Meet the Laemmles, Perhaps on One of Their Screens

For all the talk of movie theaters as ‘sacred spaces,’ it’s the family bonds that will stick with viewers of the documentary ‘Only in Theaters.’

Wishing Well Entertainment
Greg Laemmle in ‘Only in Theaters.’ Wishing Well Entertainment

There has been a Laemmle in the movie business since the beginning of the industry. After Carl Laemmle immigrated to America from Germany in 1884, he went from retail bookkeeper to nickelodeon owner to founder of Universal Pictures. His son won an Academy Award as the producer of the original movie version of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and a nephew helped Preston Sturges craft his screwball classic “The Palm Beach Story,” though he went uncredited. “Uncle Carl” also encouraged brothers Max and Kurt Laemmle to leave Europe for Los Angeles, where they started buying up theaters in the 1930s.

Known as the Laemmle Theaters, their chain is the subject of a new documentary called “Only in Theaters.” Run now by Greg Laemmle, grandson of Max, the theaters are a local legend in L.A., hosting film festivals, revivals, foreign-language features, documentaries, and “Oscar qualifying runs” of independent films. Several industry professionals and directors, such as Cameron Crowe and Ava DuVernay, attest on camera to the influence the movies projected at the Laemmle Theaters have had on their careers.

“Only in Theaters” addresses the Laemmle legacy in Hollywood briskly, though soon settles into a funk when it becomes clear that Greg may have to sell some or all of the theaters due to shrinking ticket sales. The year is 2019 and exhibiting arthouse movies is not what it used to be, with streaming services posited as the main reason behind low attendance at the movie houses. Film critic Leonard Maltin is seen making an analogy with the demise of the independent bookstore, yet small book shops have experienced a resurgence in the last 10 years, even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking of the pandemic, the documentary really gets going when filmmaker Raphael Sbarge gets to March 2020. Some viewers may find the prospect of reliving those initial months of lockdown and civic unrest unappealing, though there’s no denying it gives the narrative some pull, while the hand-wringing and negotiations regarding the selling of the theaters gain a sharper, crisis-level tone. 

A visual treat that goes unmentioned but is shown via several quick cuts is the marquee of the Royal Theater, one of the key Laemmle properties, during the many months of the lockdown. Under “Now Showing,” the title “Life Stinks” would be listed, while “Hope Floats” would be the “Coming Soon” attraction. Or the marquee would display “Mask” and “Face/Off” and other such contrasting titles, providing witty, humanist commentary on what we all were going through during that moment in time.

The family dynamic between Greg, his father Robert, his wife Tish, and their three sons supplies “Only in Theaters” with necessary emotional heft. For all the talk of movie theaters as “sacred spaces,” it’s the family bonds that stick with the viewer. As the many months of financial worry bear on Greg, one can see the physical effects this stress has on him. His wife and son Nadav’s testimonials are particularly moving.

Near the end of the documentary, Greg talks about how many European Jews, including members of his family, vacillated between staying in Europe during times of upheaval and moving to find someplace safer. While his dilemma is not at the level of many a Jewish person in the 20th century, he does make a point in how they, too, agonized over whether they should sell their business and leave their homes. It’s a painful but necessary reminder of the plight of the Jewish diaspora, a legacy even longer than that of the Laemmles.

The New York Sun

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