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Love Before Breakfast (January 29, 2008)

I’m going to show you a famous photograph by the American photographer, Walker Evans. He made it in 1936, and it is called “Houses and Billboards in Atlanta.” One of the billboards in the shot is an ad for this movie.

I can’t make the case that this movie is a great treasure of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. Carole Lombard’s biographer, Larry Swindell, called it “A trifle, enjoyable for the moment and easily forgettable, yet very smoothly done.” I first saw it while I was living in Dallas in the mid-1980s. I taped it when it was broadcast in the middle of the night. When I watched it, I was delighted. The movie had a lot of the elements that typified Depression studio output – a glimpse into the life of the wealthy, the sarcastic staccato patter with which the major characters made love, a love triangle resolved at the conclusion.

The movie was based on a magazine story by a lady named Faith Baldwin. Lombard was working at Paramount at the time. Universal, who made this movie, traded her to Paramount for Margaret Sullavan. Lombard would make this movie at Universal and Sullavan would make a movie called So Red The Rose at Paramount. Lombard had script approval rights and she disliked the script. The script had at least six identified writers aside from the credited writer, Herbert Fields. Preston Sturges was among the six. After this workover, Lombard approved the script. She brought, from Paramount, her usual photographer, Ted Tetzlaff, and her usual costume designer, Travis Banton. Production took five weeks in December 1935 and January 1936. The film was released March 9, 1936.

At the very same time, Carl Laemmle, who created Universal, was losing control of the studio he founded. Laemmle was a German immigrant who went from managing a clothes store in Oshkosh, Wisconsin to opening his first movie theater on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago in 1906. Laemmle operated a string of movie houses, then started and ran a film distributing service, then produced his own films. In the process he ran afoul of Thomas Edison’s Trust. Between 1908 and 1912 Edison tried to use his ownership of motion picture equipment patents and Kodak’s monopoly over film stock to control the output of studios making films in the United States.  Laemmle was one of the leaders of the independents, who won the legal battle with Edison to be able to make films without paying license fees to him.

When we think of Universal in the 1930s today, we remember the great horror films, like Frankenstein, Dracula and The Mummy, with their shadowy overtones of German expressionist films. Many of the people who made these movies had come from working in Berlin, which accounted for some of that look. Under Laemmle, Universal was a studio that didn’t acquire stars (too expensive), and made a lot of genre films, such as Westerns, cheaply.

Laemmle’s son ascended to run the studio in 1929 and Junior wanted to make quality productions, which took money. Universal wasn’t run in a very business like way. Neal Gabler, in his movie history An Empire of Their Own, quotes a writer as saying “They didn’t have any management there to speak of.” He says work at the studio was typified by “informality bordering on haphazardness.” At least seventy of Laemmle’s friends and relatives were on the payroll at the studio.

By November 1935, a month before production started on this picture, Laemmle was desperate for cash and secured a $750,000 loan from a Wall Street syndicate. In exchange he pledged his ownership of the studio, worth $5.5 million. Junior was producing Showboat, based on the Jerome Kern Broadway musical, and that production fell behind schedule and went over budget. Laemmle needed more cash from the bankers, and they called in his loan on April 2, 1936, a month after this movie was released. Laemmle was out as the head of Universal. The bankers owned it.

This business history of Laemmle and Universal might not seem to tell you very much about Love Before Breakfast, except that this little charmer of a film doesn’t look like it had a very big budget, and maybe now you understand some of the reasons why it didn’t. I hope you enjoy it.