Carla Laemmle was one of the last surviving links to the golden age of silent movies. As an actress and dancer she succeeded in navigating the precarious passage to “talkies” - a tricky transition that famously formed the backdrop to Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Artist (2011).
Her career was launched by “Uncle Carl” - the movie mogul Carl Laemmle, who formed Universal Studios in 1912. “I wasn’t that naive that I didn’t know my uncle was held in high esteem in Hollywood, and that my being his niece helped to propel my career chances,” she recalled in 2011. “But I wouldn’t say that I was given any special privileges. I can recall attending a party at Uncle Carl’s where I heard Jack Warner chatting to Albert Einstein about the theory of relativity. ‘I have a theory about relativity too,’ joked Warner, ‘I never employ them.’ Uncle Carl shared a slightly different perspective on it, signing me on a long-term contract in 1928.”
Her screen test was directed by Erich von Stroheim. She made several silent movie appearances during the 1920s, often dancing her way through choreographed numbers. However, it is for her first on-screen spoken dialogue - delivering the opening words of Dracula (1930) - that she will be best remembered.
Dracula marked Universal out as the premier studio for the horror genre. A series of classics was released in quick succession, but Dracula remained the best known. Carla Laemmle opened the film, playing a bookish girl reading to her fellow passengers in a coach trundling through the mountains of Transylvania. “Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass,” reads the bespectacled Laemmle, “are found crumbling castles of a bygone age...”
The brief but celebrated appearance afforded her a place in film history. “It’s incredible that my scene took only one day to shoot and yet it has earned me screen immortality,” she said earlier this year.
She was born Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle in Chicago, Illinois, on October 20, 1909, the only daughter of Joseph and Carrie Belle Laemmle, and first danced professionally aged six. Five years later, when the family moved to California, she enrolled in dance classes under the tutelage of Ernest Belcher.
She changed her name to Carla in 1922 (in honour of her uncle). Belcher put his pretty, willowy protege to work in a series of film musicals he was choreographing, including The Phantom of the Opera (1925), with Lon Chaney, and La Boheme (1926), alongside Lillian Gish.
After the sudden death of Carla’s father in the late 1920s, Carla’s family were invited to move into a bungalow on the Universal lot near a New York street set. They remained there until the studio was sold in 1936.
“Growing up on the studio lot was a magic time of my life. I loved living in that fantasy world,” she recalled. “There was a zoo on the back lot and you could hear the lions roar in the morning. There was a camel that would get loose and come graze on our lawn. I’d go out with a dish of oatmeal and lure him into one of the empty garages.”
In 1928 she won promising reviews for her role on screen in the comedy The Gate Crasher (1928) and on stage as the prima ballerina performing with the Los Angeles Festival Orchestra at the Shrine Civic Auditorium. Other Los Angeles stage roles followed in the musicals Wildflower (1928) and No, No, Nanette (1929).
That same year she was loaned to MGM for The Broadway Melody - the first “talkie” to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. “Working on that picture was terribly difficult,” said Laemmle. “The main problem was where to hide the microphone, which had to be close enough to record voices. Consequently Broadway Melody was the most static song and dance movie ever made.”
With the advent of sound, she was quickly put to work in a series of early film musicals, each showcasing her classical dance talents. These included The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and The King of Jazz (1930), in which she danced on the keys of an enormous piano to Rhapsody in Blue.
In 1936 she starred in the film serial The Adventures of Frank Merriwell, directed by Ray Cannon. In a matter of weeks she and Cannon had become lovers, and he went on to write the play Her Majesty the Prince for her, it opened in 1936 and ran for more than 200 performances at The Music Box Theatre in Hollywood.
With Universal under new ownership, however, Laemmle’s career began to founder. Away from the security of the studio, she freelanced, finding work where she could. She appeared in The Great Waltz (1938), alongside Frank Sinatra in Step Lively (1944) and supporting Cary Grant in Night and Day (1946).
She also appeared in Showboat in 1951, and that year, having split up with Cannon, she met Donald Davis, a singer who had just returned from the war in Korea. The pair married. “He was so handsome and charming,” recalled Laemmle. He was also married to another woman. The union with Laemmle was annulled after three weeks.
In 1952 she rekindled her relationship with Cannon, and the couple embarked on a 12-year study and exploration of the rich waters of the Mexican state of Baja California (Cannon’s book The Sea of Cortez was a bestseller in 1965). A few years later, Cannon suffered a stroke, after which Laemmle devoted herself to his care. Cannon died in 1977.
In later life her longevity made her a rare eyewitness to a bygone era. She treated interviewers to tales of Lon Chaney in costume and the stinking sets built for All Quiet on the Western Front. “Director Lewis Milestone had managed to recreate the smell of trench warfare,” she recalled. “It was very moving.”
Retired and living in quiet seclusion in Los Angeles, she was the subject of interest amongst horror-film fans, including Steven Spielberg. She narrated a documentary, The Road to Dracula (1999), and returned to the screen to play an elderly vampire in The Vampire Hunter’s Club (2001).
In 2009 she celebrated her centenary at a party in Hollywood which was attended by her former contemporaries Gloria Stuart and Lupita Tovar, and the then Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
She published her autobiography, Among the Rugged Peaks, in 2010. The title was taken from her debut line of dialogue, first delivered in Dracula 80 years before.