UniversalTHE CLASSICAL ERA
THE EARLY MCA YEARS
THE MCA-UNIVERSAL ERA
The history of Universal has been remarkably varied and complex. From the 1915 inauguration of its colossal facility in Hollywood, Universal was a model studio in terms of centralized mass production and efficient marketing. But its failure to develop an exhibition operation relegated Universal to "major minor" status during the classical era (i.e., from early 1920s through the 1940s), while the Big Five integrated majors ruled the industry. Thus Universal had the financial leverage and resources to develop only a few signature stars and product lines, although these did include such trademark cycles as the Deanna Durbin (b. 1921) musicals of the 1930s, the Abbott & Costello comedies of the 1940s, the Douglas Sirk (1897–1987)-directed melodramas of the 1950s, and, of course, the horror cycle that was the key marker of Universal's house style throughout the classical era.
After decades of relative stability as a second-class studio, Universal's postwar fortunes changed dramatically, due largely to the succession of owners and partners over the past half-century, successively International Pictures, Decca Records, the Music Corporation of America (MCA), Matsushita Electric, Vivendi, and General Electric. The most important and prolonged of these alliances involved MCA, which owned Universal from 1962 to 1990 and created a template of sorts for the media conglomerates that would come to rule and effectively define the New Hollywood. The keys to MCA-Universal's success were Lew Wasserman's (1913–2002) visionary leadership, the integration of its film and television operations, and the development of the modern movie blockbuster. But a sore spot for MCA-Universal, as it had been for the studio during the classical era, was the lack of a direct "pipeline" to consumers in the form of a theater chain, a broadcast or cable network, or some other delivery system.
Wasserman's decision in 1990 to sell the company to Matsushita, the Japanese electronics giant and the home-video pioneer, was intended to correct this shortcoming. That effort failed, leading to a period of sustained turmoil and a succession of four owners over a fifteen-year span. The most recent is General Electric, parent company of NBC, which bought the studio in 2004 and created "NBC Universal," which may mark a return to stability and industry might—albeit as a subsidiary of a global conglomerate with no real connections to the studio created almost a century ago.
THE CLASSICAL ERA
Universal was founded in 1912, when Carl Laemmle (1867–1939) and several other independent film pioneers pooled their interests to create the Universal Film Manufacturing Co. Within weeks, the new company was under the command of Laemmle, who controlled the studio for the next quarter-century. Laemmle got his start in the film business in Chicago in 1905 with a string of nickelodeon theaters, and he soon created a distribution "exchange" to ensure a steady flow of product. He ran afoul of the Motion Picture Patents Co., initiating a feud with Thomas Edison and his associates that intensified when he moved his company to New York, and, in 1909, launched a production operation, the Independent Motion Picture Co. (IMP). By 1912, when Laemmle merged IMP with several other firms to create Universal, the MPPC's power was waning and the demand for film product was surging. The movie business was expanding and maturing rapidly, and Laemmle was determined to service that industry by developing Universal into the movie-industry equivalent of the Ford Motor Company. In early 1914, he purchased the 230-acre Taylor Ranch, some five miles north of Hollywood, and began construction on Universal City, by far the largest and most advanced filmmaking facility at that time. Inaugurated in March 1915, Universal City was a testament to a factory-based, assembly-line mode of production, with an annual output of some 250 features,
b. Dudley, Worcestershire, England, 22 July 1889, d. 29 May 1957
During a decade-long career in Hollywood, James Whale directed (and occasionally produced) some twenty films, most of them for Universal Pictures. He attained legendary stature for four of them: Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). The first of these, coming several months after Universal's breakthrough horror hit, Dracula (1931), solidified the genre as the cornerstone of Universal's "house style" in the 1930s and affirmed Whale as the studio's foremost staff director. The last of the four stands as a consummate achievement not only of classical horror but of classical Hollywood in general.
