Remembering Carla Laemmle (1909–2014)

phantom“If I should live to be a hundred, I should always hear the superhuman cry of grief and rage which he uttered when the terrible sight appeared before my eyes…”

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

On June 12, Carla Laemmle passed away at the age of 104. Beloved of cinephiles worldwide, this remarkable woman danced in the original version of The Phantom of the Opera, spoke the first lines of Dracula, and was the last surviving cast member of both films. There’s an African proverb that goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Hearing of Laemmle’s death, I feel as though a whole nitrate archive had combusted.

Speaking for movie geeks everywhere, I like to think of Carla Laemmle as the high priestess of Universal horror. She was an unusual horror icon, for sure: a glamorous, sunny centenarian made more famous by documentaries about old Hollywood chillers than by her appearances in the original classics. A witness to film history, Carla Laemmle possessed the power to transport fans to the silent or early talkie eras with a vivid anecdote or observation.

carlafan

Carla, dancing on the Universal backlot, c. 1920s

As anyone who’s ever watched her in an interview or a behind-the-scenes featurette can tell you, Laemmle could summon some of the greatest gods and monsters of the past century at will—and she didn’t need the Scroll of Thoth.

One of her earliest memories, of the indelible flashbulb kind, stretched back to 1912: she could picture a newspaper headline about the sinking of the Titanic and recalled her parents’ shocked faces. In 1922, she’d seen Universal’s extravagant Monte Carlo set illuminated by every arc light on the lot for the fiery finale of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. A year later, she watched Lon Chaney as Quasimodo swinging from a gargoyle on the studio’s colossal Notre Dame duplicate.

Born on October 20, 1909 in Chicago as Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle, she changed her name to Carla in 1931 as a tribute to her uncle, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle.

Ogden Nash’s doggerel about Carl Laemmle lavishing jobs on his “very large faemmle” has unduly tarnished the mogul’s accomplishments. Uncle Carl—as even employees knew carlhim—was a visionary who invested his savings in a Nickelodeon parlor and grew it into an entertainment empire. He gave opportunities to female filmmakers as early as the 1910s, took chances on first-time directors, and brought Irving Thalberg into the picture business. During his retirement, he leveraged his time, money, and prestige to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust.

In the fascinating documentary Universal Horror, Carla praised her uncle’s kindness and approachability: “He was a wonderful human being. He was very democratic. He would talk to everybody and listen to everybody… If they [employees] needed any financial help, he would give them help.”

It was Uncle Carl who urged Carla’s father, Joseph, to move his branch of the family from Chicago to Hollywood in the early 1920s to improve his weak health. Carla and her parents lived on carladancethe expansive studio grounds, known as Universal City. Almost a century later, she remembered exploring the backlot’s spectacular sets, playing in “New York,” “Monte Carlo,” or “Paris” on any given day, depending on her mood. As she recounted to Gregory William Mank, author of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration:

“There was a zoo, and almost every morning I’d wake to the roar of the lions—they were hungry for their breakfast! They had tigers, monkeys, an orangutan, and even two elephants. They had a camel, which was funny—this camel would get away and make the trek all the way up to our bungalow and graze on our vast green lawn. I named him ‘Houdini’ because he always got away. I’d go out with oats and lure him into the garage and then call down to the zoo and tell them, ‘Houdini is here!’” 

To this little girl, Universal’s fiefdom “was a fairyland.”

carla1

Our clearest view of Carla (center left) in The Phantom of the Opera

In 1925, choreographer Ernest Belcher, also Carla’s dance teacher, cast her as the prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera, Universal’s new deluxe “Super Jewel” production—a huge undertaking for a studio that mostly focused its resources on low-budget Westerns and comedies.

Sixteen-year-old Carla was undaunted; she had been taking dance lessons since early childhood. Instead of being scared, she remembered that dancing for the camera was “a big thrill” to her. “It was a very elaborate, very expensive production. The stage was an exact replica of the Paris opera house.” Rigorous rehearsals often took place on that enormous stage with the real orchestra featured in the movie playing for the dancers. During filming, a full audience of nattily dressed extras would watch and applaud at each take. “It was like performing in a real opera,” she said.

phantom

When not working, Laemmle would watch her longtime friend Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney from the sidelines. She told Michael Blake, author of A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures:

“I remember seeing Lon in his makeup and it was pretty scary. I’d say it was ghastly. I don’t know how Mary was able to work next to that face every day. It probably helped her when she was to look frightened! As I recall, the color of his makeup was a chalky white.”

