Monday, 16 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 5: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Metro Goldwyn Mayer, or MGM, as it is generally referred to, was founded in 1924, when Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions merged into what would become Hollywood’s biggest, most influential motion picture studio. The merger was very advantageous inasmuch as each individual arm of the future corporation had their own invaluable assets, to be absorbed by the new studio and thereby much contributed to MGM’s meteoric rise.

Louis B. Mayer

Metro’s Marcus Loew and Louis B. Mayer both had an impressive line-up of stars and craftsmen, while Samuel Goldwyn contributed a modest-sized studio on 10202 Washington Avenue, in Culver City (which had previously belonged to film pioneer Thomas Ince), a small chain of cinemas, and a company logo of a roaring lion, which the new corporation quickly turned into their own. However, before MGM got off the ground, Goldwyn dropped out over a falling out with Mayer. According to his biographer, Scott A. Berg, “Goldwyn was bought out of the company, which would thereafter not only bear his name, but also use his grounds, being paid one million dollars”.

Hence, MGM’s lion would roar without Goldwyn.

Samuel Goldwyn

The imperial Louis B. Mayer became head of the studio, assisted by Eddie Mannix, who was the studio’s general manager, and Benny Thau, in charge of labour relations, both of whom would stay with MGM for many years to come. Mayer’s most important sidekick, however, was the feverish Irving G. Thalberg, who had tagged along from Mayer’s previous outfit, and continued in his old job as head of production.

Irving G. Thalberg marrying MGM star, Norma Shearer

A lot has been written about Thalberg’s role in the MGM conglomeration, and his real value appears to be difficult to assess. Considering the relatively few films of artistic value that were produced under his reign, it might well be that Thalberg was “as overvalued as Columbia’s Harry Cohn was undervalued”, as film historian Andrew Sarris states in his book You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, and I think Sarris does indeed have a point.

Marcus Loew was appointed MGM’s president, pulling the financial strings from the company’s headquarters in New York, thereby following a well established pattern, adopted by most other major film studios, whose financial and artistic power was divided between New York and Los Angeles. Mayer and Thalberg saw eye to eye in terms of their vision for MGM’s future, which was “making beautiful pictures for beautiful people”, and together they turned MGM into the studio of sequined sirens and knights in shining armour. And indeed, besides their technical polish, MGM’s films had a distinct look, almost like a signature, which made it next to impossible for the viewer to mistake them for what they were: MGM motion pictures. Lavish musicals and glossy, escapist visions of an idealised world were the company’s stock in trade, and they were worlds apart from the gritty realism of Warner’s gangster movies or the gritty look of Universal’s horror flicks.

Cedric Gibbons

Cedric Gibbons, who was the head of the art department, was largely responsible for the uniform, sumptuous look of MGM’s films, and next to Thalberg and Mayer himself, he probably was the most important man on the lot, supervising literally every production to make sure it was up to MGM’s high standard.

With so much emphasis on the film’s look, it is hardly a surprise that directors had a tough time at the studio as their artistic freedom was very much curtailed. As a result, directors, who are visionaries by nature were the only creative force MGM had a perpetual lack of, as they chose the artistic freedom at studios like Warner's or Columbia, over MGM’s glitz. Consequently, only few of the early films the studio produced are at all memorable.

MGM’s biggest asset, though, was its massive line-up of stars.

“More stars than there are in heaven” ran the company’s ad-campaign during its golden age, and with names like Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, and Norma Shearer, all under contract to the studio, the statement wasn’t far off the mark.

But there were casualties, too.

Buster Keaton

When Joseph Schenk announced to Buster Keaton in 1928 that he would no longer continue to produce his films, and that Keaton would henceforth be under contract to MGM, whose president Joseph’s brother, Nicholas became, the stunned comedian couldn’t quite fully grasp what he was in for. Used to unbridled freedom, the “man who never laughed” would soon have even less reason to do so, when in 1933, over one last run-in with Mayer, Keaton walked out on the MGM colossus, - never to return there ever again.

