Variety: Universal's other movies of the early '30s (Part 1)



Viewers only familiar with the classic monster movies created by Universal Pictures, specifically in the period of 1931 until 1936, may not have accessed or even cared to investigate other types of product the studio released during the same period. The fact is, Universal's aspirations to stand among the filmmaking greats of the time such as M-G-M, Warner Bros. and Paramount yielded a variety of productions in genres as dependable as the western to the more rarified romantic dramas, some of variable quality and others striving for greatness, all offering proof of Universal's desire to break away from an image as a supplier of bread-and-butter pictures for small-town and independent auditoriums.

Carl Laemmle Jr., son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, was famously awarded production chief duties on achieving his 21st birthday in 1929, inheriting two seasons of lackluster response to what Universal was selling. While the studio was free of the responsibility borne by other top companies by owning their own theaters, Universal suffered fiscally from lack of guaranteed showplaces and profit for its product. Therefore, as the talking film became popular and Universal ultimately abandoned silents, Carl Laemmle Sr.'s goal was to get more exposure in the cities and bigger houses by investing in major product. "We want to sell to everybody," he said at the '29 sales convention, "but we have to have the houses that can pay the most money first. If we can't get them, we might as well quit right now. In other words, get every last dollar the law allows, and then some."*

Universal responded with such expensive productions as BROADWAY (1929) and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), in addition to DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931) that not only made back their investment but kept the studio working on all manner of pictures, including the smaller ones favored by theaters that went in for twin bills and programs of shorts and serials offered by Universal. It was no fluke that one of Universal's top stars of the early '30s was westerner Tom Mix, and later, Ken Maynard and Buck Jones.

Among those lesser efforts that served well in double feature situations is 1935's CHINATOWN SQUAD, coming much later in the Laemmle administration but indicative of Universal's action fare on a budget. Although labeled "inept" by historian Clive Hirschhorn,** CHINATOWN SQUAD tells a brisk yarn about skullduggery in San Francisco's famed neighborhood resulting in a murder solved by a disgraced police detective (Lyle Talbot) reduced to driving Chinatown tour buses.

The Murray Roth-directed film is slick and fast-moving, resembling at times some of the Warner Bros. whiz-bangs of similar content, but allowing for another reel for exposition. The Dore Schary-Ben Ryan screenplay touches on current events as a motivation for the slaying of a shady character (Clay Clement) who misused $700,000 in bonds intended for use by the Chinese Communists. Also notable is the appearance of Big U favorite Andy Devine in a decidedly more serious role than usual as one of the suspects. Co-starring as a lady of mystery was Valerie Hobson, fresh from her assignment in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), which had hit theaters three weeks prior to CHINATOWN SQUAD's May 31 release.

One of the more unusual films the studio marketed was S.O.S. ICEBERG (1933), dealing with the survival of an exploratory group stranded on a mountainous iceberg off Greenland. The project was one of the occasional co-productions the Laemmles entered into with European concerns because the overseas market was another rich source of income for the company. An English-language version produced by Paul Kohner and starring former Metro leading man Rod La Rocque was directed by Tay Garnett, while a German version was prepared by Dr. Arnold Fanck. Fanck, an originator of the "mountain" genre popular in Weimar Republic cinema of the 1920s, had launched the project by shooting scads of breath-taking iceberg footage, but had returned to Berlin "... lacking as much plot as you could get out of the ice compartment of your refrigerator," Garnett recalled in his autobiography.

Meeting with "Uncle Carl," Laemmle Sr.'s nickname earned for giving jobs at Universal to his numerous relatives, Garnett was asked to "shuffle off to Berlin, review ALL the exposed film (roughly fifty-eight hours of actual projection time), select whatever was usable, write a story and script around it, then direct the filming of the necessary connective tissue. That was all." *** Unfazed, Garnett accepted, targeted his footage, got a script from friend Edwin H. Knopf, and shot the required storyline in Switzerland. For all of that, S.O.S. ICEBERG is an acceptably thrilling piece of high adventure that offers a reminder of what attuned moviegoers familiar with such sights from National Geographic and the popular press must have experienced in seeing it all come to life. 

The Fanck-shot scenes chosen by Garnett for the English version are justifiably fabulous, especially in the aerial attempts to rescue the team and their climactic salvation by a nearby Eskimo village as the melting iceberg collapses around them. These compensate for the static sequences of building tensions among the team members that lead some of them to their doom, as well as a certain irritation with La Rocque's bull-headed character whose quest to continue exploring despite warming waters causes the dire situation in which he and his colleagues are entrapped. (However, if he hadn't stubbornly gone off by himself, we wouldn't have had a movie either). S.O.S. ICEBERG's American release was Sept. 22, 1933; the German version premiered nearly three weeks earlier.

La Rocque and Gibson Gowland, the burly British actor who starred in Erich Von Stroheim's massive GREED nearly a decade earlier, are supported in S.O.S. ICEBERG by a German cast that includes Leni Riefenstahl, the star of Fanck's beloved mountain romances before her career as a film documenterian of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. Garnett later recalled that as S.O.S. ICEBERG was in post-production, Hitler became the nation's chancellor, prompting fear and concern from his German associates on the project. 

The response to the question posed by Garnett and his associate Robert Fellows about the "undercurrent of gloom" from which they suffered was: "We feel as you would if Huey Long had been elected President of the United States," a reference to the populist politician from Louisiana whose saga was the basis for ALL THE KING'S MEN, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren that became Oscar's Best Picture of 1949.@

* Quoted in I.G. Edmonds, BIG U: UNIVERSAL IN THE SILENT DAYS, South Brunswick, N.J., and New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1977, pp. 154-155.
** Hirschhorn, THE UNIVERSAL STORY, New York: Crown Publishers, 1983, p. 91.
*** Tay Garnett with Fredda Dudley Balling, LIGHT UP YOUR TORCHES AND PULL UP YOUR TIGHTS, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973, p. 130.
@ Garnett, p. 139.

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