Whale started as a newspaper cartoonist in England before joining the service during World War I, and began acting in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He continued his stage career after the war, moving into set design and eventually directing. A hit play brought him to the United States in the late 1920s, and the talkie revolution brought him to Hollywood. Whale signed with Universal in 1931 to direct an adaptation of the stage play Waterloo Bridge, and he followed that project with Frankenstein. Whale himself cast the lead roles, selecting Colin Clive to play Dr. Frankenstein and a little-used Universal contract player, Boris Karloff, for the monster. The casting of Karloff was truly inspired, as the lanky, low-key British actor brought both menace and pathos to the role, thus creating a screen icon and a crucial genre convention—the monster as both sympathetic outcast and as rampaging beast. Karloff became one of Universal's contract stars and, along with Bela Lugosi, defined the studio's trademark genre.
Whale followed Frankenstein with a second-rate melodrama, Impatient Maiden (1932), establishing a pattern (begun with Waterloo Bridge) of alternating horror films and women's pictures. Then came another polished Karloff vehicle, The Old Dark House, an oddly effective melding of the haunted house formula with a comedy of manners that marked Whale's first effort to interject offbeat black humor into the horror genre. That effort continued in The Invisible Man, as the disembodied protagonist (voiced by Claude Rains) displays a self-deprecating wit and creates a succession of comic incidents before the effects of his experiments render him a murderous psychopath. Bride of Frankenstein, the culmination of Whale's style, expertly balances horrific drama and high kitsch, careening in its memorable finale into screwball romance as Karloff's genial monster is spurned by the doctor's newest creation, Elsa Lanchaster of the electric-shock hairdo.
Whale's next major assignment was a lavish, all-star remake of Show Boat, a solid critical and commercial success on its release in 1936. Nevertheless, the picture's production delays and budget overruns cost the Laemmles their studio. Although he directed another nine films before retiring in 1941 to concentrate on his painting, after Showboat, Whale's career as a successful, innovative filmmaker was at an end. Whale made an unsuccessful comeback attempt in the late 1940s and died, aptly enough, "under mysterious circumstances" (a drowning victim in his swimming pool) in 1957.
Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Show Boat (1936), Gods and Monsters (1998)
Curtis, James. James Whale. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1982.
——. James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.
shorts, serials, and newsreels that could be combined into a predictable, highly standardized "program" of pictures.
This left Universal increasingly out of step with the other major producers, who were rapidly moving to star-driven, feature-length films geared to the growing number of downtown theaters that catered to more "urbane," middle-class moviegoers. Despite the changing marketplace, Laemmle remained adamantly opposed to developing a theater chain—an enormously expensive enterprise—and to upgrading his output and paying top dollar for personnel. Thus, while a remarkable range of filmmaking talent started at Universal, including stars like Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), Lon Chaney (1883–1930), and Mae Murray (1889–1965), and directors like John Ford (1894–1973), Erich von Stroheim (1885–1957), Rex Ingram (1892–1950), and Tod Browning (1882–1962), they eventually left in pursuit of higher salaries, bigger budgets, and greater creative control.
Another significant expatriate was Irving Thalberg (1899–1936), who began his career as Laemmle's secretary in New York City in 1919, just out of high school, and within three years was overseeing production at Universal City. Thalberg convinced Laemmle to produce a few of Hollywood's biggest "prestige pictures," notably Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922) and two spectacular Chaney vehicles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But ongoing differences with Laemmle's conservative market strategy led to Thalberg's departure for Louis B. Mayer's independent production company, which in 1924 merged with Metro and Goldwyn to create MGM.
Universal was among the last of the studios to produce talkies because of Laemmle's commitment to program pictures for the subsequent-run (small town and rural) markets, which were the last theaters to convert to sound. Universal's eventual conversion coincided with the rise of Carl Laemmle, Jr. (1908–1979), who took command of the studio in April 1928, on his twenty-first birthday. Thereafter, "Junior" Laemmle supervised Universal's sound conversion and engineered its return to prestige-level pictures with adaptations of the stage hits Broadway and Show Boat in 1929, a lavish color musical revue, King of Jazz (1930), and a stunning adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone (1895–1980). Laemmle's plans to upgrade Universal's output were dashed when the Depression hit, and in fact he closed down production for several months in early 1931 to revamp operations and revert to an even more efficient, low-budget production strategy.
