Universal Pictures remains the oldest active studio in the world – and is still a force to be reckoned with. The formation of this industry giant was the result of several smaller independent studios merging in New York in the summer of 1912. These studios included Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP), Pat Powers’ production company (Powers), Mark Dintenfass’s Champion Films, David Horsley’s Nestor Films and Bill Swanson’s American Eclair Production Unit. Even though all would be combined under the Universal banner, during the silent era the company was structured as a lot of little studios within the mother studio. One of the biggest challenges for a silent film researcher is to trace the growth of a rapidly expanding film company. The mergers, acquisitions and departures, let alone the name changes, are enough to drive a sane person straight to the funny farm.
Filmographer Richard Braff has accomplished an astonishing undertaking. For buffs and scholars, uncovering the silent era film output is no less exciting (or backbreaking) than unearthing a long-buried sphinx. Braff is the chief archeologist in this venture, tackling an entity that had a substantial amount of silent-era output. Of this finished compilation on a singular studio, one realizes there is a mind-boggling vastness to this entire era that really resembles a lost civilization. By pouring over stacks of trade papers (The Moving Picture World, The Motion Picture News and Motography), Braff uncovered over 9000 films – most notably extremely elusive split-reels and one, two and three-reelers. He has rediscovered hundreds of obscure performers and just as many forgotten films of notable stars, directors and writers. The lists of names below barely scratch the surface of what’s found inside.
Universal was a colossal factory that cranked out far more programmers than prestige films. Braff provides a brief, but concise history of the various little studios that were part of the Universal fold: 101 Bison, Ambrosio (Italian), Eclair (American), Eclair (French), Bluebird, Bluebird Jr. (two-reel comedies), Blue Streak Westerns, Butterfly, Century, Champion, Christie Comedies, Crystal, Frontier, Goldseal, IMP, Jewel, Jewel Jr. (higher budget two-reelers), Joker, L-KO (Laugh-Knockout), Laemmle, Mecca, Milano (Italian), Mustang Westerns, Nestor, Okeh, Powers, Rainbow, Red Feather, Rex, Special (serials), Star Comedies, Star Featurettes, Sterling, Stern Bros. Comedies, Super Jewel and Victor – their entrances and exits were not unlike a high-stakes game of musical chairs.
Braff’s compilation reveals that the studio also served as a gateway for many screen hopefuls who passed through on their way to greatness. Some stayed for a spell while others made as few as a single picture. However, up until now, many of their filmographies and biographies lacked these credits. They include the work of: Renée Adoree, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mary Astor, George Bancroft, Wesley Barry, Warner Baxter, Eleanor Boardman, John Boles, Evelyn Brent, Betty Compson, Jackie Coogan, Bebe Daniels, Jane Darwell, Black performer Stepin’ Fetchit, Janet Gaynor, Jack Gilbert, Oliver Hardy, William S. Hart, Phyllis Haver, Leatrice Joy, Ian Keith, Annette Kellerman, J. Warren Kerrigan, Norman Kerry, Stan Laurel, Florence Lawrence, Elmo Lincoln, Harold Lloyd, Bessie Love, Colleen Moore, The Moore brothers Owen, Matt, Tom and Joe, Baby Peggy Montgomery, Mae Murray, Carmel Myers, Conrad Nagel, Seena Owen, The Pickfords Mary, Jack and Lottie, ZaSu Pitts, Dolores Del Rio, Mack Swain, Gloria Swanson, Alice Terry, Fred Thomson, Rin-Tin-Tin, Rudolph Valentino, Kathlyn Williams, Lois Wilson, Anna May Wong and Fay Wray.
Granted, even though Universal did not have a star-oriented system (it was not their practice to pay exorbitant salaries to maintain a star), there were those performers with star quality who rose to the highest levels of audience recognition during their tenure with the studio. Among them: Art Acord, Harry Carey, Lon Chaney (Chaney buffs will appreciate some expanded listings for his early films with incomplete credits), Dorothy Davenport, Reginald Denny, Hoot Gibson, Laura La Plante, Florence Lawrence, Louise Lovely, Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran, Mary Philbin, Eddie Polo, Wallace Reid, Phillips Smalley, Roy Stewart, Conrad Veidt and Pearl White.
