Tuesday, October 25

Metro Goldwyn Mayer

It was an honor to have been on the MGM lot twice in the early 1960s. The first time I pleaded with a grandfatherly family friend to take me along on his business with the studio and the second time I had my own business to conduct when I went to a screening for a film I would be reviewing for my newspaper.  I'd been in a couple of other studios before but nothing like this.  It simply reeked of prestige.
Paramount had been the first Hollywood studio to make it big but some dozen years later MGM surpassed it.  It was around the same time that it became apparent Hollywood had outgrown its infancy. The pioneering days were over and MGM never intended to be lower than number one.  It would easily attain that status and remain there for decades.

It would always be the glamor studio and it always wanted to be. They would give it to you in exotic Metrocolor at some point and feature an acting pool that was chic and fascinating and had fabulous faces and hair. MGM always had its focus on actresses.  I mean, like no other studio... let's be clear. Think Garbo, Crawford, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and Arlene Dahl for starters. And Clark Gable and Robert Taylor were around to deliver the kisses.  

From the beginning the studio had a few abiding principles and in the time frame we'll be discussing, it never waivered.  We'll discuss them shortly but let's get you to the start. It was mid-1924 when the studio first opened its impressive gates.  It started with one Marcus Lowe, an exhibitor who got himself all revved up over owning a movie studio.  The first M of MGM is for Metro Studios which Lowe bought at a time when it was in tatters. Shortly thereafter he got the G when he purchased the then-chaotic (Samuel) Goldwyn studios. Now on his way, Lowe knew the things he wanted and chief among them was someone to run the joint. The heads of the purchased companies would not suffice. Who came around but Louis B. Mayer who headed his own little studio which wasn't experiencing the riches he thought it should?  He would become the second M.

By the way, just so you can be really in on things, maybe share with your friends at the upcoming holiday parties, if one didn't work at the studio (for starters... you and me), one usually called it MGM. To the employees, however, it was always Metro.

And those employees, whether you know their names or not, were always treated as employees.  To be sure they were well-paid... neither the studio profits nor its wage policies were anything like the hardships endured at two other postings here on Warner Bros and RKO.  No siree.  MGM believed in every way imaginable that spending money gets more money.  When you pay the folks well, they give you loyalty.  They may give it freely but they'll be supervised, nonetheless.

Mayer wasn't called Papa Mayer for no reason.  He wanted everyone in his dominion to think of it as family.  He was the daddy and everyone knew it.  He wasn't as kindly as he appeared but he liked nothing better than putting his arm around a sobbing starlet and whispering to her to tell Papa everything and we'll work it out. Mayer was a bit of a prude (although not at all naive) and he was intent on MGMs movies being wholesome... God, country and apple pie. 

In the old days... you know, before 1924... studios contracted with independent producers.  MGM made the decision that its producers would be on staff.  As such, the majority of the studio's directors didn't have quite the clout as directors at other studios with producers not available to breath down their necks.  This would be the highest order of business, a fundamental principle of how the studio would be run. There would be many such men but among the most well-known would be Arthur Freed and Joe Pasternak.

At the top of the heap, the one with the most authority, was Irving Thalberg.  He was without question the genius behind the studio in its first dozen or so years.  He gave MGM the elegance, the reputation and the power it wanted. He came to MGM alongside Mayer because he was part of the acquisition.  For a few years they pretty much agreed down the line.  Thalberg would produce, Mayer would supervise. But in no time at all, everyone-- inside the studio and around town-- knew who had the brains and the clout at MGM.

Those early principles on how producers would function was never at issue although Mayer would never allow another one to have as much say-so as Thalberg obtained. The two agreed their studio would focus on marquee value, the stars.  It would be about the stars.  No wonder people wanted to work there. And of course there were those nice salaries.  Thalberg also favored large casts... if one star could bring in the public, why not 10? We got the money Of course, most of Hollywood would complain about the prima donnas at MGM. 

The two also agreed that the studio's mission was to make their films look big and beautiful and prestigious.  Where they disagreed was the types of films they would make. Thalberg was not opting for wholesome... a few, ok... but not the steady diet of them Mayer liked. The young producer was obsessed with buying Broadway productions.  He wanted hot people in great stories. Mayer didn't care so much for stories and would have been satisfied with filming the same two or three general plots over and over... all with apple pie and chicken soup.  I mean, he is responsible for the Andy Hardy series!

Writers had a helluva time at the studio because they were treated as mere employees as well.  It was generally a group writing project as well.  Someone would handle characters, another dialogue, another description and so on.  Maybe they flipped a coin to see who got screen credit.  Famous writers... Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Hammett... would come to MGM with their tails between their legs and leave with the tails cut off... humiliated by the experience.

