The Evolution of the Universal Pictures Intro

I love watching a film studio’s ident unfold in the moments before a movie starts. It’s the appetizer before the film. And it gives you a neat little peek into the studio’s brand- the way they want to identify themselves to you, the viewer. I’ve probably seen more films from Universal than I have any other studio. This is mostly a residual of their niche as the horror specialists of the 1930’s and 40’s. As such, I’ve seen their ident evolve, moreso than companies like 20th Century Fox, MGM, and Disney whose intros have stayed mostly static for a very long time. Here’s the evolution of the Universal intro, along with a handful of really unique alternate versions they’ve had through the years. Enjoy!

The Current
While I really enjoy several of these, the current one is pretty tough to beat. The majestic french horn combined with the orchestral crescendo sets the tone for good movie viewin’.


The First
This one goes as far back as 1914 (Universal was founded in 1912; their first release was in 1914). I can honestly say that I’d never seen this version until I started researching for this entry. Per the Youtube link, this is the intro from the 1914 short film, By the Sun’s Rays, starring Lon Chaney, Sr. (who else?). Note that it’s also called “The Trans-Atlantic Film Company”.

Into the 20’s
At some point in the middle of the 1920’s, the classic plane started to appear in the ident. This particular version is from 1927:

The Classic, Part I
As I mentioned, Universal had a niche as the horror studio. Their creature features were an integral part of building Hollywood into what Hollywood became. They’re a beautiful fusion of German expressionism and the seeds of American noir, all placed into a (hokey but) fun supernatural context. So when you turn on The Mummy or Frankenstein or Dracula, this intro is the one you see. It lasted from approximately 1928 to 1936.

The Classic, Part II
After channeling the popularity of Lon Chaney, Sr., Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi into studio firepower, Universal decided to emphasize that they had star power… by adding stars to their ident. This is the intro that you see during the second wave of the creature features (amongst other places)- specifically in The Wolf Man. It came about circa 1937:

The Boring Version
Troops came home from overseas at the conclusion of the tumultuous World War II. Suburbs started popping up all over the place. Boomer kids were born. America turned their grandfather, Dwight D. Eisenhower, into their president for eight years. The whole country (save for a few beatniks) collectively ended bachelorhood, settled down to raise families, and became a (mostly) boring place, for better or worse. And so Universal turned their grand ident into visual and auditory oatmeal from about 1947 until the early 1960’s. The creation of this version also coincides with Universal’s merger with International Pictures and subsequent reorganization as Universal-International.

The Only Slightly Less Boring Version
In the late 50’s and early 60’s, MCA gradually took over Universal, and ultimately re-branded the intro. Three things happened in the late 50’s and early 60’s that (presumably) influenced the Universal ident. First, space travel was becoming an exciting reality. Second, color became much more prominent in cinema. And third, boomer kids started influencing elections and the country elected the charismatic John F. Kennedy. The result? They put it in color and added some crap that kind of implies orbit, or planetary rings, or… something. This version ran for most of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s:

The 75th Anniversary Version
To commemorate their 75th anniversary, Universal rolled out a longer intro that paid homage to their classic intros of the past. And after the 75th anniversary had passed, they brought out a truncated version. This truncated version lasted about 8 years, until 1997. Both versions were (in my opinion) massive improvements over what they’d had for 4+ decades, as the orchestral intro returned and the notion of outer space was given more depth and motion. The whole thing popped off of the screen more. First the 75th anniversary intro:

And now the shorter version that lasted for most of the 90’s:

 

And finally, that brings us back to the current version (see the first listing). Ultimately, Universal has ended up in the hands of NBC. Fortunately, unlike MCA and International Pictures before them, NBC has wisely chosen to stoke the brand rather than abandoning it or making it more vanilla. I assume it’ll change next in 2014-2015 when Universal reaches their centennial anniversary. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Now, the alternate versions:

Alternate Versions
Smokey and the Bandit

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
Embedding is sadly disabled here, so you’ll have to follow this link. Since Steve Martin’s film was a black and white spoof of classic American noir, Universal marched the early 40’s intro back out to stick with the retro theme.


20 Comments

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20 responses to “The Evolution of the Universal Pictures Intro

  1. The Classic, Part II is probably my favorite…followed by The Classic, Part I

  2. Stu

    I really appreciate films with throwback or unique Universal intros (i.e. the old logo in Romero’s “Land of the Dead” and, of course, the 8-Bit intro on “Pilgrim.” In the case of “Land,” that intro alone made me look at the film in a more favorable light than perhaps it deserved.

    • I wish I’d stumbled upon more of those. The Scott Pilgrim version was the one I could think of right off of the top of my head, and that led me to the Smokey and the Bandit version.

      Really, there could/should be a whole separate entry just for the alternates.

  3. Great post! I hope you consider doing the same for others, like Columbia and Paramount!

  4. You should do a tribute to the old HBO movie opening. I used to love that thing!

    • HELL YES. We didn’t have HBO at home so I had to wait until we visited my aunt and uncle twice a year to watch it. So that HBO opening has special memories for me.

      John Fun Fact: I associate the HBO intro with the first time I ever saw nudity in a movie- “Q”, starring titans of cinema like David Carradine, the guy who played Shaft, and a giant claymation dinosaur.

      Also, note to self: see Marathon Man.

  5. @Da_Rhettster

    I wonder how long it was before someone saw the 1927 version and said, “Ummm, guys, the earth is spinning backwards.” Love the Scott Pilgrim version and I’m SO glad you remembered the Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid revival. One of my favorite movies of all time. Makes me want to hire a…

    Reinemachefrau

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  8. You missed the beautiful intro of Waterworld.
    The water raising and covering the planet 🙂

  9. cube

    the. 1990 and 1991 used in things like the jetsons movie is the best. the music is better and its more classy. the75th version is also nice.

    I don,t care for the one they use now since the 80, and 90,s ended 2000 version with the gold beams and trumpet music. they should have left the old one alone mostly I don,t like the music it kills the magic.

  10. cube

    the 8bit one is also 100% awsome to bad they use the music horn trumpets music i don’t like. I wish it was the 90,s version. Scott pilgrim the game I think has it too. can’t remember

  11. cube

    oh and I also like the universal cartoon studios one. since I love cartoon films but you forgot that one.

  12. Satan Claus

    Seen the new one? Imho it does beat the old one :o)

  13. David Harris

    Hi. I appreciate your research, and great video links on this! I’m constantly ‘rewinding’ the current theme to hear that beautiful horn and the incredible crescendo with cymbals. Was just googling to find out the history, and boom, you were there.
    Thank you!
    -David

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