Just to put this into perspective, Chaney’s makeup design was so secret that his face was blanked out from all publicity photos sent to the press. Carla Laemmle was thus one of very few people given a preview of his bloodcurdling phantom.

lon

As for Laemmle’s second famous tie to horror history, her brief part in Dracula remained something of a mystery to her. She was simply told to report to the casting office and given the role.

By 1931, Carla’s cousin Carl Laemmle Jr. was running Universal, having been given the studio by his father on his 21st birthday in 1929. However, as Carla explained, the change in leadership brought about an aesthetic shift that the studio founder hadn’t foreseen:

“Carl Laemmle Jr. loved horror. When he was a little boy he was crazy about anything that had to do with the macabre… so, he thought it would be a great idea to make movies like that. But his father was dead against it.

Perhaps Junior wanted to please his father and win his blessing by putting a little more of the Laemmle clan into the picture.

laemmles

Interviewed by Leonard Maltin at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012, Laemmle revealed that she was allowed more or less to create her costume and she went for a note of self-effacing humor, selecting a dowdy suit, an out-of-style cloche, and Harold Lloyd-ish glasses. Ostensibly the secretary of a wealthy woman on tour, Carla’s character reads from a guidebook in the opening coach scene, before being jolted out of her seat by those inhospitable Transylvania roads.

Her klutzy pratfall and schoolgirl reading of the local lure adds enough humor to pull audiences into a film heading towards uncharted waters. After all, in 1931, a film where the bad guy really did turn out to be a vampire—not a criminal pretending to be one—was downright revolutionary.

carladracula

Little did Carla know at the time that she was speaking the very first lines of the first important sound horror movie, kicking off Hollywood’s first major foray into the supernatural, and launching a classic that, like Dracula himself, will probably never die.

Outside of the horror genre, perhaps Laemmle’s most notable appearance was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, an MGM production. She emerges like Venus from a seashell, hollywood revuesinuously dances in a proto-bikini, and beckons suggestively to the camera, every inch the pre-Code cutie. She continued to dance onscreen and to play small film roles through the 1930s, before ultimately opting to perform in live venues.

As the heady heyday of classic Hollywood drifted into the past, film historians began to draw on Carla’s increasingly valuable first-hand accounts of the golden age. Reintroduced to viewers through making-of featurettes, she continued to received fan mail from around the world, which she considered a testament to the enduring spell of Dracula. Into her 104th year, she could recite the lines of dialogue that made her such a cherished cult figure:

“Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age…” 

Laemmle brought two layers of awe to her interviews and documentary appearances: she was a wonder herself, but she also communicated her own wonder at that bygone age (to borrow a phrase from her famous line) that she had witnessed. What she saw was impressive then—and it’s even more impressive over a century later.

ballet

Longevity was nature’s gift to Carla Laemmle, but she chose to make it a gift to film lovers everywhere by cheerfully recounting the early days of Hollywood filmmaking. Not only could she clearly recall moments so far away that even celluloid might buckle under the impact of the years, but she also shared them with contagious enthusiasm and joy.

Her personal affection for the creepy classics resonated with new generations of fans like me. She echoed our love of the horror flicks produced by Universal when she confessed, “I never got enough of them. You got scared, but you enjoyed it.”

Recommended Online Viewing:

On YouTube: Laemmle remembers The Phantom of the Opera in clips from an interview with David J. Skal

On YouTube: Laemmle discusses Dracula and Universal with Leonard Maltin at TCMFF 2012

On YouTube: in conversation with her niece Antonia, Laemmle talks about her family history and old Universal City

And, of course, at the Internet Archive: The Phantom of the Opera, with restored 1929 tinting, toning, and two-strip Technicolor sequence. Keep an eye out for Carla. She is on the stage, held aloft by a male dancer just as the curtain closes. However, you can spot her more easily in a backstage scene immediately after this intertitle: “The Phantom! The Phantom is up from the cellars again!”