L. B. Mayer with Jean Harlow

Thalberg wanted sex in his stories and he often wanted it rough. He had always been frail and sickly himself, but he is likely responsible for how we think of Clark Gable in those days... belting some babe and smart-assing his way around a story.  Jean Harlow, in real life a sweet woman, played a tramp like she'd taken lessons and would never have had much of a career at MGM if Mayer had the only say.  Thalberg knew what he wanted and he was the darling of MGMs New York big boss, Nicholas Schenck.

Together an impressive team would be brought on board.  Eddie Mannix, a tough s.o.b. (some said with gangster connections) became veep. One of his right-hand men was Whitey Hendry, head of the studio's police force, the man who knew all the secrets and where the bodies were buried. He had his stooges at the Culver City Police Department who had MGMs back.  Shhhh was the operative word.

Howard Strickling headed the publicity department and you wouldn't believe the bs he fed you.  Lillian Burns was the drama coach and Gertrude Fogler was there for speech and diction.  If actresses got too heady, Sidney Guilaroff was there to comb them out.  Adrian dressed the lovelies and in later years Helen Rose.

One could find sound director Douglas Shearer (Norma's brother) and art director Cedric Gibbons' names on nearly every MGM film for years and years.  Some of the more well-known contract directors were George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Vincente Minnelli and King Vidor but there was also W.S. Van Dyke, Sidney Franklin, Richard Thorpe, Clarence Brown, Sam Wood, Jack Conway, Robert Z. Leonard and George Sidney.

Thalberg & wife MGM queen, Norma Shearer

The reigning MGM leading ladies of the 30s were Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford and they knew it.  All were around MGM in the 20s as well, making silents. Shearer, not all that much of an actress as I see it, was married to Thalberg. She copped many of the plum parts.  Likewise, I never particularly understood the appeal of Garbo, whether discussing her beauty or her acting. Too wooden for my tastes and no doubt Howard Strickling's publicity machine went into overdrive to hide her lesbianism.  But legendary she was and part of the legend was her stubbornness, independence and her hatred of MGM.  She had no intention of being treated as a mere employee.

Crawford's raw shop girl image appealed to Thalberg although again, Strickling was hard at work covering up her unsavory past. Mayer never liked her and the feeling was mutual.  Wholesome she wasn't.  He preferred two redheads, the rather stiff Jeanette MacDonald and the snooty Greer Garson.  

Thalberg understood the formula for success and one of his points was the team or rather re-teaming concept.  If so-and-so and so-and-so brought in the bucks once, let's do it again.  Mayer agreed. Paired over and over were Crawford and Gable, Harlow and Gable, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. 

In the same spirit of re-teaming came various series.  Tarzan was Thalberg's idea although Johnny Weismuller was one of those who never fit in with the MGM family. One of the more successful series was certainly The Thin Man, a tradition Mayer continued on his own.  More of Mayer's handiwork were Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildaire, the Ann Sothern-starrer Maisie and of course, Lassie.

Thalberg had his hand in everything and the studio during his days made about 50 films a year.  Its first big movie was Ben Hur (1924) which made a star of Ramon Navarro. Collecting paychecks for awhile were perfectionist Lon Chaney, troubled Mae Murray, imperious and talented Lillian Gish, out-of-his-depth John Gilbert and scandalous William Haines.  Thalberg and Mayer hired George Murphy, Walter Pidgeon, Luise Rainer, Robert Young, Mary Astor and Frank Morgan.

Thalberg was the brain power behind Grand Hotel, The Champ, Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Good Earth, Libeled Lady, San Francisco, Camille, The Women and more.  Both he and Mayer were in favor of musicals and believed there were basically three kinds. The first was the backstage musical, secondly the dance musical and finally the operetta.

The latter, of course, brought the MGM screen team of MacDonald and Eddy.  Both were a little too stiff for my tastes and I admit that I only occasionally liked their singing but their films were a boon for the studio. Likewise, on the dancing there was the glorious Eleanor Powell, whose films, dated by today's standards, were extremely popular.

Eddy & MacDonald brought in the big bucks

MGM, of course, would go on to become the studio most famous for its colorful musicals. By and large I never found them all that much better than other studios' offerings, but I am sure I am in the minority on this one. More operatic stars would join the family such as Kathryn Grayson, Ann Blyth, Jane Powell, Mario Lanza and Howard Keel.  And of course, what Eleanor Powell started, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller would finish.  I'm sure you can name a number of their films.

Thalberg, boy genius, would die at age 37 in 1936 and some said it was the end of MGM.  It wasn't.  Thalberg's passing hardly caused a ripple in Mayer's life and the studio greatly prospered during his solo rein from 1936 to 1951.  The only real change was the schmaltz.  Under his rein in the late 30s and into the first half of the 1940s came such films as Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mrs. Miniver, Ziegfeld Girl, National Velvet, The Philadelphia Story, Boom Town, Lassie Come Home, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and so many more.

