Friday, January 20, 2012

100 Years of Universal Studios

I love movies from the early black & white monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, to the sci-fi classics of the 1950s and 1960s, the gritty—and sometimes exploitive—films of the 1970s, the awesome slashers and other horror flicks of the 1980s, the action thrills of the 1990s, and all the way to what we have now in the new century.

Yes, movies have been my life and a way to escape into different fantasies within a theater screen or sitting in my family room in front of my television. I love and cherish all of them, even the lame bombs I’ve found myself suckered into watching, as long as there’s a diamond in the rough every so often.

Not long ago, I had realized that there’s one movie studio in particular that has churned out the best films of our lifetime, a studio that has produced hit after hit, year after year, and is just as magical—if not more so—than Disney itself. The studio I’m referring to is Universal Studios in Hollywood.

When I became aware of the quantity and quality of their canon, was a few years ago while visiting the theme park (as I’m apt to do two to three times a year). A wall adorned with murals of some of their hit movies made me stop and think about how many films throughout the years were awesome and highly successful, both financially and critically. I was with a buddy at the time and I stopped him as well to point out the wall and asked him, “Do you realize the greatness of Universal Studios?” He shrugged and tried to continue on to the escalators to get to the tram ride, but I stopped him again. I said, pointing to the murals, “Don’t you think that Universal has made the most memorable and best movies of all time?” With another shrug from him, I said, “Never mind,” and we continued to the ride.

Although that mural was just a taste of Universal Studio’s catalog of hit films, I’d like to go over and point out Universal’s most memorable and noteworthy films that most people will recognize.

Lon Chaney was known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” during the early 1900s and part of the reason is because of the films he acted in for Universal Studios. Although I can name quite a few, the two most noteworthy films he was featured in are 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. Although I haven’t seen Hunchback, I plan to see it soon. But The Phantom of the Opera is superb, a true artistic view of how films were made during the silent era. Yes, this is a silent film and may take some people out of it by that fact, for it may throw you for a loop. But the tone and gloom of the scenes is pure art and very exciting at times. I highly recommend searching through Universal’s index of silent films because there are quite a few gems there.

One of the first “talkies” of the film era was a very popular title that is still creepy and entertaining: 1931’s Dracula. Starring Bela Lugosi as the vampire that is still recognized today as the definitive characterization of the title character. The same year, another Universal Monster was brought forth in the film, Frankenstein. Often mistaken as the name of the monster, actually the title refers to the mad scientist who created the creature (played by the great Boris Karloff).

The following year, in 1932, Karloff played another prominent monster in The Mummy.

Continuing on with movies to terrify and feature innovative special effects, 1933’s The Invisible Man entertains to this day. Although you don’t see him until the end of the film, Claude Rains plays the titular character.

1934 had some good eerily fun flicks, but 1935 came at us with the sequel to Frankenstein with Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff returns in this film that rivals the original and is very compelling.

The 1940s brought us some more enjoyable flicks, not letting up in the entertainment, especially in the special effects event of 1941 with The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney, Jr. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but starting with 1931’s Dracula, makeup creations were made by the great Jack Pierce. Continuing his masterpieces thus far, he really had his hands full with not only creating the wolf-like features onto Lon Chaney, Jr.’s face, but to apply it little by little in order for the time lapse to work for the effect of the main character to appear as if he were slowly changing into the title monster.

Along the years, Universal continued with these famous monsters by making sequels featuring the title characters, even parodying them in Abbott & Costello films, and that may have been what ended the era of Universal’s famous monsters. But the 1950s brought in a breath of fresh air with a new era of entertainment: Science Fiction.

Even though Abbott & Costello were still big in the box office with a few more monster parodies and Alfred Hitchcock featured quite a few awesome films, the 1950s was the decade for science fiction. A new famous monster would emerge from this decade, but the most memorable films from the 50s were sci-fi alien invasion movies that were cheesy but fun to watch.