One key consequence of those cutbacks was Universal's move to horror, which became its trademark genre in the 1930s. This was a logical move for two basic reasons. First, Universal (like Paramount) had an excellent international distribution system, particularly in Europe, where it had been drawing on talent for several years—especially from Germany, whose recruits included Paul Fejos (1884–1960) and Paul Leni (1885–1929), early instigators of Universal's horror trend with The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), as well as Karl Freund (1890–1969), William Wyler (1902–1981), Conrad Veidt (1893–1943), and dozens of others. Second, the horror film was a remarkably cost-efficient genre to develop and maintain. Its design relied on darkness and mood rather than elaborate sets, and it was far less star-driven than other genres, although Universal did have the good fortune to cast two unknown actors in its breakthrough horror films—Bela Lugosi (1882–1956) in Dracula and Boris Karloff (1887–1969) in Frankenstein (both 1931)—who would become forever wedded to Universal's house genre, as would director James Whale (1889–1957) and cinematographer Karl Freund. Dracula and Frankenstein began a trend that coalesced rapidly with Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Old Dark House, and The Mummy (all 1932). Other studios followed suit, but none really challenged Universal's veritable monopoly on the horror film market during the 1930s.
Universal turned out a number of successful women's pictures as well, notably Back Street (1932), Imitation of Life (1934), and Magnificent Obsession (1935), which also contributed to its Depression-era house style. Far more important, though, was its ongoing commitment to subfeatures, ranging from Jungle Jim and Radio Patrol serials (generally twelve to fifteen weekly installments running two reels or twenty minutes each), to its seemingly endless output of B-western programmers starring Hoot Gibson (1892– 1962), Tom Mix (1880–1940), Johnny Mack Brown (1904–1974), Buck Jones (1889–1942), and singing cowboy Ken Maynard (1895–1973). This irked "Junior" Laemmle, who again tried to raise the studio's sights as the Depression eased—this time with disastrous results. Several expensive prestige pictures, notably Magnificent Obsession (1935), Sutter's Gold (1936), and particularly a remake of Show Boat (1936), ran severely over budget, forcing the Laemmles to borrow heavily. When they failed to meet their obligations in early 1936, J. Cheever Cowdin of the Standard Capital Corporation of New York exercised his option to buy Universal Pictures. The Laemmles were forced out, replaced by Robert H. Cochrane (1879–1973) as company president and Charles Rogers (1892–1957) as studio head. By then, Show Boat, directed by James Whale and starring Irene Dunne (1898–1990), had been released to widespread critical and popular acclaim, becoming one of the biggest hits in studio history.
Universal had several other hits in 1936, the most important by far being Three Smart Girls, a modest musical marking the debut of fourteen-year-old soprano Deanna Durbin, which was produced by Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) and directed by Henry Koster (1905– 1988), two German recruits who put the "teenage diva" through her paces in a run of hits including One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937), Mad About Music (1938), That Certain Age (1938), Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), and Spring Parade (1940). The Durbin films gave Universal another vital star-genre formula, adding a significant dimension to its house style and a veritable insurance policy at the box office. Durbin's hits also enabled Universal to take on A-class projects with outside talent, notably Destry Rides Again (1939), costarring Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart, and several films starring W. C. Fields (1880–1946), including You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), The Bank Dick, and My Little Chickadee (both 1940).
