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!
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’.
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:
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.