Universal Pictures salute showcases century of crowd-pleasing fare
Hollywood's golden age saw MGM celebrated for its glamour, Warner Bros. for its grit and social conscience and Paramount for its easy sophistication, but Universal was known for ... what exactly? The studio that today is synonymous with tours and theme parks did not have a signature house style or genre (unless you count horror films like “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” which are more of a presence in retrospect than they were at the time).
Those looking for an answer, or just looking for a good time, are directed toward “Universal Pictures: Celebrating 100 Years,” a fascinating UCLA Film & Television Archive series starting Friday at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood that offers a glimpse into that crowd-pleasing catalog.
Universal, unlike entities like MGM and Paramount, did not own a nationwide theater chain. Without guaranteed screens, the studio had to concentrate on making each film as accessible as possible and not worry about prestige or awards. Seen in that light, the studio's move to theme parks was perhaps inevitable.
As its title indicates, this massive 36-film series, scheduled to run through the end of June, is being put on to celebrate what UCLA describes as “the oldest continuously operating film producer and distributor in the United States.”
Though it will be great to see the more recent films on the big screen, the real pleasure of this series are the lesser-known and less frequently seen older titles.
Sometimes giving people what they wanted meant wading through moralistic opposition, as the studio did in its earliest days with two silents, 1913's white slavery epic “Traffic in Souls” and 1916's key social drama “Where Are My Children?” (double billed on May 10).
Directed by pioneering female director Lois Weber, the rarely screened “Children,” which is simultaneously pro-birth control and anti-abortion, is poised halfway between the Victorian age and modern times and illustrates, as “Traffic in Souls” does as well, how involved with contemporary problems silent films could be.
The melodramatic aspects of those films did not disappear when sound arrived, and a pair of artful 1934 weepies, “Imitation of Life” and “Little Man, What Now?” (double billed on June 10) illustrate that point beautifully.
Adapted, as was the 1959 remake, from the successful Fannie Hurst novel, “Imitation of Life” tells the story of two widowed single mothers, the entrepreneurial Bea (Claudette Colbert) and her black maid and eventual business partner Delilah (Louise Beavers). These women combine forces to market Aunt Delilah's pancake mix, but success can't stop the heartache caused by their ungrateful daughters — Delilah's child makes the particularly painful choice to try to pass for white.
“Little Man, What Now?” also has a political subtext: Set in Weimar Germany, it tells the story of a young couple's struggle to survive economically and is considered one of the first studio movies to deal with the coming of Nazism. More than politics, what remains is the singularly luminous Margaret Sullavan and the direction of Frank Borzage, an unashamed romantic who pulled off hyper-emotional moments no one but he would even attempt.
Giving audiences what they wanted inevitably meant sequels, films that led to sequels and one-of-a-kind mash-ups like “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” in which the bickering comedic duo run into Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Boris Karloff's Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolfman.
On the same May 23 double bill is 1950's “Francis,” which finds Donald O'Connor playing straight man to a sarcastic Army mule (voiced by Chill Wills). The concept, which led eventually to TV's “Mr. Ed,” proved to be so popular Universal made six sequels — all but one with O'Connor, who said he finally stopped because “when you've made six pictures and the mule still gets more fan mail than you do ...”
Probably the least known today of the series films is 1939's romantic comedy “Three Smart Girls Grow Up,” a follow-up to “Three Smart Girls,” which made a young Deanna Durbin such a major star its box office totals apparently saved Universal from bankruptcy.
A spunky teen who combined an aw-shucks girl demeanor with a formidable operatic singing voice, Durbin plays the younger sister in a family headed by her absent-minded wizard of Wall Street father (a charming Charles Winninger). In this episode, Durbin's character attempts to straighten out the confusing romantic lives of her older sisters, with results that can honestly be called surreal.
And in a category entirely of its own is the celebrated camp classic “Cobra Woman,” playing at 4 p.m. on May 12. The fourth Universal film to star Maria Montez and Jon Hall, this gaudy Technicolor extravaganza has Montez play a cheerful bride-to-be whose twin sister just happens to be, no kidding, the evil priestess of a dread cobra cult.
When you give people what they want, the results sometimes must be seen to be believed.
Photo: "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." Credit: Universal