Sunday, July 20, 2014

Forgotten Television Shows of the 1950s & 1960s

Ever see the television schedule for the week and wonder if those 25-some series that you are watching were all that were released in the 1950s and 1960s? We never wondered that, but just in case you did, here is a list of some forgotten television series of the era. There's no particular order to this list, it's just a mulligan stew of shows - some good, some bad - that aired between television's infant days and the invasion of the Beatles in '65. 

Let us know which of these series you heard of, which ones you've seen, and which ones you enjoyed because quite frankly we never saw any of them! 



The Four Just Men 

The Four Just Men galloped about the globe righting wrongs, each in his own manner. These men were portrayed by Jack Hawkins, Vittorio de Sica, Richard Conte, and Dan Dailey. In spite of its great premise the show didn't last long and petered out the same year it was released- 1959. 

Pride of the Family

The pride of the family the title was referring to was the lovable but bumbling papa, Albie Morrison, played by Paul Hartman. Fay Wray was Momma and the children were Bobby Hyatt and - you guessed it - Natalie Wood. The show debuted in 1953 but was cancelled after one season as well. 


Paris Precinct

Americans like variety...and not just the plate-spinning acrobatic kind to be seen on Sullivan. This show, premiering in 1955, delivered international crime stories for those who were tired of the usual Chicago and New York kind. Criminals of the Paris precinct were brought to swift justice by the head honcho of the police department, the handsome Louis Jourdan. Ooo la la! 


Wonderful John Acton

Did you know that there were period sitcoms made in the early 1950s? Yep, there were. This show, which came out in 1953, was about an Irish-American family living in the Ohio River Valley in the years after WWI. Harry Holcombe, Virginia Duyer, Ronnie Walken and Ian Martin starred.


Jamie

Brandon De Wilde ( Shane ) was such a popular child actor that he was thrust into a television series of his own. Jamie premiered in 1954 and featured Kathy Nolan ( The Real McCoys ) as his big sis and Polly Rowles and Ernest Truex as his parents.


Our Man Higgins

If stage actress Shirley Booth could make a success playing a maid called Hazel, than surely
Stanley Holloway could find equal fans as a butler. Not quite, but it was worth a try. This
amusing series launched in '61 and was canned that same year. The sets were dismantled so fast that they didn't have enough time to collect dust for Higgins to sweep.



Bourbon Street Beat 

Before Richard Long got his masters degree and became Professor Everett and raised three kiddies with the aid of a nanny, he worked in an office in New Orleans, along with Andrew Duggan and Arlene Howell, solving mysteries and getting into sundry scraps in this 1959 series. 


The Halls of Ivy

The great English actor, Ronald Colman, gave the new tiny-tube medium a try in 1954 as well. In The Halls of Ivy, he portrayed Dr. William Todd Hunter Hall, President of Ivy College and got to see his wife, Benita Hume, co-star as Mrs. Hall. Producers gave it a grade "F" and it was pulled from the network after only one season.


It's a Man's World

This imaginative comedy took on a houseboat -- much like Dear Brigitte -- and starred Glenn
Corbett, Jan Norris, and Randy Boone. The houseboat-owning audience must not have been avid TV watchers in 1963, when this series debuted.


Broadside

Anchors aweigh! Hollywood's busty cast-offs literally cast off in this naval comedy series,which debuted in 1964. Kathy Nolan, Joan Staley, Lois Roberts, and Sheila James portrayed WAVE mechanics assigned to a Pacific island during World War II. Flotation devices not necessary.


Mona McClosky

Clint Eastwood look-a-like Denny Miller played an Air Force sergeant struggling to support his wife -- the glamorous Hollywood star Mona McClosky ( Juliet Prowse ) -- on his service salary. The show struggled as well and Mona was a Bona-fide flop in 1965.


Tales of Tomorrow

If audiences were tired with tales of today being reenacted on shows such as The U.S.Steel Hour and Playhouse 90, they could watch Tales of Tomorrow specializing in science fiction melodramas, one of the first of its kind.



Heaven for Betsy

Jack Lemmon wasn't the big name actor in the early 1950's, but he was a happily married man and a star on the rise so, of course, that winning combination of good fortune earned him his own series too. Lemmon and Cynthia Stone ( Mrs. Lemmon ) starred in this domestic comedy which played twice a week beginning in 1952.


The Hathaways 

Before Lancelot Link ... and The Monkey's Uncle ... there were The Hathaways, Peggy Cass starred as the foster mother to a gang of hooligan monkeys living in her suburban home. When the series debuted in 1961, it skyrocketed the Marquis Chimps to stardom ... well, not really. But they did get to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show - what more could a monkey want in show business?


