The Golden Years


In the 80 years since Universal Studios’ Carl Laemmle said, “I hope I didn’t make a mistake coming out here,” the motion picture industry’s migration to the Valley has proven successful, growing into the Valley’s top industry.

Moviemaking’s first moguls were lured west in the early 1900s by warm weather and the Valley’s vast and varied terrain.

Movies came to the Valley to stay when Warner Bros. moved to Burbank in the 1920s. By 1940, Disney had moved to Burbank and film production in the Valley rivaled that in Hollywood. The 1930s and ‘40s were the studios’ golden age, a time of peak production and attendance. Here’s a look at the Valley’s three largest studios.


Warner Bros. Studios

By the time Warner Bros. moved to Burbank in 1929, it had established itself as a leader in bringing sound to motion pictures. The four brothers--Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack--started in the film business in 1903 with a nickelodeon, gradually expanding into distribution and production.

With “The Jazz Singer,” they made the first film with partial sound. Despite this early jump on competitors, the studio’s move to color film was slow and its biggest successes remained black-and-white film noir movies. The studio gained a reputation as a bare-bones, cost-cutting operation by making movies economically and quickly. Directors often produced as many as five features a year.

The Films

Warner Bros. specialized in low-budget, fast-paced gangster sagas, dramas, comedies and musicals in the 1930s. Film costs ranged between $200,000 and $400,000. “The Public Enemy,” for example, starring James Cagney, cost the studio $200,000.

Types of Films 1935 1945 Action/Adventure 4 1 War 1 3 Documentary 0 1 Drama 16 4 Comedy 8 4 Musical 15 2 Crime 8 3 Western 1 1 Total 53 19

Annual Film Production:

1925: 30 1935: 53 1945: 19 1955: 21 1965: 15 1975: 18

Universal City Studios

Universal founder Carl Laemmle, an immigrant clothing manufacturer, opened his first nickelodeon in Chicago in 1906. By 1913, Laemmle had three small studios in Hollywood and was looking to expand.

Laemmle purchased a 230-acre chicken ranch on the northeastern edge of the Cahuenga Pass for $165,000, named it Universal City and opened the studio in 1915.


Equipped for both studio and exterior shooting, the site included a zoo with a variety of exotic animals and hundreds of horses and cows. A 300-by-500-foot main stage could accommodate up to five productions at once. For 25, visitors got a box lunch and, for the first time ever, were able to see movies made.

The Films

In the 1930s, Universal established itself as the king of horror films. Adventure films such as the “Flash Gordon” series were also popular during the ‘30s. Universal produced big-hit movies such as “King of Jazz” ($1.65 million) in 1930 as well as less expensive hits such as “Frankenstein” ($250,000) in 1931.

Types of Films 1935 1945 Action/Adventure 9 8 War 0 0 Fantasy 3 4 Drama 7 7 Comedy 3 4 Musical 1 7 Crime 10 10 Western 7 10 Total 40 50

Annual Film Production:

1925: 51 1935: 40 1945: 50 1955: 31 1965: 21 1975: 7

Universal highlights and finances

Universal turned out a large number of films in the 1920s, but was slow to change over to sound. Hard-hit by the Depression, the studio lost money throughout the 1930s. Stars such as musical performer Deanna Burbin and comedy duo Abbott & Costello helped boost profits.

Annual profits or losses in millions of dollars:

1927: $1.5 1928: $1.1 1929: $0.5 (Carl Laemmle Jr. become head of production) 1930: $-1.8 (“All Quiet on the Western Front” wins best picture Oscar) 1931: $0.6 (“Dracula” is released, followed by “Frankenstein”) 1932: $-1.2 (Boris Karloff stars in “The Mummy”) 1933: $-1.0 1934: $-0.2 1935: $-0.7 (Two expensive movies flop: “Showboat,” “Sutter’s Gold”) 1936: $-1.6 (Carl Laemmle Sr. sells out his interest in Universal) 1937: $-1.0 (First Deanna Durbin picture, “One Hundred Men and a Girl”) 1938: $-0.4 1939: $1.0 1940: $2.2 (First Abbott & Costello film is released) 1941: $2.3 (“The Wolf Man” is released) 1942: $3.0 (Abbott & Costello become studio’s top box office stars) 1943: $3.8 1944: $3.4 1945: $3.9 1946: $4.6 (Universal merges with International Pictures) 1947: $3.2 (Universal hit of the decade “The Egg and I” is released) 1948: $-3.2 1949: $-1.1