Universal's late Depression recovery was orchestrated by Nate J. Blumberg and Cliff Work (1891–1963), who replaced Cochrane and Rogers in 1937. The studio actually showed year-end profits in 1939 for the first time in a full decade. The recovery continued into the 1940s, although Universal failed to realize the kind of boom enjoyed by the majors due to its lack of a theater chain and its relative dearth of A-class talent to exploit the overheated first-run market. The studio did sign deals during the war with a number of top independents producers, including Gregory LaCava (1892–1952), Jack Skirball (1896–1985), Frank Lloyd (1886–1960), and Walter Wanger (1894–1968). The most important of these was Wanger, who entered a long-term relationship after the release of Eagle Squadron in 1942, and went on to produce both in-house projects like Arabian Nights (1942), Universal's first Technicolor release, and Scarlet Street (1945) by way of Diana Productions, Wanger's partnership with the film's star (and his wife), Joan Bennett (1910–1990), and its director, Fritz Lang (1890–1976).
While relying on independent producers for much of its A-class product during the war, Universal continued to crank out low-cost programmers, including B westerns with Tex Ritter (1905–1974) and Rod Cameron (1910–1983), the Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone (1892–1967) (picked up from Fox), and low-budget horror films like The Invisible Man Returns (1940), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and The Wolf Man (1941), launching a new cycle starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (1906–1973). Durbin's star faded badly in the early 1940s, but her decline was offset by the sudden stardom of Abbott & Costello. Concurrent with Paramount's Hope-Crosby hits, Abbott & Costello utterly dominated the box office charts during the war, initially with "service comedies" like Buck Privates and In the Navy (both 1941), and later with genre parodies, including a Hope-Crosby spoof, Pardon My Sarong (1942).
THE EARLY MCA YEARS
Universal's revenues and profits reached record levels during the war and then peaked in 1946, a year in which the studio underwent a profound change. In an effort to upgrade its films and compete more directly with the major studios, Universal merged with International Pictures, an independent company run by Leo Spitz and William Goetz (1903–1969) that specialized in prestige productions. Engineered by Cowdin, Blumberg, and British producer J. Arthur Rank (1888–1972), the merger installed Spitz and Goetz as heads of production, phased out B-movies and subfeatures, and reduced studio output from its wartime average of fifty per year (twice the majors' output) to thirty-five. Existing deals with Wanger, Mark Hellinger (1903–1947), and other independent producers were extended, while new pacts were signed with several others. Universal also entered a complex international distribution agreement with Rank and his British counterpart, Alexander Korda (1893–1956).
Universal-International (U-I) enjoyed critical success in the immediate postwar era, with Hellinger turning out three successive hits—The Killers (1946), Brute Force(1947), and The Naked City (1948)—that were among the strongest crime films of the era. Laurence Olivier (1907–1989) directed and starred in an adaptation of Hamlet (1948) that gave the studio its first top Oscars® in years. But critical success did not translate into boxoffice revenues: record profits of $4.6 million in 1946 became net losses of $3.2 million in 1948. So it was back to basics at Universal City, with the studio reverting to high-volume, low-cost formula films for the subsequent-run market, best characterized by three hit series: the Abbott & Costello Meet … cycle launched in 1948 with Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948); the Ma and Pa Kettle series launched in 1949, and the Francis the Talking Mule series in 1950. All three were targeted at small town and rural audiences, and all three series flourished throughout the 1950s. While the low-grade series kept the studio machinery running and the revenues flowing, Bill Goetz managed to keep A-class feature production alive through a truly extraordinary deal with talent agent Lew Wasserman, head of MCA (Music Corporation of America), for the services of James Stewart (1908–1997) in Winchester '73 (1950). The deal gave Stewart 50 percent of the net revenues of the film, making him an equal partner with U-I and forever changing the nature and scope of profit-participation deals in Hollywood. The success of Winchester '73 led to similar deals with Stewart on films like Bend of the River (1952), Thunder Bay (1953), and The Glenn Miller Story (1953), and with several other top stars like Alan Ladd (1913–1964) (Saskatchewan, 1954) and Kirk Douglas (b. 1916) (Man Without a Star, 1955) as well.