Although not that well known, It Came From Outer Space is significant because it’s the first film from Universal to be featured in 3D—a popular gimmick of the 1950s. The alien monster is kind of ridiculous, but it’s a fun film to watch. Being a regular visitor of Universal Studios, especially the back lot tram ride, I enjoy seeing the familiar Courthouse Square (which I’ll mention quite a bit during this article) throughout the course of the film.

1954 brought us another famous monster, the Gill-Man, with Creature From the Black Lagoon. Again, this film was filmed in 3D and historians who have seen the film theatrically have said the underwater scenes are excellent.

In 1955, Universal released one of my favorite sci-fi films of the 50s: Tarantula. To this day, I love the special effects and think they’re excellent and believable. Seeing that giant spider climbing over the Arizona mountainside is still chilling to see after all these years. Look for a young (and uncredited) Clint Eastwood as the jet squadron commander near the end of the film.

Definitely my favorite film from the 1950s, The Incredible Shrinking Man is superb and I can re-watch this film over and over. I never tire of it, enjoying the special effects with the title character fending off the attacks of his own cat, the scaled world of being shrunken down to inches, and the battle with the tarantula in the basement. A wonderful film that I fully embrace and recommend for all to see.

Although from here on out, beginning in the 1960s, many films were now being filmed in Technicolor, steering away from black & white. But technology has to move forward, right? Well, Universal Studios’ oeuvre of films didn’t falter.
My very favorite from the 1960s—in fact, it was released in 1960—was a film that technically wasn’t a Universal Studios film. It was a Paramount Film made by a director who was quite synonymous with Universal and even used the back lot to film this movie. The main exterior set is still quite a staple of the back lot tour and I always get a kick out of being able to walk near it during the annual “Halloween Horror Nights” event. The film I’m speaking of is Psycho. In actuality, the set I get to walk near is a rebuilt set for the sequels of the 1980s and is in a completely different area of the back lot, but a fanboy can dream, can’t he? Yes, Psycho is one of my all time favorite films from Hitchcock. I love how he chose to film the movie in black & white because it truly captures the mood of the story and gives it the feel of the 1950s. It justly shows how brilliant of a mind Hitchcock had. Psycho is honestly his true masterpiece.

Hitchcock’s follow-up to Psycho is my second favorite from his inventory of films and gave me a fear of the featured animals for many years. 1963’s The Birds was his second masterpiece (can an artist have two masterpieces?) and is a brilliant story within a story. The closing scene is still haunting and luminous as you see how well the special effects worked in this feature.

The 1960s had quite a collection of great films to poor through, but the 1970s had quite a few recognizable features to watch as well.

A film I haven’t seen in years, but it’s in my Netflix queue to revisit, is 1970’s Airport starring Charlton Heston. It’s been so long that I really can’t do this justice, just trust me and rent this.

1973’s American Graffiti is George Lucas’s look at the days of cruising in hot rods during 1962. It stars Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Wolfman Jack and Harrison Ford. It’s a cool movie to check out to see how life was for teenagers during that time.

Earthquake is another disaster film of the 1970s. Again, I shamefully admit, I have not seen this film, but I’ve heard it’s very entertaining and, again, is in my Netflix queue to be watched.

Considered to be the first summer blockbuster, and from a director you’ll see a lot of in Universal’s list of movies, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is an awesome film that still works to this day. I’m still afraid of swimming in the ocean and, at times, get a little freaked out when I swim in my pool at night. It just works in so many levels, with the characters, the story, the visuals, and the nostalgia of having a good time at the beach during the 70s...still a great film.

A very funny film, 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit brought the Pontiac Trans Am into the limelight, I'm sure making sales of that car go through the roof. The separate chemistry between Burt Reynolds with Sally Field, Jerry Reed, and Jackie Gleason is wonderful and so terrific. The first time I heard Jackie Gleason’s foul mouth in this film had me rolling. It’s a great time.

For every comedic movie about college life, 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House deserves credit. John Belushi’s character in this film steals the show. My favorite part is when he breaks the fourth wall as he climbs the ladder to look through the window of the sorority house, showing us he’s enjoying the view.

Also in 1978, an awesome film about a group of friends going to fight in the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter is amazing. The Russian Roulette scene in the film is amazing. Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken shine in this movie.