Gone with the Wind (1939) was made by his son-in-law, David O. Selznick and at his own studio but when he suffered financial setbacks after the war, he sold the future distribution to the film to MGM.

One of the strangest movies to be made at MGM was the sexy film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1945)... absolutely not an MGM type of film.  Simply said, at that time MGM didn't do film noir because it was not the type of wholesome film Mayer wanted to do. Equally odd was borrowing leading man John Garfield from Warners, something Mayer was never keen to do. Didn't his studio already have the most glamorous stars on the planet?  Mayer always harbored negative feelings toward Postman star Lana Turner, whom he regarded as a tramp, but she sold tickets and he knew it.

The darkest part of his legacy had to do with Judy Garland.  He thought she was talented but he didn't find her to be very pretty and thought she was too chubby. He was certainly as responsible as anyone for getting her on uppers and downers and when she became temperamental, he turned his back on her... or as much as he could considering her immense popularity.

Like all movie moguls he paid attention to what other studios did, although presumably not as much as the attention they paid to his operation.  He was taken by how popular ice skater Sonia Henie was at 20th Century Fox. He wanted someone similar which is how he came across a teenage swimming champion by the name of  Esther Williams.  Her nearly 20 colorful water spectaculars were more profitable than Sonia Henie's few movies ever hoped to be. Mayer practically gave her the run of the studio.

Robert Taylor is one who didn't count so many profits. He was clearly Mayer's go-to boy, the longest acting employee the studio ever had and one of the lowest paid, right up to the end.  Mayer helped orchestrate the Taylor-Barbara Stanwyck marriage because his golden boy was tarnishing in the Hollywood rumor mill.

Next to MacDonald and Eddy, Mayer's favorite screen team was likely June Allyson and Van Johnson, as sunny and mirthful and decent as any two kids could be.  Individually they sold the MGM bloodline quite well and their mawkish films together made Papa squeal with delight.  Besides their squeaky clean images, both Johnson and Allyson were rather predatory in their hunt for men. For Johnson, Papa had to call out his fixers to clean up unsavory messes.  MGM had a strong morals clause in its contracts and more than once an actor was quietly shown the front gate due to indiscriminate behavior. But not Van Johnson.  He helped get the studio through the lean war years when its macho heroes were off fighting. Mayer always remained grateful.

He saw fit to allow Van Heflin, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, Gloria DeHaven, Angela Lansbury and later Jane Powell, Ann Miller and Deborah Kerr to the family. Allyson was joined by Margaret O'Brien, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Peter Lawford and put them all in 1949s Little Women, one of Mayer's favorite films.  I think it's time for a duh.  Before he left the studio he hired husband and wife actors Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger, also Debbie Reynolds and Vera-Ellen.

The title stars of Little Women... a Mayer favorite

When original founder Marcus Lowe died in 1926, he was replaced by Nicholas Schenck. He operated out of New York and while he rarely messed in West Coast studio matters, he never liked Mayer. Their disagreements, often surrounding Mayer's unwillingness to move off lavish musicals and women's pictures, finally came to a head in 1951 and Mayer was ousted (some say he quit with the expectation that Schenck would beg him to come back).

He was replaced by Dore Schary, whom he didn't like.  Schary had been around MGM on and off as a producer and he once headed RKO.  He was like Thalberg in that he wanted more dramas, message movies, film noirs, sex, violence.  That didn't mean the schmaltz went away; there were simply more choices.

Schary's reign was checkered at best and like all studios, MGM suffered with the onslaught of a new medium called television and with the Supreme Court's decision to force theater divestiture. During the 1950s, by the time underpaid, reliable Robert Taylor left, everyone else was already gone.

In 1956 Schary was replaced by Benny Thau and by 1966 the studio no longer held the glitzy name it always had.  A Canadian investor, Edward Bronfman Sr., bought it and three years later it was sold to financier Kirk Kerkorian, who hired rebellious James Aubrey to run the day-to-day operations... rather unsuccessfully. Sometime later Ted Turner bought it. Throughout these years the studio debt mounted and mounted, resulting in the sale of most of the property and a great deal of memorablia.  Ah but for the days of Mayer and Thalberg.

Leo (or Jackie) readying to record his roar, 1928

Let's wrap up with a word or two about MGMs mascot, Leo the Lion.  Everyone knows the MGM logo and always has.  What could be more memorable than a roaring lion?  This was the logo from Day One although there have been seven lions over these many years.

Louis B Mayer, always so proud of his prestige studio and always gaga over his paternal relationship with his many employees, coined the expression more stars than there are in heaven.  It certainly was an impressive collection.  In 1949 for the studio's 25th anniversary, they threw themselves a big party and we all got to attend.  If you're a big movie fan and haven't seen it before or want to see it again and you have 10 more minutes to spare... take a look.

Next posting:
A golden boy from Samuel Goldwyn

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