Goetz negotiated the first of these deals, but his role at U-I rapidly diminished in the early 1950s due to another change in ownership. In late 1951, the music giant Decca Records, which had been looking for an entree into the movie business, began buying up Universal stock, starting with the holdings of Spitz, Goetz, and Rank. By 1953, Decca had controlling interest and Spitz and Goetz were out altogether, replaced by the Decca president, Milton J. Rackmil, who served as president and CEO of U-I as well. Rackmil operated out of New York City and continued to focus primarily on Decca, while Nate Blumberg ran the studio and Ed Muhl, the long-time plant manager, oversaw production, with the day-to-day filmmaking handled by a handful of contract producers. In fact, Universal was one of the last
ABBOTT and COSTELLO
William A. (Bud) Abbott, b. Asbury Park, New Jersey, 2 October 1895, d. 24 April 1974
Louis Francis (Lou) Costello, b. Patterson, New Jersey, 6 March 1906, d. 3 March 1959
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were Universal's top stars of the 1940s, eclipsed only by Paramount's comedy duo of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and they continued to costar in Universal comedies until the mid-1950s. The duo proved eminently adaptable, shifting from service comedies (comedies about life in the military) to genre parodies to comedy-horror hybrids, although the essence of their onscreen appeal remained the comic banter and classic shtick (like their "Who's on First?" routine) first developed on the vaudeville stage years earlier.
Indeed, the lanky, snide Abbott and dumpy, bumbling Costello were comedy veterans when they made their unlikely breakthrough as movie stars. They refined their comic skills on the burlesque circuit in the early 1930s, eventually taking their routines to radio and to Broadway. They signed with Universal for a second-rate (even by Universalstandards)1940romp, One Night in the Tropics (1940), and then were featured in a military farce, Buck Privates (1941), as a pair of inept army draftees who comically survive basic training and become unlikely heroes. The plot was a pastiche of army jokes and vaudeville routines, interspersed with tunes performed by the Andrews Sisters—including the Oscar® -nominated "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," which became a wartime standard.
Buck Privates was a huge and unexpected hit, which Universal immediately followed with two more 1941 service comedies, In the Navy and Keep 'Em Flying. These were created at breakneck speed by Universal's Abbott and Costello unit, whose key contributors were the producer Alex Gottlieb, the director Arthur Lubin, the writer John Grant, and the cinematographer Joe Valentine. By the time the United States entered the war in December 1941, Abbott and Costello had become the industry's top boxoffice attraction. At that point Universal shifted the focus (out of respect for the "war effort") from service comedies to genre parodies, including Pardon My Sarong (1942), a spoof of the Hope-Crosby "Road" pictures. The duo remained atop the box-office charts throughout the war, along with Hope and Crosby and Betty Grable, but their appeal waned in the immediate postwar period amid repeated announcements of their impending split. They were soon written off as an offbeat wartime phenomenon.
As their stars faded, Universal writer Grant and the producer Robert Arthur devised a genre recombination strategy to meld the Abbott and Costello formula with the horror "reunion" pictures of the war years like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). The result was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which revived not only the duo's careers but also two fading studio formulas. That unlikely hit was followed by a succession of low-cost comedy-horror hybrids, from Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) to Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). The pair finally split in 1957, two years before Lou Costello's death.
One Night in the Tropics (1940), Buck Privates (1941), Pardon My Sarong (1942), Lost in a Harem (1944), The Time of Their Lives (1946), Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion (1950), Abbott & Costello Go to Mars (1953)
Furmanek, Bob, and Ron Palumbo. Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. New York: Perigree Books, 1991.
Maltin, Leonard. Movie Comedy Teams. New York: New American Library, revised ed. 1985.
Miller, Jeffrey S. The Horror Spoofs of Abbott and Costello. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.
studios to maintain a producer-unit system, with over half of its output from 1952 to 1958 being handled by only five producers, each of whom specialized in a particular type of film.
