Morals, Markets, and "Horror Pictures": The Rise of Universal Pictures and the Hollywood Production Code

Article excerpt

Emergence: Business Strategies vs. Moral Strategies

In 1906, Carl Laemmle entered the fledgling motion-picture industry when he opened a small nickelodeon movie house in Chicago to exhibit silent short films. After rapid expansion of the company over the next few years, Laemmle formed Universal Pictures in 1913, and then, two years later, he became one of the first producers to set up shop in Southern California, in a North Hollywood area newly dubbed Universal City.1 From 1915 to the early 1920s, Universal developed a form of vertical integration by producing its own films, distributing them to domestic and international markets, and then exhibiting those films in Universal-owned theaters. However, Laemmle now opted against expanding the company's theater holdings or updating its cinemas, a period when more venturesome companies were acquiring regional chains that controlled the most profitable theaters. Instead, Universal sold off many of the exhibition outlets it did own and focused on producing "programmers": shorts and low-budget feature films. While this production and distribution strategy minimized financial risk and provided a steady production schedule, it also threatened the company's ability to secure favorable exhibition deals at first-run movie houses for its few, but vital, bigbudget feature films.

The emergence of sound films, or talking pictures, was a boon for many Hollywood filmmaking corporations, but it only exacerbated Universalis industrial disadvantages.2 While the majors had significant levels of capital and theater holdings to produce and exhibit sound films, major-minors like Universal owned few or no theaters and had little money with which to invest in sound technology. Moreover, if such studios were to produce talking pictures, they would have no guarantee that their films would be distributed to sound-equipped theaters, most of which would be in those large urban markets controlled by the major studios.

Universale "programmer" production policy was re-evaluated in 1928, the same year that Carl Laemmle ceded control of production to his twenty-one year old son, Carl "Junior" Laemmle. Unlike his father, Junior Laemmle believed the company needed to develop an identity that could help it gain a foothold in the major market and that prestige ?-level film releases were the shortest path to that destination, but he was also aware that Universal did not have a steady stream of cash to feed the larger budgets of such pictures. Creditors were not clamoring to supply capital, nor was marquee acting talent (migrating in waves from Broadway to Hollywood after the conversion to sound) eager to sign on with the studio. So Junior Laemmle formulated an alternative strategy that might deliver corporate stability and notoriety for Universal. His solution was the horror genre, which would consist of pictures with sensationalistic subject matter, socially taboo themes, and sadistic and grotesque characters.3 Emphasizing a single production category would allow the company to achieve greater levels of efficiency and, crucially, significant cost savings in the production and distribution of each release. Moreover, if commercially successful, these films would leave an indelible impression on moviegoers and distinguish Universal from its competitors.

The implementation of Universale strategy also depended, however, on the degree to which it could accommodate the guidelines of the recently formulated Hollywood Production Code and its arbiter, the Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The "pre-Code Hollywood" era - that is to say, the brief period between 1930, when the Hollywood Production Code was formally introduced by the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), and 1934, when those guidelines were enforced by the newly established Production Code Administration (PCA) - has been mythologized as an anarchic period in which the agency tasked with enforcing the Code, the SRC, watched helplessly as studios "operated under rules of their own," releasing film-after-film rife with "the raw stuff of American culture. …