CITY OF DREAMS (Book Review)

There’s a persistent romantic image that the logos that precede our multiplex blockbusters (Paramount’s mountain, Columbia’s torch lady) represent the great dream factories that have churned out motion pictures on huge soundstages hosting massive sets filled with countless actors, craftspeople and technicians, all orchestrated by a megaphone-wielding director. This may certainly have been true in the days when theatre screens still contained silver, but as Bernard F. Dick’s re-issued volume City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures tells us, those logos have evolved from self-contained picture factories into simple brands adorning the spokes of massive corporate umbrellas. Case in point: the story of Universal Pictures.

While we’re all familiar with the eternal spinning globe, Universal was actually spawned from an “imp” or Independent Moving Picture company if you prefer. Former exhibitor Carl Laemmle saw fit to move into distribution and just as quickly, production of then-silent motion pictures. Formed in a merger with other companies in 1912 to combat Thomas Edison’s attempted monopolization of the film industry, Universal was quick to plant roots in the newly-minted production hub in Hollywood, purchasing 230 acres in Southern California to form what would eventually become “Universal City”. This self-contained filmmaking destination (it even had its own post office, police and fire departments!) quickly secured its place alongside  fellow studios; among them the likes of Paramount and MGM.

The running of Universal was a family affair with Carl Sr. grooming son Carl Jr. to succeed him. The younger Carl certainly had an eye for the business and before the silent era was out, set to work on elevating the studio’s product from western programmers to more prestigious productions like the Oscar-winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Broadway adaptation Show Boat (1936) and also the iconic Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931) which would cement the bonding of Universal with the horror genre for generations to come.

Despite numerous successes, numerous corresponding flops cut into the profits and the Laemmles were forced from their own studio in 1936. The marquee era behind it, Universal moved to reliable programmers consisting of the likes Abbott & Costello, Deanna Durbin and Monster Mash-ups (House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein). During this time, the studio had developed a taste for (low-budget) musicals that had not gone unnoticed by Decca Records which by 1952 had acquired enough stock to take over the studio. From this point on, the studio would be passed among numerous corporate parents including MCA (a talent agency), Matsushita (Japanese electronics, Seagram (Canadian Whiskey) before finally ending up as part of Comcast (Cable provider) in 2011.

Despite purporting to be about a single film studio, City of Dreams seems to be written for two audiences: those interested in the history of Hollywood and those more interested in the art of the deal. The book is at its best when discussing the day-to-day running of the studio and the films it produced; detailed analyses of the works of director James Whale and producer Joe Pasternak for instance. Once the studio is acquired by MCA, almost all mention of actual film disappears save a few appearances by Steven Spielberg who apparently still maintains offices on the Universal lot to this day.

While corporate restructuring is an inevitable part of any modern Hollywood studio’s story (as the needlessly protracted first chapter on regime change at other studios is kind enough to remind us), the narrative takes so many needless detours into other corporate territory that you often forget that this is supposed to be the story of Universal Pictures. It regrettably turns what was previously an enlightening page-turner into a by-the-numbers bore.

It doesn’t help that this expanded 2021 edition (the book was originally published in 1997) has several false endings which just cry out for further revision.

The opening introduction posits a scenario in which a visitor to Universal Studios theme park (mostly overlooked in the book’s narrative) asks who runs Universal. “Universal what?” the book asks. “Universal Studio Tours? Universal TV? The current corporate parent?” The cover’s subtitle specifically cites “Universal Pictures”. Dick’s volume may have done better to focus its lens there.




City of Dreams: The Making and Remaking of Universal Pictures is now available from University Press of Kentucky on Amazon and other retailers

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