Girl Power: Remembering Shirley Temple

bubblesshirleyIf you can hold the responsibility for your whole family on your shoulders at a young age, you must be very brave.

However, if you can hold the responsibility for your whole country on your shoulders at a young age, you must be Shirley Temple.

While such a statement might sound melodramatic in our era of viral hyperbole, I think Present Franklin Roosevelt would back me up. After all, didn’t that master of motivational psychology recognize the curly-topped child as the savior of the nation’s morale? His words were reportedly,  “As long as we have Shirley Temple, this country is going to be alright.”

Now that she’s gone, we have to wonder.

BgNSyXcIgAArTvE

From the first, Temple’s stardom was explicitly presented as the antidote to the weariness of Depression-era America. She rose to prominence in Hamilton McFadden’s Stand Up and Cheer (1934), a film that dealt with the need for escapism in the 1930s. “President Roosevelt” (a sound-alike actor seen only in silhouette) appoints a Broadway producer as Secretary of Amusement to uplift downtrodden Americans. However, in the movie, Temple’s onscreen father, played by James Dunn, has to petition to let her perform and take her dead mother’s place in their stage act, since child labor laws forbade it.

At one point, Dunn gestures to the agonizingly adorable child, waiting in the corner, and pleads, “Look at her… she thrives on it!” Playing with building blocks, she looks up and grins in acquiescence. And, of course, Temple tap-dances to center stage as the country’s new mascot. In the first major musical number of her career, “Baby, Take a Bow,” she all but broke the fourth wall, leaning right into the camera as if bestowing a kiss on the audience.

kiss

Breaking the fourth wall would become something of a Temple trademark, perhaps because audiences are likely to accept and actually expect such mischievous violation of “the rules” by a little girl. She caps off Irving Cummings’s Curly Top (1935) by adorably scratching her head and repeating the running gag line, “Oh, my word!” Similarly, at the end of Allan Dwan’s Heidi (1937), she prays, in close-up, “please make every little boy and girl in the world as happy as I am,” then looks up to smile into the camera.

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-20h47m01s211

She’s allowed to look at the audience just as silent comedians could—to bypass the invisible boundaries of realist entertainment and establish a rapport with the viewer. She could look at us, as if to say, “Thanks for coming. I hope you had fun.” Shirley Temple the lovable phenomenon always underpinned her nuanced performances, so it seemed only right that she should reach out directly to the people on the other side of the screen. And they responded in kind; as one fan wrote in to Photoplay magazine in 1934, “She is the sweetest bunch of happiness I have ever seen.”

As we mourn an unthinkable thing—the death of someone forever frozen in our memories as a perfect child—there’s not much that one can say about Temple that won’t come out exaggerated or maudlin. The facts of her life are too vast and strange, her childhood too clear a parallel to the magical ragamuffin roles she incarnated onscreen. She was the most famous person in the world, Queen Elizabeth’s childhood role model, one half of the first interracial dance duo in film, and a multi-millionaire. And all this before she was in her teens. vlcsnap-2014-02-11-17h21m57s56

In spite of these accomplishments, Temple famously understated her charm over audiences, equating herself with canine star Rin-Tin-Tin as a heartwarming but uncomplicated symbol of cuteness for a hopeless era. Nothing more.

In my opinion, though, she actually revealed more than she knew with this observation. Animals and children move us on a universal level because they abide; their pure perseverance and will to live contrast with the often-sanctimonious cares of adults, who wear depression and strife like badges of honor. A child, even one that’s been through a lot, knows that joy is the couture emotion, the only one that makes you shine when you wear it.

Thus, Temple’s spunk and sassiness beg the question: if this child can hang on, if she can bear up, smile, and dance with the pros, what excuse do the rest of us have not to face our problems with grace?

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-19h57m58s226Speaking of grace, Shirley Temple Black—the amazing grown-up who never disappointed fans of “little Shirley,” as she referred to her star image—refused to carp loudly about how her childhood was sacrificed for our continuing pleasure. But it was. She quietly acknowledged this by sharing a number of anecdotes about her early life. A department store Santa asked for her autograph and destroyed her faith in such fairy tales. Directors and studio executives wielded physical and psychological torment—from blocks of ice to lies about her mother—to knead her into a better performance. 20th Century Fox staged elaborate birthday ceremonies where she had more lines to memorize for newsreel cameras and where all of the presents were shipped to orphanages, unopened by Temple.