Robert Arthur (1909–1986) handled low-budget comedies and series films, including the Abbott & Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle, and Francis series. Aaron Rosenberg (1912–1979) handled high-end drama, particularly Technicolor adventure films shot on location (including the Stewart films). Ross Hunter (1920–1996) produced Universal's "women's pictures"—mainly light romance and glossy melodrama. The latter included director Douglas Sirk's baroque weepies All I Desire (1953), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Imitation of Life (1959), which confounded critics but did excellent business. William Alland (1916–1997) specialized in B-grade westerns and science-fiction films, often in collaboration with director Jack Arnold (1916–1992): It Came from Outer Space (1953); Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954); This Island Earth (1955). Albert Zugsmith (1910–1993) was the most adventurous and eclectic of the lot, producing such wide-ranging films as the sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Orson Welles's (1915–1985) film noir masterwork Touch of Evil (1958), and two of Sirk's most distinctive films, Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1958).
The films produced by Arthur, Rosenberg, Hunter, Alland, and Zugsmith defined Universal's house style until the late 1950s, when changes that had been transforming Hollywood finally caught up with the studio. The decade had been generally successful for both Decca and Universal, although the two companies never realized the kind of "synergies" that Rackmil and others anticipated. Universal had been operating in something of a time warp, maintaining a factory-oriented system and seemingly oblivious to television, independent production, and the burgeoning blockbuster mentality. Then in 1958, after eight years of steady but modest profits, U-I's revenues dropped severely. Rackmil, realizing that the studio was woefully out of step with the changing industry, shut down production and began looking for a buyer, eventually striking a deal with MCA for the sale of the Universal City lot (for $11.25 million) while retaining control of Universal Pictures. Rackmil stayed on as nominal president of Universal after the sale in early 1959, but there was no question that the chief executive of the newly merged company was MCA's Lew Wasserman, who by then was arguably the most powerful individual in Hollywood—a prototype, in fact, for a new media mogul, just as MCA augured a new breed of entertainment company.
The phenomenal postwar rise of MCA as a force in Hollywood was propelled by its utter domination of three interrelated aspects of the movie and television industries: talent representation, telefilm series production, and TV syndication. MCA brokered more top talent, produced more prime time series, and leased more film and television titles from its library than any other company in the entertainment industry. By 1958, MCA's television subsidiary, Revue Productions, had outgrown its production facility, the former Republic Studio lot, and the purchase of the massive Universal City lot was a logical move at this stage of its development. Wasserman had his eye on the movie industry, however, so the purchase of the lot was simply step one in the acquisition of Universal Pictures itself. Step two was to facilitate the studio's recovery through releases laden with MCA talent: Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk, for instance, and Cary Grant and Tony Curtis in Operation Petticoat (both 1959). Those two hits helped carry Universal to record profits of $4.7 million in 1959, and the trend continued with Spartacus (1960), a picture that Universal fully financed and coproduced with Bryna Productions, an independent company set up by MCA for Kirk Douglas, who produced and starred in the historical epic. Spartacus was the most expensive film in Universal's history, marking its first foray into the heady realm of blockbuster productions; it was also the biggest box office hit of 1960.
By then, Wasserman had decided to acquire Universal by buying its parent company, Decca, but the acquisition was complicated by legal and regulatory issues. MCA was already contending with antitrust and conflict of interest challenges by the Justice Department and the FCC, and these intensified when the agency sought to acquire Universal. Thus Wasserman opted not only to sell off the talent agency but to dissolve it altogether when MCA bought Decca and Universal in 1962, creating an integrated film, television, and music company—a veritable paradigm for the modern media conglomerate.