Convoy 

There was Combat, and then there was Convoy. John Gavin, Linden Chiles and John Larch starred in this brief series, debuting in 1965, about the merchant ships and destroyer escorts out on the great Atlantic ocean. 

They Stand Accused

Why watch Perry Mason solve fictional cases when you can watch real ones reenacted on this DuMont-network series?....


The Verdict is Yours

....and even better than watching real court cases was the opportunity to match your verdict against that of a real jury. The Verdict is Yours gave you this thrill but played at an odd daytime slot. Jim McKay was the host.


George Sanders Mystery Theater

George Sanders, the actor who often portrayed archetypal debonair villains oozed suave introductions to the forthcoming half-hour mysteries which aired on this program in 1957. 


Follow the Sun 

Hunky heartthrobs Gary Lockwood and Barry Coe were suntanned freelance magazine writers who struggled to find material - and often found trouble - in exotic locales. The series debuted in 1961. 


Janet Dean, Registered Nurse

Doctor series were a dime a dozen in the 1950's. Lovely Ella Raines, the former Universal star, was the lucky gal to star in the first series about a woman in white.


Peck's Bad Girl 

We all love watching the antics of Beaver and Dennis and the Menace, but what show featured a mischievous girl menace? It was Pecks' Bad Girl, debuting on May 5, 1959, and lasting for one whole half season before being shelved. Patty McCormack was such a hit as the beastly Bad Seed gal that she was put in this series also starred Marsha Hunt and Wendell Corey. 



Mystery Theater

Tom Conway spent most of his film career playing crime fighters of one sort or another. On
television, he played them, too. Mystery Theater featured Conway as Detective Mark Saber
working for the homicide squad. James Burke, as Sergeant Maloney, aided Saber.


The Man Behind the Badge

If Charles Bickford looked like one tough man to cross than just imagine how criminals quivered when Bickford pinned on a badge and became a crime fighter. You'll have to keep that thought in your imagination now because that series never happened. On The Man Behind the Badge, Bickford only acted as a narrator for tales of police derring-dos. 


Captain David Grief

Good grief! Why audiences failed to grasp at the adventure to be had in this series we fail to fathom. Jack London's stories of shipwrecks and doomed passengers were brought to life in this short lived series starring Maxwell Reed as the captain. 



The Eleventh Hour

Not only did this show feature lovely theme music ( by C. King Palmer ), but it also starred sour faced star Wendell Corey. He played a sympathetic psychiatrist much in the vein of Dr. Kildare. The show boasted great guest stars and lasted for an astounding two seasons. 

If any of these titles sound interesting, than good luck trying to find them on Youtube or DVD. Many of these titles are available but only in part. Nevertheless, its a swell way to spend a rainy afternoon ( exactly what we did ). 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Nugget Reviews - 12


It Happens Every Spring ( 1949 ) 14k


A chemistry professor accidentally creates a liquid that repels wood and decides to apply it to a baseball and launch the St. Louis Cardinals to World Series glory...all the while creating a tidy sum in his pocket for his future bride as well. Ray Milland, Jean Peters, Paul Douglas, Ray Collins. Jessie Royce Landis. Twentieth Century Fox. Directed by Lloyd Bacon.

Milland seems to have the face of a melancholy villain more than a comedian but being the swell actor that he is, managed to pull off any role he was given. It Happens Every Spring is an amusing way to pass a few hours in spite of some puzzling script remarks and plot jumps. Paul Douglas is great as Milland's pal, Monk. Him and his hair tonic! 

                    _______________________________________________________


Let's Make It Legal ( 1951 ) 14k


A newlywed bride and her husband clash about whether to encourage or thwart the plans of her mother's remarriage. The mother's not-quite-ex husband is especially keen on seeing the plans fall through since he still loves his wife. Claudette Colbert, MacDonald Carey, Robert Wagner, Marilyn Monroe, Zachary Scott, Barbara Bates. Twentieth Century Fox. Directed by Richard Sale

Marilyn Monroe has only a brief part in this entertaining comedy but it has come to be recognized as a Marilyn Monroe picture nonetheless and can only be found in MM DVD sets. The real stars of the show are Colbert and Carey who make a great team and should have been cast in more films together. A young Wagner plays Colbert's level-headed son-in-law and Scott is, as always, charming as the cast-off suitor. A great little picture. 