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-21h13m55s223

Real life and reel life birthdays for Temple—both 20th Century Fox productions

princess

Perhaps Temple’s most incisive comment on fame, about being “devoured by human adoration, sparkle by sparkle” poignantly echoes her mother’s commandment from off camera, “Sparkle, Shirley! Sparkle!”

So, as with all great entertainers, suffering entered into the equation of what made Temple so special. And we need to remember this, in spite of the loss of innocence it implies for those of us on the other side of the screen. I promise that you will find her films no less inspiring once you come to realize what she lost so that we, the viewers, might gain.

When I watch Temple, it is with the rapt astonishment that one might feel before a great magician. Not because I consider her talents a “trick,” but rather because I find something infinitely more sacred in the strength of the woman-child sustaining the act than I see in the idealized child-woman presented for my admiration. I gasp at the flawless execution of a performance, amazed at the adaptability and determination that this little girl harnessed.

You have to know a lot before you can pretend not to know much. This was one of Temple’s greatest gifts: hiding her experience behind a feint of cluelessness. In perhaps the greatest acting achievement of her career, she gladly sings “Auld Lang Syne” to mortally wounded Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (1937), enhancing the pathos of the moment with her total non-comprehension of his imminent death.

song

As the hulking, recumbent McLaglen slips away, Temple warbles with mock solemnity, still untouched by the knowledge of mortality. Instead of a dirge, “Auld Lang Syne” in her voice becomes a regimental lullaby, bringing the dying man back to the innocence of childhood in his last moments on earth. Neither overplaying her cheeriness nor succumbing to bathetic melancholy, Temple made audiences weep with longing for the time when death was meaningless to us.

up

Temple’s films frequently capitalized on her status as an almost uncanny adult-child paradox. In Curly Top, for instance, she acts out a series of vignettes over the trajectory of a human life, singing, “When I grow up…” She even appears in a wedding gown and, rather disturbingly, as a sedentary miniature of Whistler’s mother in a rocking chair. Slightly creepy as such an act may seem today, I like to think that audiences craved subliminal reassurance that a Shirley Temple resides in all of us, that we’re all really children in fancy dress.

Movies starring Temple clearly made this point—that children have an adult-like wisdom, whereas adults too often succumb to petty, childish reasoning. In Wee Willie Winkie, peace comes about only when Khoda Khan sees the world through Priscilla’s eyes. Ford drums this point home with virtually identical shots of Khan and Priscilla descending monumental stone steps that reduce both the man and the little girl, visually, to tiny figures on a huge scale.

cliff

Consider her famous one-liner upon receiving a special Oscar in 1934. After thanking the presenter, she turned to her mother and asked, “Can we go home now?” The crowd roared. Though this “unintentional” wisecrack was clearly staged and rehearsed, like virtually everything about Temple’s life, it speaks to the way a child’s ingenuousness renders all of the adult pomp around her absurd and pretentious.

vlcsnap-2014-02-11-16h52m49s238 Again, reel dialogue would later echo real dialogue. Who can forget her cries of, “I want to go home!” in Heidi? Cries so naturalistic that they’re almost unintelligible, like the real wails of a child in distress. Comparing that scene to the modeled perfection of her storybook sequence clog dance and minuet, one recognizes the multiple registers of acting that this child understood and encompassed in her performances.

Yesterday, as I navigated the social media extravaganza prompted by Temple’s death, I discovered a worldwide digital wake of surprising sincerity and vulnerability. Temple brought out the goodness in her viewers, emulsifying their calloused and cynical hearts. And, of course, she will continue to do so.

However, one comment that recurred on every trend, on every thread was, “My childhood is over…” While I sympathize with the sentiment, I encourage these individuals to take comfort in remembering that Temple’s gift to her fans was not the promise of eternal childhood, but a passport back to that Neverland for the space of a few hours. Watch one of her films and feel all resistance to corniness wash away. Just as Temple beguiled us as a child but performed like a grown-up, so too can her legacy be cherished and appreciated by the grown-up and the child in us all.

curlytop