A Distant Roar: MGM At 90
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Recollecting The Foundations That Begot The Famed Lion’s Roar While Lamenting The Loss Of A Place And Set Of Ideals That Framed The Images Of A Generation
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
May 12, 2014 — In 1924 theater magnate Marcus Loew merged Metro Pictures Corp. with Goldwyn Pictures Corp. and Louis B. Mayer Productions to create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Before long the studio boasted a roster of “more stars than there are in the heavens” and its legendary roaring lion logo became synonymous with the very best in filmed entertainment.
Led by Louis B. Mayer and production genius Irving Thalberg, MGM was a powerhouse that became the biggest and richest studio in Hollywood. During a golden three decades that followed, the Culver City-based studio dominated the movie business, creating a Best Picture nominee every year for two straight decades including the pivotal year of 1939 when the studio’s Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were both nominated for Best Picture.
GWTW took home the Best Picture Oscar that year (along with eight others) with Hattie McDaniel winning for Best Supporting Actress – the first African-American to be nominated for and win an Academy Award. Over the years, MGM added to those laurels by winning more than 175 Academy Awards and 14 Best Picture statuettes.
But in the late 1950s and ‘60s as movie studios faced increasingly tough competition from television, MGM’s luster began to fade. The 1966 sale of the studio to Edgar Bronfman, Sr. heralded an uncertain time for MGM and the studio was repeatedly bought and sold by a series of investors including Kirk Kerkorian who slashed production costs, sold off the vaunted backlot where dozens of classic movies had been filmed and began to release films through other studios like United Artists.
More sales, employee layoffs and even a bankruptcy were in MGM’s pared-down future. Although the studio continues to release a smattering of films each year, including the lucrative James Bond franchise of films, its glory days are definitely behind it.
In 1995 we visited with the former reigning soprano of MGM, Kathryn Grayson, in her Santa Monica home where she had lived for half a century. The star of musical delights like Kiss Me Kate, Showboat, Anchors Aweigh and the operettas The Toast of New Orleans and That Midnight Kiss with costar Mario Lanza, Grayson reminisced – forlornly – about her old alma mater.
“Everything is gone now,” she sighed. “The MGM backlot is leveled. The whole studio system fell apart when Mr. Mayer left MGM. He loved quality. I hear the Sony people who now own the former MGM studio have beautiful gardens there. I wish they’d make beautiful pictures instead.”
A lyrical lament and fitting epitaph for a lion now regrettably tamed.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com
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