THE MCA-UNIVERSAL ERA
Within days of the merger, Wasserman began construction on MCA World Headquarters, a.k.a. the Black Tower, a formidable sixteen-story, black glass monolith that soon came to symbolize MCA-Universal's awesome power in Hollywood. Wasserman also reinstituted the Universal Studio Tour, which dated back to the silent era, and whose success eventually would spawn the studio's colossal theme park operation. That was years away, however, as was MCA-Universal's domination of the movie business. What carried the company through the 1960s, which were troubled times for Hollywood at large as well as for Universal Pictures, was the same dual strategy of TV series production and syndication that had been the basis for MCA's rise in the 1950s. Universal Television cranked out one hit series after another in the 1960s, including, ironically enough, movie-length TV shows—both "long-form" (90-minute) TV series like The Virginian (1962–1971) and The Name of the Game (1968–1971), as well as made-for-TV movies, a format that Universal pioneered and steadily refined for NBC. By the early 1970s Universal boasted twice the television output of its closest competitors, Paramount and Warner, and had the world's leading TV syndication operation. Besides top series like Marcus Welby M.D. (1969–1976) and Kojak (1973–1978), Universal successfully melded the series and TV movie formats in the "NBC Mystery Movie" (1971–1977) amalgam of Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife. The importance of Universal's TV division was underscored in 1973 when MCA's founder, Jules Stein, retired, moving Wasserman up to the position of chairman-CEO, and the MCA presidency was filled by Universal Television head Sidney Sheinberg (b. 1935).
Wasserman and Sheinberg ruled the MCA-Universal empire for the next two decades, thus becoming the most enduring and stable management team in Hollywood. Their longevity was aided immensely by a succession of hits that took Universal Pictures—traditionally dead last among the movie studios in terms of revenues and market share—to the very top of the industry by the early 1980s. The surge began in 1973 with two major hits, American Graffiti and The Sting, continued in 1974 with two hit disaster spectacles, Earthquake and Airport '75, and then went into high gear with the June 1975 release of Jaws, an industry watershed. Besides putting whiz kid Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) on the industry map (it was his second feature), Jaws provided a prototype for the modern Hollywood blockbuster: a high-cost, high-speed, high-concept entertainment machine propelled by a nationwide, "saturation" release campaign, which was subsequently milked for every licensing and tie-in dollar possible, including sequels and theme-park rides. Jaws was the first "summer blockbuster" and the first film to return over $100 million in rental receipts to its distributor—still the measure of a blockbuster hit. Universal kept the momentum going after Jaws with Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Animal House, Jaws 2, and The Deer Hunter (all 1978), The Jerk (1979), The Blues Brothers (1980), and then in 1982 released another Spielberg-directed megahit, E.T., which, like Jaws—and like Jurassic Park in 1993—would break the existing boxoffice records, becoming the biggest all-time box office hit at the time of its release.
These blockbusters defined the New Hollywood and signaled a certain consistency in terms of product, but Universal was actually anything but consistent in terms of corporate structure, market strategy, and production operations during the 1980s and 1990s. When Jaws was released, Universal was still a factory-oriented studio relying on a dual output of film and television, and no company in Hollywood was better equipped to rule the industry in terms of sheer volume and efficiency. In 1975, employment at the studio surpassed 6,000 (an all-time record), and all thirty-four of its sound stages were active, with an average of twenty separate television and feature film units in production on any given day. Universal sustained that impetus into the early 1980s as it climbed to the top spot in the industry in terms of market share, revenues, and profits—an unthinkable prospect during the classical and postwar eras.
But MCA-Universal steadily declined during the 1980s for a number of reasons. Universal squandered its massive industry lead in television production by shifting its focus to feature films, and, like the rest of the industry, to the development of blockbuster hits and franchises. Universal also relied increasingly on talent agencies—particularly Mike Ovitz's Creative Artists Agency (CAA)—to package its most ambitious pictures, which included a few big hits like Out of Africa (1985) but also costly flops like Howard the Duck (1986). Meanwhile, MCA struggled to keep pace with its major competitors, which were rapidly expanding and diversifying, thanks in most cases to a major merger-and-acquisition wave that began with News Corp-Fox in 1985 and swelled significantly in 1989 with the Time-Warner and Sony-Columbia mergers.