The “one big, happy family” the belligerent Mayer deluded himself in having, was only so as long as all the staff complied with his demands and orders. And there are indeed numerous examples - mainly stars and craftsmen - for whom this set-up worked brilliantly. But when it came to having visions and ideas of one’s own, the family ties proved to be more brittle than Mayer cared to admit. MGM’s was Hollywood’s best-oiled, most sophisticated assembly line. But it was nevertheless an assembly line.

The rather tyrannical reign at MGM notwithstanding, during its infancy the company did turn out a small handful of outstanding features, notably Victor Sjöström’s unsettling masterpiece The Wind (1928), starring the legendary Lilian Gish, Todd Browning’s eerie masterpiece Freaks (1932), and King Vidor’s riveting Halleluja (1929), and his equally astonishing The Crowd (1928), which was nominated for two Academy Awards at the first Oscar ceremony.

King Vidor was somewhat an oddity on the MGM lot. Influenced by the German expressionism of the early 1920s, he regarded silent films as superior to sound, labelling the tempo and composition of his films “silent music”. Primarily a visualist, he was one of MGM’s hottest properties, and he would later direct the opulent western melodrama Duel In The Sun (1944), on which he ended up walking out, put off by the incessant meddling of his boss, David O. Selznick.

Boasting an all-star cast, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932), revolving around the travails of a handful of illustrious guests at a Berlin-based luxury accommodation, based on Vicki Baum’s novel, won the studio its second Best Picture Oscar.

Irving Thalberg suffered a massive heart attack in late 1932, which required him to take a long leave of absence, prompting the industrious Mayer to restructure the company and replace Thalberg with David O. Selznick, then married to Mayer’s daughter, Irene. When the stalwart Thalberg returned to MGM, he found a different company with his authority greatly diminished.

David O. Selznick

He died in 1936, the same year Selznick left MGM to found his own production company, though releasing his pictures through MGM. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had been living and working in Hollywood during the 1930s, immortalised the MGM wunderkind in his novel, The Last Tycoon, whose hero, Monroe Stahr, is modelled on Thalberg.

After Thalberg’s death, Mayer decided to oversee the production of MGM’s films himself, and although box-office returns remained stable, the quality of the pictures didn’t much improve. However, the company landed a huge commercial and critical hit with the original Mutiny On The Bounty (1935), starring the brilliant Charles Laughton, winning the company yet another Best Picture Oscar, followed the year after with The Great Ziegfeld (1936), a musical based on the life of legendary theatre entrepreneur, Florenz Ziegfeld.

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz

From early on MGM had focused on musicals. However, with the pairing of producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli, and the company’s new asset, Judy Garland, signed in 1937, and soon to become Minnelli’s wife, musicals became MGM’s biggest artistic contribution during the 1940s. The Wizard Of Oz(1939), Meet Me In St.Louis (1944), and Easter Parade (1948) have since become landmarks in movie history.

Taylor in Lassie

With the arrival of the young British import Elizabeth Taylor in 1943, MGM had yet another asset in its ever-growing stable of stars, with her films Lassie Come Home (1943) and National Velvet (1944) turning out to be immensely successful box-office winners.

Motion picture attendance in the US reached its peak in 1946. Over the years MGM, like most other film companies in Hollywood, had expanded on a steady basis, its lot in Culver City having grown to almost 190 acres, from its original 40, boasting a lake including a harbour, a railway station, a small jungle, and various streets and parks, making it the biggest studio in Hollywood.

In 1951 MGM won yet another best picture Oscar. For a musical, to be sure! An American In Paris struck a chord with post-war audiences, when an American artist, played by the incomparable Gene Kelly falls for a young French waif, played by the elfin Leslie Caron. The film also scored Oscars for Cedric Gibbons and Vincente Minelli, who at that time was still married to Judy Garland, but would divorce her a year later. The Government Consent Decree in 1950 didn’t leave MGM untouched, either, and in 1951, with profits at an all time low, Mayer was asked to leave by Nicholas Schenk.