                    _______________________________________________________


It Grows on Trees ( 1952 ) 14k


A couple are happy to discover that a tree in their backyard grows money, until the neighbors, the media, strangers and the tax collectors come begging for some of the money. Irene Dunne, Dean Jagger, Joan Evans, Richard Crenna. Universal Pictures. Directed by Arthur Lubin.

Yes, the old fantasy about finding a tree brimming with dollar bills was indeed turned into a film. Hollywood could not pass up such an ideal plot as that. Irene Dunne could get away with any part, but this one suits her especially. Polly Baxter is a woman who always sees the good in others and the orange glass as half full. People like that deserve to find money-growing trees in their backyard and this film just goes to show what really would happen if you find a tree like that in your own backyard. 

                    _______________________________________________________


Bedtime for Bonzo ( 1951 ) Elct.


A college professor attempts to prove that upbringing, not heredity, determines a mans morals and future path by trying to impart human morals to a chimp. Ronald Reagen, Diana Lynn, Walter Slezak, Jesse White. Universal Pictures. Directed by Frederick de Cordova.

Bonzo has its moments of amusement but overall it failed to live up to what we expected it would be. The story premise could have made a great comedy, and had the script been written better, the film made in 1942 with Howard Hawks as director and Cary Grant in the lead, it may have been. The way it is, it failed to ignite. Diana Lynn was charming as Jane, the "young mother" and it was good to see Slezak portraying an honest man for a change. 

                    _______________________________________________________


The Rocket Man ( 1954 ) 14k


A little orphan boy is given a toy ray-gun with special powers and uses it to help his foster family save the local orphanage. Spring Byington, George "Foghorn" Winslow Jr. , Anne Francis, Charles Coburn, John Agar. 20th Century Fox. Directed by Oscar Rudolph.

We're not quite sure what made this movie so entertaining, but it was. After George"Foghorn" Winslow Jr. became a sensation in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes he was tossed into a few lighthearted comedies of the 1950s. In The Rocket Man he gets the lead role and handles it quite capably. Of course, with such talented help as Byington, Coburn and Francis, who could go wrong? A good-hearted film to be sure. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Those Were the Days ( 1940 )

William Holden displays the good ol' Siwash spirit of horseplay in Paramount Pictures minor wisp of nostalgia Those Were the Days set in the fictional college of Siwash at the turn of the century. 


After getting himself in a scrape that ought to land him six months in jail ( the film proves that collegians were wild hooligans even in 1904 ), Petey Simmons ( Holden ) ardently woos the judge's daughter in order to win favor with her pop ( Vaughn Glaser ) when it comes time for the sentence to be ruled. The hapless youth finds his weasel of a plan backfire when he falls in love with the sparkling lass, played by Bonita Granville. 

Squeaky-voiced Ezra Stone, famous for portraying Henry Aldrich on radio and later directing The Addams Family series, provided ample support to Holden and his hi-jinks. Also cast were Judith Barrett, William Frawley, Richard Denning and Alan Ladd in a flash one-line part. Those Were the Days aka Good Ol' Siwash was based on the popular Siwash stories written by Knox College alum George Helgeson Fitch.

To promote the film, Paramount's publicity team strapped Jeanne Cagney and William Henry in a 1902 runabout and set them off puttering to a gala hosted by the Los Angeles Horseless Carriage Club.

William Holden started his career at Paramount where he was one of the members of the studio's "Golden Circle" of young players in 1938, along with Susan Hayward, Betty Field, Robert Preston, Patricia Morison, Ellen Drew, Louise Campbell, William Henry, and Evelyn Keyes. Columbia Pictures borrowed Holden for Golden Boy and then returned him to Paramount a star. 

Those Were the Days gave Holden his first star billing and a chance to demonstrate that winsome charisma that would soon launch him to stardom. Alas, that's about all it did. Unlike the splendid A Yank at Oxford ( MGM, 1938 ), the film failed to capture a love for the college nor sympathetic support for its hero. Theodore Reed's direction was sluggish from the on start and the script could have used a greater dose of humor and wit. Today Those Were the Days is forgotten along with good ol' Siwash university. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie Game


It is once again time for a round of the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game. For this outing we got a nice summer-themed image on display. It's a scene from a very entertaining, although not all too famous film...and just to show you how kind we are, we're making this really easy. You're staring at two of the leading ladies of the film in this screenshot. 

As usual, if you are not familiar with the rules to the Impossibly Difficult Name that Movie game or the prize, click here!

