zeender, Senior Registrar in the National Archives Exhibits Office.

Carl Laemmle, ca. 1915-1920. (Photo Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

One of the founders of today’s Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, was born to Jewish parents in Lupenheim, near Stuttgart, Germany, on January 17, 1867. Young Carl immigrated to Chicago in 1884 and became a naturalized citizen five years later. His Declaration of Intention is among the holdings of the National Archives in Chicago.

He worked his way through an assortment of jobs before becoming the bookkeeper at Continental Clothing Company in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1894, where he developed a taste for advertising.

In 1906, Laemmle opened the first movie theater in Chicago; created his own company, Independent Producers of America; and promoted young stars like Mary Pickford. He was one of the original “indies.”

Meanwhile, Thomas Edison formed the Motion Pictures Patent Company (Edison Trust) and dominated the early film industry and sued Laemmle hundreds of times for intellectual property infringements.

Eventually, Laemmle successfully sued the Edison Trust in federal court under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, holding that the Trust was a monopoly and should be dissolved.

Laemmle joined with other producers to found Universal Film Manufacturing Company. The new company had its original studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, before moving to the San Fernando Valley in California and becoming Universal Studios.

To commemorate Laemmle’s 150th birthday, the Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart organized an exhibition, “Carl Laemmle presents,” which focuses on his contributions to the early film industry.

Dr. Rainer Schimpf with Mrs. Kimberly Marteau Emerson, wife of the US-Ambassador to Germany, at opening of Carl Laemmle presents at the Haus der Geschichte Baden-Württemberg in Stuttgart. (Courtesy of the Haus der Geschichte Baden-Wurttemberg)

The exhibit also explores Laemmle’s efforts to protect Jews in his native Germany in the 1930s before his death in 1939. He worked successfully on behalf of hundreds of Jews attempting to emigrate from Germany.

In some cases he was not successful, most notably in the case of the German ocean liner MS St. Louis, which carried 908 Jews from Germany but was refused entry into Cuba, the United States, and Canada. They were finally returned to Europe, where it is estimated that one-fourth died in concentration camps during World War II.

Rediscovery number:26302
Letter from Carl Laemmle to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, April 12, 1938. (RG 59, General Records of the Department of State)

On April 12, 1938, just seven months before Kristallnacht, Laemmle wrote a letter to Secretary of State Cordell Hull to expedite the work of the American Consulate General in Stuttgart, who was responsible for processing immigration papers. He enclosed a sample of his affidavit.

Passionately, he writes:

It is true that I have given a great number of affidavits to people who are related to me; also to life-long friends, and in a few instances to strangers.  I feel it is the solemn duty of every Jew in America who can afford it to go the very limit for these poor unfortunates in Germany.  My heart goes out to them  . . . these poor innocent people who suffer untold agony without having done any wrong whatsoever.

Curator Dr. Rainer Schimpf explained how the letter was found: “The Mayor of Laupheim started a research on Laemmle in 1994. His daughter, a historian herself, visited the National Archives . . . and found the letter.” He also wrote, the “letter is the most important document in the exhibition. . . . This document saved lives.”

On May 3, 1938, Hull responded to Laemmle, writing:

Rediscovery number:26303
Letter from Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Carl Laemmle, May 3, 1938 (RG 59, General Records of the Department of State)

As you say that you have a representative in New York City engaged in working details of the assistance to be extended to the persons you have sponsored, you may perhaps find it feasible to have this representative and other persons associated with you prepare evidence relating to the plans made for each application and any assurances which the members of your family may wish to join with you in making on his behalf.  You may be sure that the Consul General at Stuttgart will accord the evidence submitted in each case very careful and considerate attention and will grant visas to the applicants he finds to be qualified under the law to receive them.

We are especially grateful to the staff at the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and the American Consulate in Frankfurt who helped facilitate getting the letter to Stuttgart safely and securely via the Diplomatic Courier Service.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the DS. We wish to extend our deepest thanks to Monique Atwood, Vincent Crawley, Jennifer Froetschel, Jose Salazar, Carrie Lee, Miriam Jaster, John Brandt, Ummi Myelle, and Stephen Donovan.

At the National Archives, Alexis Hill, Lisa Royse, Netisha Currie, Vernon Smith, Terry Boone, Lee Johnson, and Bill Nenichka contributed to making this loan possible.

Dr. Rainer Schimpf with Mrs. Kimberly Marteau Emerson, wife of the US-Ambassador to Germany, viewing letter from Carl Laemmle to Secretary of State Cordell Hull at opening of Carl Laemmle presents. (Courtesy of the Haus der Geschichte Baden-Wurttenberg)

3 thoughts on “Carl Laemmle: Founder of Universal Studios and Humanitarian

  1. Interesting post!

    The U.S. National Archives also holds the MCA/Universal Pictures Collection (National Archives Online Catalog Identifier number 1013), which includes the Universal Newsreel Library, dating from 1929 through 1967.

  2. During the mid 1970’s I had a continuing correspondence with Carl Laemmle, Jr.concerning my efforts to produce a short historical retrospective of Universal and the Laemmle family to be exhibited at Universal Hollywood, as well Universal Orlando. I was assisted by then Universal branch manager John O’Keefe who arranged a meeting with Henry “Hy” Martin Universal President and myself, at Universal’s NYC offices on Park Avenue. Sadly Jr, Laemmle passed away before any filming was initiated, which resulted in the project being “stillborn” as his involvement was crucial to the film. Only now is Jr. Laemmle receiving the credit long overdue concerning his remarkable stewardship of Universal during the golden age of production at that storied producing entity.

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