Warner Bros. highlights and finances

Warner Bros. enjoyed skyrocketing profits from its early talkies in the late 1920s. But its finances suffered from the Depression in the early ‘30s and recovery was slow. Its profit margin was about $10,000 per picture in 1935. Booming attendance boosted profits again in the mid-40s.


Annual profits or losses in millions of dollars:

1927: 0 (“The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson is released) 1928: $2.0 1929: $14.5 (Purchases First National and moves to Burbank) 1930: $7.1 1931: $-7.9 1932: $-14.1 1933: $-6.3 1934: $-$2.5 1935: $0.7 ($1-million expansion adds nine stages, 50 buildings) 1936: $3.2 (110 acres added to lot, bringing total to 188) 1937: $5.9 1938: $1.9 (“Jezebel” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” released) 1939: $1.7 (Bette Davis becomes No. 1 female star) 1940: $2.7 (First Humphrey Bogart film noir is released, “High Sierra”) 1941: $5.4 (“Sergeant York” is the studio’s biggest hit of the decade) 1942: $8.6 1943: $8.2 (“Casablanca” wins studio’s second best picture Oscar) 1944: $7.0 (“To Have and Have Not” is released) 1945: $9.9 (Joan Crawford stars in “Mildred Pierce”) 1946: $19.4 1947: $22.1 1948: $11.8 1949: $10.5 *

In late 1941, Warner Bros. purchased the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” for $20,000. After a title change, rewriting and juggling of lead actor, “Casablanca” began filming in May, 1943, without a finished script. Rewriting continued through shooting, which was completed in 59 days at a cost of $950,000. “Casablanca” was filmed almost entirely on the studio’s backlot, transformed into French Morocco. The backlot’s “French Street” provided the setting for the Paris flashback sequence, a setting still used in films. Only one scene was filmed off the lot--the arrival of Maj. Strasser at Casablanca’s airport was filmed at the old Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys. The concluding airport segment was filmed on Stage One at the studio.

Walt Disney Studios

The Disney studio was an influential part of the migration of the motion picture industry to Burbank, even though it wasn’t considered a major studio typical of the golden years. Before moving to Burbank, Disney’s Hollywood studio produced cartoons and animated characters that became ‘star’ in their own right.

When the company outgrew its Hollywood site, Walt Disney purchased a 51-acre lot in Burbank in 1939, where he built a $1-million studio. The studio resembled a campus more than other studios, which had high walls and sound stages. Yet it was on that ‘campus’ that many animation techniques were pioneered.

Disney highlights and finances

Annual profits or losses:

1940: -$120,000 (Burbank studio releases first film, “Pinocchio”; “Fantasia” follows) 1941: -$789,000 (“Dumbo” is released) 1942: -$191,000 (“Bambi” is released) 1943: $431,000 1944: $486,000 1945: $350,000 1946: $199,000 (“Song of the South” combines live action and animation) 1947: $307,000 1948: -$39,000 (“Seal Island” wins best documentary Oscar) 1949: -$93,000 Sources: Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences; Walt Disney Studios; Universal Pictures; Warner Bros. Inc.; “The Hollywood Story”; “Flashback: A Brief History of Film”; “Behind the Scenes”; Universal City / North Hollywood: A Centennial Portrait

Researched by JULIE SHEER / Los Angeles Times


Upcoming: Part II, The financial impact of the film industry; Part III, The anatomy of filmmaking