Good luck guessing!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Making of The Music Man ( 1962 )

The Music Man captures the spirit of small town America in a way unlike any other film. It enthralled audiences when it first debuted as a stage show in 1957 and continues to delight classic film fans today who, like us, won't consider Independence Day complete without watching it. There are some films that get tiresome with repeated viewings, but The Music Man is one of those gems that only get better which each subsequent viewing.

Often, it is the films that we watch the most often that we know the least about.The Music Man was one of those pictures for us and so after this Fourth of July we delved into the making of it and found it to be the stuff that blogs are made of. Let's begin at the very beginning......


Meredith Willson was a popular film composer ( The Great Dictator ), radio actor ( The Burns and Allen Show ), songwriter ( You and I, It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas ) and conductor before he wrote the music and play for The Music Man, but it was this production which catapulted him to fame and to this day is his most memorable musical work. 


For several years Willson toyed with the idea of writing a book about the childhood memories and good feelings he had for his hometown of Mason City, Iowa but it was not until 1948, when he was pushed by his wife and his old crony Frank Loesser, that he began work on putting together a play featuring his beloved hometown and the charming Hawkeyes that resided there. 

Willson incorporated into the play songs that he had written over the years and in 1956, five short years later, "The Music Man" was completed. Many of his friends and neighbors from back home were turned into characters for his play, and in the years after "The Music Man"'s success, Willson spilled which characters represented whom....but he always left Professor Harold Hill's real counterpart an enigma. 

In spite of its promising story and great musical numbers, Willson had difficulty in finding anyone to finance the show. CBS was interested in the material and decided to turn it into a one time television special starring Ray Bolger, but the deal fell through...and it was a good thing too, for Willson found backers for the stage show. Great honk! 

Barbara Cook was selected as the leading lady, Marion Paroo; Pert Kelton was cast as her mother, Eddie Hodges as Winthrop Paroo, and David Burns as Mayor Shinn....but Danny Kaye had turned down the leading part of Professor Harold Hill. For that matter, so did Dan Dailey, Gene Kelly, and Phil Harris, thinking the story was too corny. It was the show's director, Morton Da Costa, who insisted that Robert Preston would be perfect for the role, even though Willson had his doubts about him. 


"Cowards die a thousand deaths, the brave man.....only 500"

On December 19, 1957 "The Music Man" premiered on Broadway at the Majestic Theatre. It was a box-office sensation and a critical success and ran for 1,375 performances during its five year stint. Ye gods! 

An established hit always makes it to the silver screen eventually, but Warner Brothers did not want to wait for the eventual to happen too late so they dished out $1,000,000 for the screen rights to The Music Man. Choice casting was critical and a top-drawing name to pull in the audiences was forefront in the minds of Warner Brother's producers. Frank Sinatra was the leading candidate for the screen version, but when Meredith Willson heard these whisperings he exclaimed, "No Preston, No Music Man!". So much for those early doubts. 


"For score and seven years ago...."



Pert Kelton ( Mama Paroo ), The Buffalo Bills, and Susan Luckey ( Zeneeta Shins ) were all recruited from the original stage version, while Paul Ford was selected to play Mayor Shinns, the English stage actress Hermoine Gingold as his wife, Buddy Hackett as Marcellus Washburn, Timmy Everett as Tommy, Ron Howard as Winthrop Paroo ( who was selected from a talent contest ) and Shirley Jones as the beautiful, but skeptic, librarian Marion. The film also featured a plethora of great character actors such as Mary Wickes, Charles Lane, Hank Worden, and Charles Karel. 

Warner Brother's went all out in the production of The Music Man, setting aside over $900,000 for the budget and recruiting the stage director, Morton De Costa, to direct; Onna White to plot the choreography ( it was her first film ); Dorothy Jeakins to create the sumptuous costumes, and Paul Grosse ( one of MGM's leading art directors ) to design the 18+ sets used in the picture, including the dainty ice cream parlor and the charming Madison Library interior ( which was reused for Rome Adventure that same year ). 

In the music department, Ray Heindorf, the head of the Warner Brothers, conducted lovely new arrangements of Willson's music by Frank Comstock...arrangements which earned him the Academy Award by the way.

Shirley Jones, Robert Preston, The Buffalo Bills and principal players gathered at the lot seven weeks prior to when actual filming began, recording their numbers and rehearsing for the three big dance sequences - Marion the Librarian, 76 Trombones, and the biggest of 'em all, Shipoopi. By the time filming began in the spring of 1962 the cast and dancers were thoroughly shipooped. Meanwhile, across the pond, The Music Man opened in London with Van Johnson in the lead and Patricia Lambert as Marian Paroo. 



