Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928–1937

Founded in 1912 by German immigrant Carl Laemmle, Universal Pictures remains among the powerhouses of the American entertainment industry. This series focuses on one segment of the studio’s rich history—the period from 1928 to 1936, when the studio’s head of production was the founder’s son, Carl Laemmle, Jr. Known condescendingly as “Junior” Laemmle and the butt of endless Hollywood jokes (“the son also rises”), the younger Laemmle was in fact a sophisticated, ambitious, risk-taking producer, who gambled the studio’s finances on a series of challenging projects—and eventually lost. When cost overruns on the 1936 Show Boat forced the studio into the hands of its creditors, the Laemmle era came to an end.

Brief as it was, that era yielded an extraordinary number of important films, including such celebrated classics as Dracula, Frankenstein, and All Quiet on the Western Front. This program, however, concentrates on lesser-known work, much of it with a distinctively European flavor provided by Universal’s many émigré directors, including James Whale (with 1933’s sublime The Kiss Before the Mirror), Paul Fejos (a major new restoration of the 1929 Broadway), and William Wyler (a Laemmle relative himself, represented by the Ibsenesque drama A House Divided and the comedy The Good Fairy). At a time when other studios seemed bent on standardizing their product for the new world of sound, Universal gave free rein to such distinctive stylists as John Stahl (represented by Only Yesterday, the first film adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman), the irrepressible Tay Garnett (Okay, America) and the ferociously creative Edward L. Cahn, here with three films including the recently rediscovered 1933 masterwork Laughter in Hell.

The series opens with the revival premiere of the 1930 musical King of Jazz, shown in its full-length version for the first time since the 1930s, with its two-color Technicolor returned to its full eye-popping glory by Universal’s new digital restoration unit. For individual film descriptions, visit moma.org/film.

Organized by Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film.

Special thanks to Michael Daruty, Paul Ginsberg, Janice Simpson, Mike Feinberg, and Emily Wensel (NBCUniversal); Mike Mashon and Rob Stone (The Library of Congress); David Stenn, Richard Koszarski, and Anastasia Antonopoulou.