Ich bin Hollywood: Show biz’s Teutonic tilt
An exhibit in Chinatown shines the floodlight on the émigré who, along with other Germans and Jews, molded America’s movie industry
Abright red carpet visually summons visitors to the German American Heritage Museum’s largest exhibit ever: “100 Years of Hollywood — the Laemmle Effect.”
That would be Carl Laemmle (1867-1939), the impoverished German immigrant who came to American in 1884 and in effect, invented in 1915 all the elements of what we think of as Hollywood today.
A twin exhibit will open in August at the Hollywood Heritage Museum in Los Angeles, with the same content, but different original documents and historic artifacts.
The two exhibits, with their own red-carpet entrances, then move separately in succeeding months to Philadelphia; Baltimore; New York; Chicago; Denver; Davenport, Iowa; St. Paul, Minn.; and San Francisco before combining to close in Los Angeles in 2017.
In Washington, the apple-red rug is atop the steep steps from Sixth Street in Chinatown to a tight exhibit space on the small museum’s second floor. On the way up, one walks past publicity photos and movie posters, faces who belong to either German Americans or German immigrants in the movie business.
“The big message,” said Doris Berger, a curator at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles, is that over the past century, European immigrants, especially Germans and Jews, “largely shaped America’s movie industry.”
And that’s a big deal, because movies worked one of the “great cultural transformations” in history, something that touched the lives of people around the world, she continued, “an art form and commercial enterprise that influences the imagination of all humanity.”
Like so many other U.S. immigrants, the Germans — with 50 million citizens claiming ties, a group as diverse as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to President Barack Obama — had many influences on America’s culture.
“Inthe end, it is through movies that German influence will probably stay with us forever . . . or at least as long as humanity watches motion pictures,” Berger said in a telephone interview.
Visitors taking the red-carpet walk begin the exploration at the stairwell photo gallery of German-ancestored actors of today, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, Nicolas Cage and Halle Barry.
The “German Germans” on the wall celebrate actors Marlene Dietrich, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peter Lorre. Directors include Billy Wilder of “Some Like It Hot,” Michael Curtiz of “Casablanca,” as well as Roland Emmerich, who did “Stargate,” “Independence Day,” “Godzilla,” “White House Down” and a score of modern-day hits.
Another flight of photos feature composers Franz Waxman, who wrote the score for “Bride of Frankenstein,” as well as “Sunset Boulevard,” “Peyton Place” and “The Nun’s Story.” There is an exhibit on composer Erich Korngold of “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” a symphonic standard still performed today.
These and the many others celebrated in the exhibit were born to German or Yiddish-speaking families in such places as Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, Romania, Switzerland, Poland, Belarus, Lithuania and other middle-Europe melting pots. They were deeply rooted in central Europe’s diverse cultures before World Wars I and II, the Great Depression and then the ColdWar, according to Berger.
At the top of the steps, a hard right turn opens to the exhibit space itself. The first image is a photo of sweet-faced Laemmle.
“He was so poor growing up,” said GAHM director and exhibit curator Petra Schürmann. “There was famine, and he dreamed of America. But his mother begged him to stay until she died, and three months later, she died. He immediately moved to Chicago.”
Only 17 years old, Laemmle bounced around until landing bookkeeping work, said Germanborn Schürmann. Thrifty and clever, Laemmle began buying nickelodeons, store-front arcades showing five-cent short silent movies, and then bought larger movie houses.
When he grew disenchanted with Thomas Edison’s iron grip of movie distribution — there were over 1,200 short and 58 Edison made feature films— he led other independent movie-house owners in creating the Universal Films Manufacturing company in New York in 1912, said Schürmann.
The group then opened Universal Studios in Los Angeles on March 15, 1915, she said, “the inspiration for our exhibits.”
During his 21 years of leadership, Laemmle oversaw some 400 motion pictures, and in time, all American moviemakers followed the Laemmle model — Warner Brothers, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, RKO, Paramount and others — creating in Los Angeles large “cities of film making,” where sound stages, costume halls, writers studios and technical facilities for sound and lighting were concentrated in a single mass, she said.
Laemmle promoted a “star system” to glamorize performers and their movies in print and newsreels, Schürmann said. “We may use Twitter, Facebook and other social media today to do this, but it’s just Laemmle warmed over, what we call ‘ the Laemmle effect.’ ”
GAHM visitors walk past story boards, fixed monitors and a series of iPad stations detailing Hollywood’s Teutonic tilt. Old trailers, clips and documentary films from the silent era to present day flicker throughout the L-shaped room.
The Nazi era is covered — one sees the jacket Dietrich wore when she fled Berlin to apply for permanent residence in the United States. There’s Lorre’s form renouncing his German citizenship. Laemmle’s efforts to save Jews from the Nazis is covered, and even the hard-nosed Dietrich’s generosity is recounted — she established a fund for new arrivals until they could find work at the studios.
Throughout the summer, GAHM plans movie nights, with beer, pretzels and sausages. “Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood,” by Washington filmmaker Karen Thomas, will be shown. Other evenings are dedicated to Laemmle, Waxman, Korngold and others, with panel discussions and participation by heirs and family members.
Franz Waxman was beaten on the streets of Berlin by Nazis in 1933, says his son, John Waxman, and that evening packed his bags and fled. A grandmother, an uncle and aunt and other relatives were killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. When John Waxman and his daughter visited the camp many years after the war, “we both left feeling unclean.”
“But I have met so many Germans of my generation and now much younger,” he said. “There was a time before Hitler, and a time after Hitler, and now we are in a newage.”
Growing up in Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s, he remembered family friend Billy Wilder urging him not to lose his German language skills or forget the rich culture from which they all came.
“It’s wonderful [GAHM] is doing this show, sooner rather than later,” Waxman said. “I’m hoping my 14-year-old grandson, Andrew, and 8-year-old Christopher, who lives in Maryland suburbs, will come to the exhibit and learn more about their great-grandfather, and all that came before.”
100 Years of Hollywood— The Laemmle Effect Through Sept 30 at the German American Heritage Museum, 719 Sixth St. NW. 202-4675000. www.gahmusa.org. Free.