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

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY RAY­MOND M. LANE style@wash­post.com Lane is a free­lance writer.

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.

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