I was a big fan of Steve Martin growing up, so to finally see 1979’s The Jerk when it showed up on cable TV (without my parents knowing, of course), was a big treat for me.

The 1980s was a great decade for films and although I wasn’t a big fan of country music, Loretta Lynne was still a household name and being able to catch movies on cable TV, I watched 1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter quite a few times. Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynne is so believable, at times, it’s eerie. 1980 also brought The Blues Brothers, The Nude Bomb, The Gong Show Movie, Somewhere in Time, and Flash Gordon.

In 1981, the best werewolf transformation was seen and brought attention to one of the best special effects makeup artists of our time—Rick Baker—and the movie that did it was An American Werewolf in London.

In 1982, the biggest movie was Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Although he touched up the movie recently, adding some CGI here and there, the movie is still a sweet story of an alien left behind on Earth by his peers and how he befriends a young boy, forming a connection and almost becoming one of the family. If you don’t shed a tear at the end of this flick, especially with John Williams’ powerful score, then you don’t have a heart. One thing about this “nice, adorable alien film,” it took away from another alien film (albeit, evil alien film) from Universal entitled, The Thing, directed by John Carpenter, which is awesome and became a cult hit when it was released on home media. Also in 1982, the very funny and often imitated, Fast Times at Ridgmont High was released, leaving us the very memorable performance by Sean Penn as Spicoli.

I was going to try and keep sequels off this piece, but 1983’s Psycho II deserves some recognition as a terrific follow-up to one of the greatest films from the master, Alfred Hitchcock. We also were introduced to Brian DePalma’s Cuban gangster flick, and Al Pacino’s most animated performance ever, Scarface.

Director, John Hughes, had a successful decade in the 80s with 1984’s Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Weird Science in 1985.

Now, my favorite film franchise ever, filmed at and produced by Universal Studios—Back to the Future. The trilogy—released in 1985, 1989 and 1990 respectfully—is a perfect story arc, each directed by Robert Zemeckis, and featuring such a great comedy team with Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. The story of time travel has always been an interesting concept and most people fantasize about going back in time to fix things gone wrong or to see what happened during a time before they were born. The movies are a beautiful combination of sci-fi, comedy and family fun—with mostly a western when part 3 comes around. A lot of people wished there would’ve been a fourth part to the story, but that time has passed and the trilogy is complete the way it is. Nostalgic of a time during the Reagan era, I love watching each part one right after the other, making me feel like a teenager again.  A big part of this movie was filmed in Universal Studios' Courthouse Square in the back lot.

Universal Studios brought us into the 90s with Tremors in 1990, a pretty entertaining monster movie about creatures that live underground and wreak havoc in a small desert community. In the same year, the year before he returned into his Terminator role, Arnold Schwarzeneggar starred in Kindergarten Cop.

In 1991, Ron Howard—another name you’ll see on this list quite often—paid tribute to fire fighters across the country by filming a very realistic film showing us what these heroes go through, in the movie, Backdraft. The film starred Kurt Russell and William Baldwin and is a very exciting film to watch with outstanding practical special effects. In the same year, Nick Nolte and Robert De Niro starred in the remake of Cape Fear.

1992 brought us American Me, Far and Away, and the interesting Death Becomes Her. The special effects were ground-breaking in this flick, especially the broken-necked Meryl Streep and the hollowed-out Goldie Hawn.

CGI made a big leap forward with 1993’s classic, Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg. The first time seeing this movie, I went in knowing it was a dinosaur flick, so I was just expecting animatronics, puppetry or claymation…I had no idea I was going to be floored with what I saw. Even though this movie is nearly 20 years old, the special effects look better than some of today’s CGI attempts. The film was followed by two decent sequels and it’s rumored that a third is in the works. And I don’t know how he did it, but in the same year, Steven Spielberg directed another solid film called Schindler’s List. Liam Neeson is superb in the lead role, with moving performances throughout. It won an Oscar for Best Picture.