Most of The Music Man was filmed on the backlot of Warner Brothers where a complete replica of River City was built on 3 acres. Three months into the filming Shirley Jones discovered she was pregnant with her son, Patrick Cassidy, and that put a little snag into the production. DaCosta told her to keep it hush and it was kept as a secret for several months, until her bump was becoming too evident to hide ( although Dorothy Jeakins did her best to cover it up with plenty of lace and flowers ). Robert Preston noticed the little fella when he gave a big kick during Preston's one and only love scene with Shirley Jones on the bridge ( Till There Was You ).


After five weeks of filming, the editors went to work trimming the film down into a manageable length, while Pacific Title's creative team tackled the snail-paced process of stop-animation filming for their creation of the marching men in the title credit sequence designed by Wayne Fitzgerald.


"So what the heck? You're welcome! Join us at the picnic, you can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself"

The Music Man premiered on June 19, 1962 in Willson's hometown of Mason City, Iowa. Over 100,000 Iowans attended the event, which was highlighted by a marching band contest among 100 different schools. 




The film went on to become the 7th highest grossing picture of the year. In addition to being popular among audiences, critics loved it as well, and it garnered six Academy Award nominations. 


There's som'thin' spthecial in store for each of us every Fourth of July when we watch The Music Man. Fifty-two years later and Professor Harold Hill is still marching along to those 76 trombones and gathering potential band players. And who knows, if we put the think system to use ourselves maybe we'll all be playing the Minuet in G with him by July 4, 2015. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Helen Deutsch - Screenwriter

After watching several hundred MGM films, one begins to pay attention to the credits; and when one pays attention to the credits, one begins to notice that a number of names crop up recurrently, such as Clarence Brown, Wally Westmore, Cedric Gibbons, and Douglas Shearer. For us, Helen Deutsch is another one of those names. At first we thought she was a hairdresser ( getting her innocently mixed up with the great Helen Rose ), but when we sat down and watched National Velvet ( 1944 ) recently her name stood out in blazing lights.  Helen Deutsch was a screenwriter at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1944-1955, and in addition to being a screenwriter, she was also a short story writer, a songwriter ( penning tunes with Jay Livingston, Bronislau Kaper and Bernard Green ), and an avid bibliophile. For those who would like to know a little bit more about this fascinating woman, read on dear reader, read on. 

                              ________________________________________________

Helen Deutsch was born on March 21, 1906 in New York City, New York. While in her senior year at Bernard College, she worked as a play reader for the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. After the group disbanded, Deutsch collaborated with Stella B. Hanau to write a history of the famed theatre, "The Provincetown: A Story of the Theatre", first published in 1931. 

This successful book inspired her to take up freelance writing and she began writing short stories for the now defunct Brooklyn Eagle, the Saturday Evening Post, McCalls, Ladies Home Journal and Redbook magazines. These short stories caught the attention of Hollywood, and Deutsch was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to rewrite Theodore Reeve's screenplay adaptation of the Enid Bagnold novel, National Velvet ( 1944 ). Deutsch was faithful to the novel and yet added many subtle touches that heightened the films appeal and bits of dialogue that gave added depth to the characters. 


"That'll be a dispute to the end of time, Mr. Brown : whether it's better to do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason "

That same year she was put to work on an screenplay based on the novel, The Seventh Cross, which told the story of a man escaping from a Nazi prison camp. Spencer Tracy gave one of his best performances in this film of the same name. Most of the scripts she did for MGM were adaptations of other works, including Golden Earrings ( 1947 ) from a novel by Yolanda Foldes and Rudyard Kipling's Kim ( 1950 ). 


In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Deutsch worked on a diverse range of scripts, including adventure films ( King Solomon's Mines, Golden Earrings ), dramas ( I'll Cry Tomorrow, Plymouth Adventure ), and fairy tales ( The Glass Slipper ). 

This was also the decade that she wrote what some consider her best film - Lili ( 1953 ). Based on a story by Paul Gallico ( The Three Lives of Thomasina ) it tells the delightful tale of an orphan, played by Leslie Caron, who joins a traveling circus. It also featured a memorable song, "Hi-Lilli-Hi-Lo", which was penned by Deutsch. The film earned her a Golden Globe Award, a Writers Guild of America award, as well as an Academy Award nomination. "Hi-Lilli-Hi-Lo" was considered to be a front-runner to win an Academy Award for Best Song as well, but it was deemed ineligible because some of the lyrics had previously been published and did not receive a nomination....which is just as well since Deutsch herself dismissed the song as being "dreadful". 