At that point, Wasserman decided to find a deep-pocketed buyer to keep MCA-Universal competitive in the global entertainment marketplace. In 1990 he sold the studio for $6.6 billion to the Japanese industrial giant Matsushita, whose VHS home-video system had vanquished Sony's Betamax, and which, like Sony, was looking to Hollywood for a "hardware-software" alliance. The Matsushita deal actually left MCA-Universal intact with Wasserman and Sheinberg still in control, but the union proved disastrous almost from the start because of the collapse of the Japanese economy and severe conflicts between the Japanese owners and the Hollywood-based management. Despite a run of hits in the early 1990s, including Spielberg's back-to-back 1993 hits, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, Matsushita sold the studio to the Canadian distillery Seagram in 1995. In the wake of that deal, Seagram CEO Edgar Bronfman, Jr. dissolved MCA, sold off most of Universal's TV and cable assets, and shifted its focus to the music industry. While the latter effort was generally successful, Universal continued to flounder as a film studio, and so in 2000 Bronfman sold out to the French water and power giant Vivendi. This union was another unmitigated disaster, leading to the purchase in 2004 of Vivendi-Universal by General Electric, the parent company of NBC, and the subsequent creation of "NBC Universal." (GE paid roughly $14 billion for an 80-percent interest in Vivendi-Universal's US film and television interests.)
Universal's acquisition by GE and its alliance with NBC might recall the film-and-television colossus created by Wasserman nearly a half-century earlier, but in actuality, the studio and the industry at large have little in common with their postwar antecedents. Rather than creating a media powerhouse, GE's creation of NBC Universal simply gives the studio a fighting chance against the other media conglomerates that now compete in the global entertainment marketplace. And like Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, and the other surviving movie studios, Universal is simply one division of a diversified multinational corporation, one component of a vast entertainment machine.
SEE ALSO Studio System;Star System
Bruck, Connie. When Hollywood Had a King: The Reign of Lew Wasserman, Who Leveraged Talent into Power and Influence. New York: Random House, 2003.
Dick, Bernard. City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures. Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1997.
Drinkwater, John. The Life and Adventures of Carl Laemmle. New York: Putnam, 1931.
Edmunds, I. G. Big U: Universal in the Silent Days. New York: Barnes, 1977.
Hirschhorn, Clive. The Universal Story. New York: Crown, 1983.
McBride, Joseph. Steven Spielberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
McDougal, Dennis. The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA, and the Hidden History of Hollywood. New York: Crown, 1998.
Perry, Jeb H. Universal Television: The Studio and Its Programs, 1950–1980. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1983.
u·ni·ver·sal / ˌyoōnəˈvərsəl/ • adj. of, affecting, or done by all people or things in the world or in a particular group; applicable to all cases: universal adult suffrage the incidents caused universal concern. ∎ Logic denoting a proposition in which something is asserted of all of a class. Contrasted with particular. ∎ Linguistics denoting or relating to a grammatical rule, set of rules, or other linguistic feature that is found in all languages. ∎ (of a tool or machine) adjustable to or appropriate for all requirements; not restricted to a single purpose or position.• n. a person or thing having universal effect, currency, or application, in particular: ∎ Logic a universal proposition. ∎ Philos. a term or concept of general application. ∎ Philos. a nature or essence signified by a general term. ∎ Linguistics a universal grammatical rule or linguistic feature.DERIVATIVES: u·ni·ver·sal·i·ty / -vərˈsalətē/ n.
U·ni·ver·sal / ˌyoōnəˈvərsəl/ a movie production company formed by Carl Laemmle in 1912, one of the first studios to move from New York to the Los Angeles area. The company merged with MCA (Music Corporation of America) in 1962. The company produced movies starring Abbott and Costello, the series of Sherlock Holmes movies featuring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and blockbusters such as ET The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
So universality XIV (once, thereafter not till XVI). — (O)F. or late L. Hence universally XIV. universalism XIX, universalist XVII.