The Stern Brothers and Comedy

March 22 was the birthday of Julius Stern (1886-1977), who along with his brother Abe (1888-1951) formed a producing partnership called the Stern Brothers. The Sterns’ sister Recha was married to Carl Laemmle, founder and first President of Universal Pictures. The German-born brothers were with Laemmle pretty much every step of the way during the early years. In 1909, they co-founded the Yankee Film Company with him, which quickly morphed into Independent Moving Pictures, or IMP. Universal was founded in 1912.

The comedy story begins in 1914 when Henry Lehrman founded L-KO as one of the many Universal brands. When Lehrman left in 1916 to oversee comedy production at Fox, the Sterns took over running L-KO, which lasted until 1919.

As producers, the Stern brothers continued the Lehrman policy of penny pinching. To Abe Stern is attributed the immortal quote (and valuable production advice), which I have seen with many variations: “A rock is a rock, a tree is a tree [to hell with Catalina Island] — shoot it in Griffith Park” or ” — shoot in on the back ranch”. In other words, you don’t need to travel to that expensive location; get it on the cheap locally, because the audience will never know the difference. Not always the best advice, but more often than not, it can be.

In 1917, the Stern Brothers founded another label, Century Comedies, specifically to produce the comedies of Alice Howell. (You can see some of them on this terrific new CD set; its producers Ben Model and Steve Massa, more than anyone else, are responsible for what awareness I have of the Stern Brothers).

By 1919, Century had begun to produce other comedies in addition to Howell’s, and she departed. The Sterns continued producing films for another decade, ’til the end of the silent era. They were particularly known for making shorts with kids and animals, and adaptations of comic strips. Their names are attached to the comedies of Baby Peggy, Brownie the Wonder Dog, Joe Martin (an orangutan), and the comic strip character Buster Brown (and his dog Tige). Their last films were a series adapted from George McManus’s comic strip The Newlyweds, which we wrote about here.

According to Gilbert Sherman, grandson of Jules Stern, the brothers “…fell out with Carl Laemmle in 1929.  They continued to be directly involved in motion picture production into the 1930s, although no longer affiliated directly with Universal.  The day-to-day management of the company was handed over to a couple of nephews by 1932 and the firm survived, producing a variety of works into the 1970s.”