By 1956, Helen Deutsch was tiring of the old Hollywood grind, and the Lucille Ball/Desi Arnaz comedy, Forever Darling, was the final film she made for a major studio...at least for a while. She switched to the small screen and obtained a contract with NBC which stated that she work on three specials over the next three years. Deutsch uprooted herself from California and headed back to Manhattan at this time where, in between writing for these productions ( Jack and the Beanstalk, The General Motors Fiftieth Anniversary Show, and The Hallmark Christmas Tree ), she spent her days pursuing her old love of the stage. Deutsch took on many roles in show business including helping to run a theater company, working as an assistant to the executive director for the Theatre Guild, helping to co-found the NY Drama Critics Circle ( as a protest to the Pulitzer Prize selections ), and working as a publicist and theatre critic for the NY Herald and New York Times. 

In the early 1960s she was once again in the spotlight when "Carnival", based on her screenplay for Lili, was turned into a Broadway production and won a Tony Award. She also worked with Meredith Wilson in adapting his stage musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for the big screen. This brought her back to Hollywood temporarily and also led to her being selected as one of the writers for Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls ( 1967 ). Deutsch was not pleased with the final film version released to the public and disavowed any association with the film. All writers have a few works that they are ashamed of, and obviously Deutsch was no different. 

Writing and her love of the theatre must have absorbed quite a significant amount of her attention, but nevertheless her personal life was not devoid of romance. Helen Deutsch was briefly married to educator Spencer Pollard and then she went on to have several relationships with high profile figures ( cough-cough ). The most notable of these being Clifford Odets, the playwright. 

In addition to being a talented writer, Deutsch had a number of  interesting hobbies, the best of which was being an avid bibliophile. She amassed a tidy amount of rare books and manuscripts, which she generously donated to Boston University. She was also a student of medieval English, French, and German, and a Sanskrit scholar. Deutsch had a multi-faceted life indeed.  She passed away at the age of 85 but left behind quite a memorable array of screen work. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A Brief History of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

"It was the great film studio of the world," actress Helen Hayes recently recalled of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1930s, "not just of America or of Hollywood, but of the world".

Every time the magnificent head of the lion appears and his menacing roar is heard it conjures up images of MGM's golden age...the musicals, dramas, comedies, epic films, and the stars ( "More stars than there are in heaven!" ) that the studio represented. Ben-Hur, one of MGM's earliest great successes and its 1959 remake often are the noted as being the key bookends between the peak years of MGM's reign as the King studio of Hollywood. Join us as we swiftly skip along the yellow brick road of MGM's history, from its start in 1924 up until 1959.


The Early Years ( 1924-1930 )


In the early 1920s the number one form of entertainment across America, vaudeville, was beginning to dwindle and the new fad  "moving pictures" was becoming the latest rage. Marcus Loew, who owned one of the biggest theatre chains in New York, realized the long-lasting potential of these moving pictures and decided to throw all his interest and capital into the medium. Loew wanted a steady supply of bigger and better films for his ever-increasing audience, so in 1919 he purchased Metro Pictures, a newly created motion picture making company on the western coast. With this acquisition, Loew hoped to be more competitive with other theater rivals, such as William Fox and Adolph Zukor, by producing only top-quality, first-class films for his customers.


In April of 1924 Loews Incorporated completed a merger that was to unite Loew's theatre chain, Metro's distribution network along with its newly acquired Goldwyn Pictures studio, as well as Louis B. Mayer Productions. And, included in the $5 million deal, was the Goldwyn trademark....a roaring lion encircled in a banner with the words "Ars Gratia Artis" ( Art for Art's Sake ). Marcus Loew put his trusted assistant, Nicholas Schenk in charge of the eastern theatre chains, while Louis B Mayer was given the pill-poppin' task of being the new studio chief. He was not without help though, for the 24 year old "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg became of the head of production along with the no-nonsense Harry Rapf, as production supervisor.

The newly created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios launched with tremendous success when their first silent film, He Who Gets Slapped, became a critical and commercial hit. Within two years time, MGM became the most profitable film company in Hollywood releasing such films as the epic Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, and The Flesh and the Devil. By 1928 MGM could already boast of having the greatest stars in Hollywood within their studio gates, notably the newly discovered Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Marion Davies and the man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney.

In 1928 MGM released its first sound film, White Shadows in the South Seas. The film was originally a silent picture but with the success of Warner Brother's altered talkie The Jazz Singer, MGM quickly added sound effects to the film, and for the first time, audiences were able to hear Leo the Lion roar. The advent of sound created big changes at the studio. For many silent stars, it was their ticket to oblivion, while for others, the launching of a long career. The talkies also hearkened in a new genre - one that MGM would transform into a veritable gold mine : the musical!

