Carl Laemmle (Photo/Courtesy East Bay International Jewish Film Festival)
Carl Laemmle (Photo/Courtesy East Bay International Jewish Film Festival)

Film pays tribute to moviemaking pioneer and wartime rescuer

We take the movies for granted. Get on line, buy a ticket, watch the flick and go home. But once upon a time, there was no movie business. Someone had to invent it.

That someone was Carl Laemmle.

The legendary movie pioneer is the subject of a new eponymously titled documentary, which screens Sunday, Feb. 17 at the Roxie in San Francisco for the JFI’s WinterFest and Monday, March 4 at the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival in Pleasant Hill.

The Laemmle name should sound familiar. Old-timers may remember seeing films at the neighborhood Laemmle Theater. But he was more than the namesake for a chain of movie houses.

How’s this for a résumé? German Jewish immigrant Carl Laemmle jumped into the business in 1905, started his theater chain and a film distribution company, launched Universal Pictures, created the star system, conceived the feature-length film and the horror film (“Frankenstein” and “Dracula” were two Laemmle gems), won Oscars and cultivated some of the greatest talent in film history.

Oh, and he also rescued hundreds of Jewish families from the Nazis in the years before the outbreak of war.

Director James Freedman shows reverence for Laemmle from the opening minutes, as do the people interviewed. They include filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, film historian Leonard Maltin, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Laemmle family members and Holocaust refugees saved by Laemmle; the subject himself is heard via audio.

As a film, “Carl Laemmle” is by-the-numbers documentary making at its stodgiest, unspooling its narrative in dutifully linear fashion. Freedman is no Ken Burns. However, his subject ultimately proves as compelling as anything Burns has tackled.

Talk about an American success story. Born in 1867 in the German town of Laupheim, Laemmle immigrated to America at age 17. He did a string of odd jobs, living in Chicago and Oshkosh, Wisconsin, before wandering into a nickelodeon and seeing the future, whereupon he invested everything he had in the movie biz. By then he was over 40 years old.

That might explain his even-keeled temperament and checked ego as he rose to movie business glory. Everyone seemed to love Uncle Carl: actors, directors, producers and distributors. His first big battle was with Thomas Edison, who sought via his many patents to impose a monopoly on the industry. Laemmle outboxed and outlasted him.

He was the first to give actors billing in a film. He cultivated young talent, launching the careers of actors Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford and directors John Ford and William Wyler. Universal had 11 female directors under contract and won the best picture Oscar (the second ever handed out) for one of the greatest films ever: “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Around 1915, Laemmle bought a 200-acre chicken ranch in the San Fernando Valley and turned it into Universal Studios. It was he who thought up the Universal Studios Tour, charging people 25 cents to come onto the lot and watch filmmaking in action. And, since the chicken ranch was still open, visitors got fresh eggs on their way out.

Unlike many other immigrants, Laemmle never cut ties to the Old Country. He went back to Germany often, but as Hitler began his steady rise to power, Laemmle found himself persona non grata. Instead, he began sponsoring Jews in Laupheim who were desperate to escape, providing affidavits and obtaining visas for hundreds, including most of his own extended family.

Unfortunately, the Depression affected the movie business, as it did every other sector of America. Laemmle was forced to sell Universal (for a cool $5 million). But by then, he had begun devoting his time to charity and rescuing Jews from Nazi Germany beyond Laupheim. The total tops 300 families.

Carl Laemmle died at age 72 in September 1939, just before Hitler invaded Poland. The movie business he invented went on to thrive, as did the descendants of the families he rescued. The documentary ends with a long “Schindler’s List”–style crawl of the names of all those Carl Laemmle saved from Hitler.

It may not be the most artful documentary, but “Carl Laemmle” is a history lesson worth learning. As one of the interview subjects in the film says, “He gave us make-believe monsters, and saved people from a real one.”

“Carl Laemmle” 12 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17 at the Roxie, S.F.,; and 1 p.m. Monday, March 4 at the Century 16, Pleasant Hill,

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.