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5 July 2014
Actress who spent her childhood at Universal Studios and was one of the last of the silent film era
Hollywood was in Carla Laemmle’s blood. One of the last links with the era of silent cinema, she grew up at Universal Studios.
Her uncle was Carl Laemmle, the entrepreneurial film mogul who turned out the first movie stars and million– dollar pictures. It was he who founded Universal Studios and carved out a 640-acre site for his empire outside Los Angeles. It had its own post office, bank, library, hospital, park and zoo and employed 4,000 workers in specially built theatres, laboratories and giant wardrobe departments that could equip a small army. They knew their boss affectionately as “Uncle Carl”.
Visitors could pay 25 cents for a tour (which included a packed lunch of chicken). Laemmle, a sweet-faced child of seven, was brought to live in one of two small Universal bungalows by her father Joseph, who became his brother’s West Coast representative.
The house was near the New York set — to which Laemmle would go on pretend shopping trips — and decorated with furniture from the props department. She recalled being woken up by the roar of the lion in the nearby zoo; she even learnt to ride bareback and performed tricks on Trixie, the “laughing show horse”. In the mornings she recalled often finding an escaped camel grazing on her parents’ lawn: “I would take out a little bowl of oatmeal and lead it to one of the garages and call [the zoo workers] and say, ‘Your animal is here’. ”
Schooled by a private tutor on site, she once stumbled upon The Hunchback of Notre-Dame being filmed and watched the actor Lon Chaney climbing down the cathedral. He had to insert walnuts in his mouth for weeks beforehand to puff out his cheeks in order to play Quasimodo.
For her 14th birthday party Laemmle rang up the Universal property department and asked them to set up a scary Hallowe’en for the occasion. “They rigged the narrow tree-lined lane with all manner of weird and spooky gimmicks and created a special effects horror masterpiece, complete with eerie lighting and sound effects,” she described before recalling the effect on one of her friends: “When a life-sized, bone-rattling skeleton jumped out at her from behind a tree, she gave a piercing scream and fainted.”
A keen ballet dancer, she made her own debut on screen as the prima ballerina in ThePhantom of the Opera in 1925, aged 14. “The camera didn’t scare me,” she said. She spoke the first line in the original film version of Dracula — also the earliest sound horror movie — in 1931, playing the young, timid English secretary on a coach trip reading from a novel to her fellow passengers: “Among the rugged peaks that frown down across the Borgo Pass, are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”
It was a tiny cameo, but it still brought her attention in old age when she was sought out to attend horror conventions. Always happy to promote the Universal horror legacy, she would reel out the same line with gusto into her 104th year while signing autographs.
Born into a German-Jewish family in Chicago in 1909, Laemmle was named Rebekah Isabelle, although she later changed to Carla, saying: “Rebekah — I never liked that name. Carla was an obvious thing because of my uncle. And that’s been permanent.” Her father, Joseph, arrived in America from Bavaria in 1871 and became a salesman of Nickelodeon equipment. His younger brother, Carl, soon followed and with $50 in his pocket branched into film distribution and production. Joseph, who suffered ill health, joined his brother in the warm Hollywood climate.
From the way Laemmle wiggled her toes her mother deduced that she wanted to be a dancer, and so she received private lessons from a ballet master for four years and also three years of piano lessons. She made numerous film cameos — many of them as a scantily clad dancer — but never progressed from small parts and disappeared from the screen in 1945, although she found some roles again in her nineties.
In the mid-1930s she met a young actor and producer, Ray Cannon, who became her companion until his death in 1977 — apart from a brief spell when Laemmle married a sailor she met while dancing in a LA nightclub. She later discovered he already had a wife and children. After Cannon spent several months in a Buddhist monastery in China, the pair became involved in LA’s Chinatown community, putting on theatre and dance shows. They never married because they both believed in reincarnation and felt that the bond between them was eternal; they had no children.
When Cannon developed stomach ulcers, he was advised by his doctors to “go fishing” and began visiting the coast of California. He also started researching a book with Laemmle’s assistance. She bought a Remington typewriter and began typing Cannon’s manuscript. It took five years to complete, but once published Cannon’s How to Fish the Pacific Coast — with more than 160 fish identification illustrations drawn by Laemmle — became known as “the fisherman’s bible”.
She lived quietly in Hollywood in a house decorated with photographs from her dancing days: “I have some pictures that I’m not able to hang up there.” She was close to her Uncle Carl until his death in 1939 — describing him as a wonderful man — and to her various cousins, who included the director William Wyler. After selling Universal Studios, Carl devoted his energies and resources to issuing affidavits on behalf of German Jews seeking to flee to America from Nazi Germany. In the 1990s Laemmle was thrilled to visit her father and uncle’s hometown of Laupheim, in Germany, where three rooms in the town museum had been allocated to honour the legacy of her uncle.
At Universal's 100th anniversary party in 2012 she quipped: “I’ll probably be the only one there who’s older than the studio.” Tiny with bright eyes, she often said her first memory was of her parents showing her headlines about the Titanic. However, when asked how old she felt, she shrugged, “Oh, maybe 22.”
Carla Laemmle, dancer and actress, was born on October 20, 1909. She died on June 12, 2014, aged 104