Notable Feature Players of the Decade: John Gilbert, Jackie Coogan, Greta Garbo, William Haines, Anita Page, Norma Shearer, Buster Keaton, Bessie Love, Marion Davies, Ramon Navarro.

The Lion Roars ( 1931-1939 )


The Broadway Melody was the first MGM musical ever produced and it went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. That same year the stock market crashed and America was thrust into a depression that quenched the picture business for many studios, causing ticket sales to plummet. The dream team at MGM, however, knew what the public wanted to see when their pockets were empty and they threw their best talent and production crews into the making of happy-go-lucky musicals, extravagant and sophisticated comedies....and plenty of glamour productions. While their rival studios were suffering, MGM was breaking record profits every year throughout the 1930s. They were making 50 films a year for Loews to distribute and had created so many "stars" that other studios were left in the wake, merely trying to imitate the glamour and allure of a MGM film.

"More Stars than there are in the Heavens!" 

Grand Hotel ( 1932 ) became the first film to feature an "all-star" cast for the studio with such stars as John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo ( uttering the immortal "I Vant to be Alone" ), Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler and Lionel Barrymore all gathered together. Other popular films of the early 1930s included Anna Christie, The Divorcee, Trader Horn, Private Lives, Dinner at Eight, and A Free Soul, starring one of MGM's most appealing new leading men, Clark Gable. Within six years he would be voted The King of Hollywood in a nationwide poll ( another MGM lady, Myrna Loy was voted the Queen of Hollywood that same year ).



The Boy Wonder, Irving Thalberg, had married one of MGM's most popular leading ladies, Norma Shearer, and together they were the ideal couple of Hollywood, but their happiness did not last long. Thalberg's frail health was in a steady decline and in 1936 he passed away at the age of 37. Thalberg's memory was honored by the construction of a huge new administration building on the MGM lot, The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Building. 

While Thalberg was alive he enjoyed selecting novels for film adaptation...some of these great literary films included Mutiny on the Bounty ( 1935 ), The Good Earth ( 1936 ), Captains Courageous ( 1938 ), and his crowning achievement, Marie Antionette ( 1938 ). After the death of Thalberg, Mayer took the helm and became determined that all films MGM would be producing should bear a stamp of moral excellence. 


The 1930s saw the launch of some of MGM's most successful "series" films ( Andy Hardy, The Thin Man, Dr. Kildare, Tarzan, and Maisie ) and was also notable for the release of some smaller, but no less great films such as Libeled Lady, Born to Dance, Saratoga, Three Comrades, Ninotchka ( in which audiences got a chance to glimpse Garbo's comedic talent ) and Maytime ( 1935 ), which introduced audiences to the splendid duet singing talent of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. But 1939 was undoubtedly the golden year for the studio. This was the year that The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, The Women, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Babes in Arms, and The Marx Brothers At the Circus were all released. It was a beautiful send-off to a glorious decade of glamour and roaring good success.

Notable Feature Players of the Decade : Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Mickey Rooney, Robert Montgomery, Freddie Bartholomew, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Eleanor Powell, Myrna Loy, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, William Powell, and Luise Rainier.


The Golden Era ( 1940-1949 )


The 1940s were indeed MGM's shining years. Leo the Lion never looked so good in Technicolor and the stars, the studio system, and the films were all at their peak. Meanwhile overseas, Britain was being blitzed and men were fighting in Europe against the onslaught of the Fuhrer, but once again MGM knew the tastes of their audience and the war did nothing to damper their film-making enthusiasm. Americans on the home front would be flocking to the picture houses for two main reasons - to forget the troubles of the war and to be reminded of why their soldiers were fighting overseas. 


MGM broke record breaking profits throughout WWII dishing out colorful period films which showcased their biggest star Judy Garland ( Meet Me in St. Louis, Little Nellie Kelly, The Harvey Girls ); patriotic flag wavers for the women at home ( Mrs. Miniver, The White Cliffs of Dover, The Clock ); and chunky slices of Mayer-made American apple pie ( The Andy Hardy series, The Human Comedy, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes ). These films celebrated family values and were filled with scenes that made audiences weep, laugh, smile and cheer all at the same time. 

