Universal Studio's legacy ranges from Frankenstein and Dracula to Bridesmaids and Bourne — and also includes the first Olympic basketball medalists
If the United States' basketball team wins the gold medal at this summer's Olympic Games in London, it'll be a fitting tribute to Universal Pictures as the studio celebrates its 100th anniversary.
And if you don't know the connection between Olympic basketball and Universal, that's because plenty of surprises are lurking in those 100 years of filmmaking, which began when Carl Laemmle filed incorporation papers for the "Universal Film Manufacturing Company" in 1912.
(Original incorporation papers pictured at left.)
"Universal employees were on the first Olympic basketball team in 1936," Jeff Pirtle, the studio's director of archives, said in an interview with TheWrap. "I had no idea about that until I was going through the archives and found an old Universal weekly newsletter from 1936."
In fact, the Universal studio team – one of a number of sponsored teams that toured the country before the NBA was founded – won the national championship that year, which also happened to be the year that basketball was introduced as a competitive sport at the Olympics. Coach James Needles and seven players from the Universal team joined six from the runner-up Globe Oilers to make up the U.S. team, which went on to win the first Olympic gold medal in the sport – though not, Pirtle said, without some trouble.
"Germany didn't have a basketball team, and Hitler didn't care about the sport, so they didn't invest in a venue," he said. "The court was outdoors, and the [gold medal] game was played on gravel in the rain." The final score of the U.S. victory over Mexico was an anemic 25-10.
An added bit of trivia: the team manager was Jack Pierce, whose day job was handling the makeup for such Universal horror classics as "Frankenstein" and "The Wolf Man."
The basketball story is one of many that can be found in the Universal archives, according to Pirtle, who is charge of preserving the studio's history and helping celebrate its centennial. The most visible part of that celebration has been the selection of 13 films to be restored and reissued in new 35mm prints and Blu-ray releases – at least one from every decade from the 1930s through the 1990s.
The baker's dozen was chosen by a small committee of Universal executives who first narrowed down the studio's 5,000-feature library to about 100 "historically significant" films, then chose a dozen to be part of a yearlong restoration and reissue program.
"All Quiet on the Western Front," the antiwar Best Picture winner from 1930, is the earliest film on the list, followed by the 1930s horror classics "Dracula," "Frankenstein" and "The Bride of Frankenstein."
The 1940s are represented by Abbott and Costello's "Buck Privates," the first big hit from the comedy team that helped keep the studio afloat during a rough time after the Standard Capital Corp. seized control of the cash-strapped studio from the Laemmles.
From the 1950s, they chose the Rock Hudson/Doris Day comedy "Pillow Talk."
Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and Robert Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird" were chosen from the '60s, and the big hits "The Sting" and "Jaws" from the '70s.
The '80s are represented by Sydney Pollack's Best Picture winner "Out of Africa," while Steven Spielberg's 1993 winner "Schindler's List" is the most recent entry in the lineup.
And once those 12 films were selected, Pirtle said, the committee decided they just had to add one more, in recognition of the fact that in the '30s, Universal often simultaneously filmed foreign-language versions of its horror movies in off hours.
"We wanted to restore the 1931 'Dracula,'" he said, "but there's also the Spanish version of 'Dracula' that was filmed on the exact same sets at night. We just couldn't help ourselves, so we added that version and got to 13."
Several of the restorations, including "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Jaws," have already screened at UCLA, at the Motion Picture Academy and at film festivals like Tribeca.
Next up: a mid-August re-release of Steven Spielberg's restored "Jaws," along with a variety of events at the film's setting, Martha's Vineyard.
The studio also plans exhibits of its props, wardrobe, design sketches at various locations, from its own theme parks to the Academy and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A Tumblr page includes old photos and stories, and will be updated throughout the year.
"The point," said Pirtle, "is to share this library of Universal films with a new generation of audiences."
The list of 103 films, from which the final 13 were selected, is also available online as something of a primer in Universal product: It ranges from 1913's "Traffic in Souls" to 2011's "Bridesmaids," and includes two versions of "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925 and 1943) and two of "Scarface" (1932 and 1983).
In another odd twist, it also includes a 1999 film, the comedy "American Pie," that was directed by Paul and Chris Weitz – whose grandparents were Universal executive Paul Kohner and Mexican actress Lupita Tovar, the producer and the leading lady of the 1931 Spanish version of "Dracula."
"There are some studios that are known for animation, some studios that are known for their musicals," Pirtle said. "And we have a little bit of all of that in our film library."
Considering that the studio began as a family-owned company and went through the hands of Standard Capital, International Pictures, Decca Records, MCA, Matsushita and now General Electric (as NBC Universal), is there a Universal DNA that is evident in the studio's output over the years?
"Well, our logo has stayed pretty consistent over the years," Pirtle said, laughing. "That's probably the most evident thing that's been around for 100 years.
"But we've always been open to new talent and new directors. We're the ones who gave John Ford his start back in the early teens. We're the ones who originally hired Irving Thalberg to be the production and general manager here. We're the ones who gave Steven Spielberg his start. And even Alfred Hitchcock produced some of his early American films here in the 1940s.
"I think if there's anything we would be known for, it's giving new talent an opportunity."
Even if that new talent is sometimes on a basketball court instead of a film set.
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