All Quiet on the Western Front.

Carl Laemmle (1867-1939) was a German Jew who migrated to the US in 1884. He worked as a book-keeper, but got interested in movies when they were a new thing. So did a lot of other people. In 1912 Laemmle and some of the others merged their companies into Universal Films, and then moved to Hollywood. Universal Films turned out to be very successful in the Twenties and early Thirties. However, in 1928 Carl Laemmle made the mistake of bring his son, Carl, Jr. (1908-1979), into the business as head of production. Carl, Sr. had been a book-keeper, so he paid attention to what stuff cost. Carl, Jr. had been a rich kid, so he never paid attention to what stuff cost. This could work out OK if the spending produced a huge hit, so Carl Jr. and Universal were always on the look-out for a potential huge hit.

Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) grew up in a working class family in Germany, but had some hopes of becoming a writer. He was drafted into the German Army in 1916. After his training, he served six weeks on the Western Front before he was wounded. He spent the rest of the war in hospital. After the war he took a swing at teaching, then wandered between different types of jobs. He still wanted to be a writer. In a burst of creativity in 1927, he wrote All Quiet on the Western Front. It became a hit when it came out in 1929.[1] Universal bought the rights.

First, Universal needed a screen-writer to adapt the novel into a movie. They hired Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959) whose career is a novel in itself: he was a poor kid and son of an itinerant minister; a school teacher[2] and newspaper writer (fired many times in both careers, usually for not toeing the company line); and then he became a successful play-write, who turned to doing move screenplays on occasion. In 1924 his realistic war-play “What Price Glory?” had been a hit on Broadway. Carl, Jr. hired Anderson to adapt the novel.

Second, they needed a director. Lieb Milstein (1895-1980) grew up poor and Jewish in Kishinev, a city in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Kishinev wasn’t a good place to be either poor or Jewish, so Milstein did what everyone else who didn’t have rocks in their head did: he migrated to the United States. Upon arrival he changed his name to Lewis Milestone. He had been in the US for five years when America entered the First World War. Milstein enlisted in the Army; the Army taught him the film business as part of its propaganda and training work; and Milstein moved to Hollywood after the war. He soon became a director, with a Best Director Oscar in 1928. At the top of his profession, he was much in demand for big pictures. Carl Jr. hired him to direct “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Third, they needed a bunch of actors. The “extras” weren’t hard to find. Oddly, there were several thousand German war veterans living around Los Angeles. Carl Jr. hired a lot of them. For the lead role of Paul Baumer, they hired Lew Ayres (1908-1996). Ayres didn’t have much acting experience (and he wasn’t really much of an actor). He was young and innocent and impressionable looking, which was the whole point.

The movie cost $1.2 million to make and earned $1.5 million at the box-office. That was enough profit to tempt Carl Jr. into more big-budget movies. Most didn’t do so well. In 1936 he and Carl Sr. got shoved out of Universal.

Lewis Milestone won the Oscar for Best Director. He got black-listed in the Fifties, then went into television work. Ayres became a conscientious objector/medic in World War II.

[1] Remarque wrote ten more novels, but his first remains his most famous.

[2] You notice that both Remarque and Anderson were school teachers? So was William Clark Quantrill. On the one hand, it didn’t used to be a respectable profession, so all sorts of flakes tried their hand at it. On the other hand, anybody with some brains can learn how to do it.

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