NCMA film series celebrates Universal Studio’s century of film

CorrespondentJanuary 10, 2013 

Carole Lombard, left, and William Powell in the 1936 classic "My Man Godfrey."

UNIVERSAL PICTURES

  • More information What: “Universal Studios @ 100” When: Friday nights at 8 through March 22 Where: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh Cost: $7, $5 for students and NCMA members. Details: 919-715-5923; www.ncartmuseum.org

Warner Brothers had Bogey, Cagney and Flynn.

MGM had Gable, Garland and Crawford.

Universal Pictures? They had Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman.

Horror films. That’s what most people think of when they hear the name Universal Pictures, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. But as “Universal Studios@100,” a new film series at the North Carolina Museum of Art shows, the venerable film company was about more than just lycanthropes, bloodsuckers and artificially created humans.

“They looked at themselves as a studio that made family-friendly movies as a whole,” says Laura Boyes, who curated the series for NCMA. “It’s an eclectic slate of films I’m showing.”

That’s for sure. The nine-film series includes everything from horror (“Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man”) to stylish soap (“Written On the Wind”), comedy (“My Man Godfrey”) Westerns (“Winchester 73”) and gangster movies (“Scarface”). It shows Universal’s versatility, even if there was no guiding corporate vision, or, as Boyes puts it, “there was no autocratic studio head like Jack Warner.”

Founded as The Universal Film and Manufacturing Company in 1912 by clothing store owner Carl Laemmle and his associates, Universal is the oldest movie studio in the U.S. It produced two of Lon Chaney’s biggest hits in the 1920s – “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” – and in the 1930s and ’40s was known for its line of horror films, as well as a series featuring The Dead End Kids and Sherlock Holmes.

Universal was never considered one of the majors like Warner, MGM and Paramount. And for a while it made a significant portion of its money by releasing an endless string of low-end franchise films – can you say Ma and Pa Kettle? Francis the Talking Mule? Yet the studio did manage to occasionally attract top-tier filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock (“Saboteur”) and Orson Welles (“Touch of Evil”). But it was definitely the stylish horror output of the 1930s and ’40s that remains Universal’s most important artistic legacy.

“Lon Chaney was one of their original big box office stars,” says Boyes. “As (the studio) moved into the early talky era, these (horror) films – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy – became incredibly popular, and they spun them off forever. And the fact James Whale (director of “Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man,” among others) was working for them, he brought an incredible aesthetic to the films, a mix of gothic humor, obsessiveness and character. He was an incredibly skilled director.”

All the films are worth a look. But Boyes says if you can only see one, check out “My Man Godfrey,” a 1936 screwball comedy starring William Powell and Carole Lombard, in which a socialite hires a derelict as her family’s butler. The film “has incredible comic performances, but also a very strong social message,” says Boyes. “ Modern filmmakers find it very hard to blend humor and social commentary, and this film does it beautifully.”

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