Warner Brothers had Bogey, Cagney and Flynn.
MGM had Gable, Garland and Crawford.
Universal Pictures? They had Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman.
Horror films. Thats 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. Its an eclectic slate of films Im showing.
Thats 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 Universals 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 Chaneys 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 Universals 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 familys 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.