In 1995, Ron Howard directed Apollo 13, a movie about the ill-fated trip to the moon and how the astronauts were able to make it back home against some incredible odds. In the same year, Waterworld was released and sort of bashed by critics, but I’ve got to admit that I like this film. A month later, the wonderful family film, Babe, was released. It’s a cute story about the life of a little pig that learned to herd cattle. Following in the impressiveness of Goodfellas, Casino, starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci is nice look of how Vegas was run during the 1970s.

1996 brought us another impressive special effects flick with Twister. The movie stars Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as a recently separated couple who happen to be tornado chasers. The chance to get a device to measure tornado activity gets them back together for a very exhilarating film. In the same year, Eddie Murphy delighted us in the remake of The Nutty Professor, Michael J. Fox returns with director Robert Zemeckis’ The Frighteners, and Sylvester Stallone saves a bunch of people from a collapsed tunnel in Daylight.

In the 1990s, Jim Carrey had been flying high with hits like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, and Dumb & Dumber, so in 1997, he starred in Liar Liar as a lawyer trying to make his way up in the law firm, going as far as lying to his own kid and ex-wife. When he misses his son’s birthday, crushed, the child makes a wish before blowing out the candles, wishing that for one day, his dad couldn’t tell a lie. What follows next is a very funny movie with Jim Carrey’s character in a lot of hilarious situations.

Now, unfortunately, a terrible, yet memorable, film was released in 1998 by Universal Studios. I don’t mind the film and can enjoy it for what it was, but critics really panned this film. The film I’m speaking of is the remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho. The film starred Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche as Marion Crane. I see everyone’s points about how it was useless to shoot a remake shot-for-shot with no change in the story or subplots. But I do feel it’s a good way to introduce a classic to the new generation of film-goers or, like Gus Van Sant claims, the film was made so that no one will ever remake Psycho.

Another remake—albeit a successful one—in 1999, was The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo. The movie is a fun adventure and really fleshes out the 1932 classic. The same year, the very funny and hilarious, American Pie, was released, telling the story of a group of guys who make a pact that they’d all get laid before graduating from high school.

In the 2000s, Universal Studios continued their magic with films like these:

2000: Gladiator, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Erin Brockovich, Meet the Parents, The Family Man, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

2001: A Beautiful Mind and The Fast and the Furious.

2002: Big Fat Liar, The Bourne Identity, The Scorpion King, 8 Mile, and Red Dragon.

2003: Bruce Almighty, The Cat in the Hat, Hulk, and Seabiscuit.

2004: Along Came Polly, Dawn of the Dead (remake), Friday Night Lights, Ray, Shaun of the Dead, and Van Helsing.

2005: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Cinderella Man, Jarhead, Kicking & Screaming, and King Kong.

2006: Slither, Miami Vice, and United 93.

2007: Dead Silence, Evan Almighty, Knocked Up, and American Gangster.

2008: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Baby Mama, The Strangers, The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Mamma Mia!: The Movie, Changeling, and Frost/Nixon.

2009: Drag Me to Hell, Land of the Lost, Public Enemies, Inglorious Basterds, The Fourth Kind, and It’s Complicated.

2010: The Wolfman, Kick-Ass, MacGruber, Get Him To the Greek, Despicable Me, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Devil.

2011: Paul, Hop, Bridesmaids, Cowboys & Aliens, Dream House, and The Thing.

Finally, we’re here, in 2012, celebrating Universal Studios’ 100TH anniversary and looking forward to another 100 years of entertainment. Quite a few movies are lined up for 2012, 2013 and 2014, like Dr. Suess’ The Lorax, American Reunion, The Bourne Legacy, R.I.P.D., Despicable Me 2, Jurassic Park 4, and so on.

I hope you enjoy my look at some of the movies of Universal Studios. I’ve only scratched the surface of their library, so I highly recommend you look online for their complete library to see what more they may have. A good reference I discovered was and look up “List of Universal Pictures Films.”

My final “bit” on Universal Studios?

It’s positively and absolutely the best in Hollywood! You can’t go wrong with a Universal Studios film.

Happy 100TH Anniversary Universal Studios!