Directors also developed their craft at Universal. (By these listings, it is apparent that several of them were writing and performing as well.) Among them: John Adolfi, Clarence Badger, King Baggot, William Beaudine, Henry Blache, John G. Blystone, Frank Borzage, Hobart Bosworth, Herbert Brenon, Clarence Brown, Tod Browning, William Christy Cabanne, Edmund Carewe, Al Christy, Elmer Clifton, Jack Conway, Allen Curtis, Joseph De Grasse, Jack Dillon, Allan Dwan, Harry Edwards, Francis Ford, John Ford, Allan Forrest, Bryan Foy, Chester Franklin, Alfred Goulding, Hobart Henley, Lambert Hillyer, Allen Holubar, Thomas H. Ince, Lloyd Ingraham, Rex Ingram, Charles Inslee, Rupert Julian, Charles Lamont, Henry Lehrman, Paul Leni, Robert Z. Leonard, Frank Lloyd, George Marshall, Archie Mayo, J.P. McGowan, Gus Meins, Marshall Neilan, Fred C. Newmeyer, Harry A. Pollard, Lynn F. Reynolds, Charles Riesner, Albert Rogell, Nat Ross, Wesley Ruggles, Edward Sedgwick, William A. Seiter, Erich von Stroheim, Harry Sweet, Norman Taurog, Maurice Tourneur, George Loane Tucker, King Vidor, Wallace Worsley and William Wyler. To a certain extent, the studio assigned women to direct. I was able to pick out a handful of women directors: Ruth Ann Baldwin, Cleo Madison, Ida May Park, Nell Shipman, Edith Sterling, Lois Weber and Elsie Jane Wilson.
The studio also cultivated scores of writers, many who eventually were in big demand at the prestige picture studios: Lenore Coffee, Grace Cunard (also acted), Hope Loring, Jeanie Macpherson (while she was known as an actress before writing for Cecil B. DeMille, there are writing and acting credits for her at Universal), Bess Meredyth (also acted), Booth Tarkington and Waldemar Young.
The Universal Silents is easy enough to navigate. Films are listed numerically in the index and alphabetically in the text (production information only). There is a special section listing the 74 serials (and their individual chapters) that the studio produced. However, to find the listings for comedy series, the body of the filmography needs to be studied carefully. A film that was part of any given series is only notated on the individual listing (i.e., the Arthur Lake film King of Shebas notes it is part of the “Drugstore Cowboy” series). Among them you’ll find Ford Sterling’s Snookee Comedies; Louise Fazenda’s comedies for Joker, including the “Mike and Jake series,” the (Al) “Christie Comedies,” the “Buster Brown Comedies” featuring child star Arthur Trimble, the Stern Bros. “Snookem’ Comedies” starring little Sunny McKeen, the comedies of Lee Moran and Eddie Lyons, (before he was Dagwood Bumstead) Arthur Lake’s “Horace in Hollywood,” “Harold in Hollywood,” “Drugstore Cowboy” and “Bulls-Eye Comedy Series,” Fay Tincher’s “Gump Comedies” and Mack Swain’s “Ambrose Comedies” (a revival of his Keystone character). With a work of this scope, it would have been helpful to provide a separate index for the comedy series as was done with the serials. By the same token, an index listing the individual studios with their film titles would have also been useful.
There are a fair number of individuals listed who wore many hats on the set. The studio may very well have been exercising a policy of frugality by having their directors act in and write the scripts for their own films. For research purposes, it would have been helpful to indicate next to their names in the personnel index if they had served as cast, director, writer and/or producer (simply initialed c,d,w or p). For example, Lois Weber and husband Phillips Smalley, forgotten comedians Lee Moran and Eddie Lyons, Bess Meredyth and husband Wilfred Lucas wrote, directed and acted at one time or another. Also, there are screen personalities who enjoyed directing stints, but are not widely known for doing so. Among them: Edwin August, Wallace Beery, Harry Carey, Lon Chaney, Carter DeHaven, Pat Hartigan, Edgar Kennedy, Wilfred Lucas, J. Farrell MacDonald, William V. Mong, Harry Myers, Wallace Reid and Slim Summerville. As for the women directors mentioned above, there may be more hidden in them thar pages. Again, a notation by their name would have identified them all at a glance.
It should be noted that Richard Braff is a major contributor of filmographies to The Silents Majority On-line Journal of Silent Film. However, The Universal Silents is a very important resource. Thus, acknowledging a job well done should transcend any thought of bias due to our association with the author. Given the resurgence of interest in early Hollywood, the Universal of today is well-served by this opus. After all, the studio’s proud heritage is on display, for it was one of the fantastic factories of the silent era that put the movie industry on the map of the world. I am confident there will be many grateful researchers like myself who will appreciate and utilize the information extensively. However, I’m afraid we won’t let Mr. Braff rest on his well-earned laurels. There is a whole roster of studios that deserve this same conscientious treatment. So, to paraphrase an ever hungry Oliver Twist, “Please sir, can we have some more?”