The American Jewish actress Carla Laemmle, who died on June 12 at the age of 104, was long celebrated for her appearances in some early key horror films. Yet her chief role may have been as witness to the benevolence when confronted with real-life historical horrors of her uncle, Universal Pictures studio founder Carl Laemmle.
Of German Jewish origin, Laemmle in her teens appeared as a ballet dancer in the silent film version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and later uttered the first words in “Dracula” (1931), as a bespectacled tourist reciting the text of a guidebook, “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”
With an eager appetite for life, Laemmle recounted her childhood in a charming short book, “Growing Up With Monsters: My Times at Universal Studios” (2009) and illustrated her longtime companion, the angler Raymond Cannon’s “How to Fish the Pacific Coast: a Manual for Salt Water Fishermen”. In her younger years, she also posed for nude photos, despite her uncle’s disapproval: “They are in very good taste but [Carl Laemmle] frowned on that.”
To his credit, Uncle Carl also frowned on the rise of European Fascism in the 1930s.
Born Karl Lämmle in Laupheim, Germany, the elder Laemmle (1867–1939) personally paid for hundreds of Jews from Laupheim and Württemberg to emigrate from Nazi Germany to the USA, paying all required emigration and immigration fees, thereby saving their lives. Starting in 1934, he constantly contacted American politicians and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, as well as fellow Hollywood movie industry leaders to do the same, mostly to little or no avail.
In a 1938 letter sent to his nephew, the director William Wyler, Carl Laemmle noted: “The Jewish situation in Germany has been getting on my nerves for a long, long time. I feel that these poor, unfortunate people need help the worst way …I have issued so many personal affidavits that the United States government won’t accept any more from me excepting for my closest blood relatives… If you want to do something really big, issue one or more affidavits, as many as your means permit. I am not only writing to Jews but to Gentiles as well, to all those whom I have the honor and pleasure to call friend.”
He wrote to the Austrian Jewish director Fritz Lang the same year, pleading: “I would greatly appreciate it if you would take a little personal interest in these struggling people. They are deserving of it. Will you do so, please?” Not simply a matter of writing checks, sponsoring refugees was a hugely time-consuming bureaucratic nightmare, with red tape aplenty. At around the same time, Carl Laemmle advised Cordell Hull to tell U. S. consuls overseas to “lean over and co-operate in every possible way…Your consuls can give the law a little more liberal interpretation under the circumstances… I am now 71 years old and am devoting eighty per cent of my time to charitable institution of every nature and it is taking a lot out of me when I have to fight a battle in each and every instance, a battle lasting most of the time at least six months or longer before I achieve final results.” The benefactor would die of cardiovascular disease the following year, but his loving niece Carla, for the rest of her long life, would recall his noble efforts to save his fellow German Jews whenever she had the opportunity during the countless filmed interviews which she gave to film documentarians, TV reporters, and others in the entertainment industry.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.