Dore Schary

Replaced by Dore Schary, who himself would only last until 1956, Mayer’s demise echoed that of his peers, and he died in 1957. However, even after Mayer and Schary had left the sinking ship it was business as usual for MGM, still focusing on sleek and glossy colour productions. Only that now they were shot in 70mm, in a last attempt to draw lost audiences back into the cinemas.

Outside its musicals, MGM also joined other film companies in investing in religious and historical epics, which not only lent themselves to the new widescreen formats, they also went very well with the right-wing leaning political climate of the time. It was hardly a surprise that a rehash of Ben Hur (1959), starring Charlton Heston, who made no bones about his political leanings, won MGM yet another best picture Oscar in 1959, after having scored one for the innocuous musical Gigi (1958) the year before.

But the success of those films couldn’t disguise the fact that the crisp and glossy crust had become very brittle, and that underneath was the festering wound of a company that more than ever lacked talented directors to draw the increasingly fastidious audiences back into the theatres. And with most everyone gone, discharged, or dead to give the company some much needed artistic input, MGM eventually turned into a company run by business men and tycoons, who had little or no interest, let alone the know-how, in running a film studio.

By the late 1960s a fresh and new breeze, coming from the left, caught Hollywood. During that time MGM released two outstanding, noteworthy pictures, which also did more than respectable business, not to mention winning a handful of Oscars. Though old fashioned, Dr. Zhivago (1965), David Lean’s tightly woven epic, was as engrossing as Stanley Kubrick’s space opera 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) was disquieting and disturbing. However the box-office failure of Lean’s follow-up, the much underrated Ryan’s Daughter (1970), set MGM back another 14 million and further contributed to its demise.

By 1969 the Las Vegas behemoth Kirk Kerkorian seized control over the studio, and branching out into television and record deals, MGM ceased distributing its own pictures in 1973, just shortly before in 50th anniversary, which was nevertheless celebrated with the highly profitable release of That’s Entertainment (1974), a revelry of fifty years of MGM musical making. Even though continuously losing its clout, MGM still came up with the odd masterpiece, most notably among them are the uncanny, clever science-fiction thriller Soylent Green (1973)and the sardonic Network (1976). Both films were way ahead of their time, and sadly, did hardly anything to give the company’s box-office returns the much-needed boost.

After having added United Artists to his shopping cart, billionaire Kerkorian sold both companies to media tycoon Ted Turner, who promptly re-sold them to Kerkorian, who then sold them once again, this time to Pathé Communications in 1990. Eventually Crédit Lyonnais took control of MGM in 1991, but sold its back lot to Sony Pictures in 1993, forcing MGM to relocate temporarily to Santa Monica, until a few years later, the company finally settled in their new headquarters, which, ironically, are located in Century City, sitting on what used to be part of the Twentieth Century Fox back lot!

Unbelievable but true, in 1996 Kerkorian bought the much messed-about company for a third time.

Kirk Kerkorian

To add a sad coda to MGM’s story, what used to be the studio’s back lot and headquarters, is now home to Columbia Pictures, or rather Columbia-Tri-Star, as it is now named, with the whole mash owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. And even though classics like The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Wizard Of Oz (1939), and Some Came Running (1960), were all shot on the lot, there is little mention of the studio’s historical link to MGM during the two-hour studio-tour, as it focuses chiefly on recent Sony productions, and of course, television.

It is no surprise that there was little time or room for artistry within all this big-time money traffic and business shenanigans. Norman Jewison’s old-fashioned love-story Moonstruck(1988), Ridley Scott’s feminist road-movie-turned-cult-film Thelma And Louise(1991), and Get Shorty (1995) were among the few artistically interesting films of note that stood out amidst the flood of life-less entertainment.