When the war came to a close in 1945, returning soldiers either faced adjustments at home ( as highlighted in Samuel Goldwyn's The Best Years of Our Lives ) or a sense of happy relief to be back home with their families, sweethearts, and their old pals. MGM catered to the latter audience primarily and the sense of euphoria that most of the soldiers felt made the studio's pockets bulge as the audiences indulged in their favorite past time - going to the movies.  

Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Van Johnson and James Stewart were all home from the war and new script material was being purchased for their comeback films. Some were instant hits, while others - such as Adventure - were downright bombs. Robert Montgomery scored a hit with Lady In The Lake which also reinforced MGM’s reputation as a risk taker, when in 1946, it became the first film to be shot entirely from its lead character’s perspective. 

Comedies, melodramas, and romances were all the rage. Musicals were booming as well, thanks to the talented members of the Freed Unit, a special group of music makers who were appreciated and gratefully left alone by the big brass at the studio. Arthur Freed, a former vaudeville performer and theater owner, joined the studio at the coming of sound in Hollywood as a composer. In the mid-1940s, along with the team of individuals which he brought out from Broadway ( Vincente Minnelli, Irene Sharaff, Adolph Deutsch, Gene Kelly, Betty Comdon, Adolph Green, Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane ) he turned to producing and reinvented the musical, interweaving the music and dance numbers with the plot to help move the story along. Freed even lured Fred Astaire out of retirement to star alongside Judy Garland in one of MGM's great musicals, Easter Parade ( 1948 ).

Notable Feature Players of the Decade : Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams, Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall, Margaret O'Brien, Greer Garson, Robert Taylor, Walter Pidgeon, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Lionel Barrymore, James Stewart, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Ronald Colman.

The End of the Reign ( 1950-1959 )


The mid-century decade launched with a grand start as MGM released The Asphalt Jungle ( which gave birth to a new genre - the heist picture ), Father of the Bride, Summer Stock, and their biggest musical moneymaker of all time - Annie Get Your Gun. 

1950 was also a year of change for the personnel at MGM - the leading stars of the 1940s ( Greer Garson, Katharine Hepburn, William Powell, Spencer Tracy ) were taking a graceful step down from their royal thrones as the studio lavished attention on the latest crowd pleasers ( Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Ava Gardner, Esther Williams, Howard Keel, Jane Powell ). Even Louis B. Mayer decided to call it a day after 27 years of overseeing operations at the studio. Much to his chagrin, MGM thrived perfectly well without him. Just after Mayer left, production on Singin' in the Rain began and upon its release it was deemed one of the greatest musicals to come out of the Freed unit. An American in Paris was also making a splash at the theatres, as was Quo Vadis? one of the studios first biblical films since the making of Ben-Hur in 1925. 

However, by the mid-1950s MGM's decline was evident due to the collapse of the studio system and the approach of a new medium - television. The studio was dipping into their archives in the hopes of bringing past successes to new life but other studios were competing successfully against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, thanks to good scripts, fine talent, excellent cinematography and wider genres. 

Vincente Minnelli decided to branch out from musicals and directed the melodrama, The Bad and the Beautiful, which earned 5 Academy Awards. MGM also added more thrillers, science fiction films ( notably Forbidden Planet ), and 3D films ( Kiss Me Kate ) to their annual output in the hopes of luring television audiences back to the theatres. It didn't help. Audience attendance was at an all time low in 1955 ( the lowest since 1923 ) and in 1957, the studio struck a loss for the first time in its 23 year history. Even the hip-swinging popularity of Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock, couldn't help sales. 

In 1958, MGM squeezed out a hit with the screen adaption of Tennessee Williams's play The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. The film dealt with issues that MGM would never have tackled had Louis B. Mayer been in charge and the Hayes code still in existence. It was indeed changing times. That same year the Freed Unit produced their last musical - Gigi. It was the end of the genre and the studio said farewell with a glorious swan song. Gigi scooped ten Academy Awards and became Freed's highest grossing musical. Even today, it is still regarded as one of the best musicals ever made.  

Although 1958 had been an improvement on the year before, MGM decided it needed to prove it was still the leading studio in Hollywood, and that the film which had established its name back in 1925 was long overdue a remake: Ben-Hur.



William Wyler took the helm as director and with its stellar cast, beautiful Max Steiner score, and magnificent cinematography Ben-Hur earned its place in film history as one of the greatest epics ever made. After the film was released, the curtains would draw to a close on the golden era of MGM's reign as the kingpin studio in Hollywood; independent producers, freelancing actors and smaller studios would usurp the mighty giant and never again would it bask in the sunshine of its former glory. 

This post is our contribution to the MGM Blogathon, Silver Scene's celebration of the 90th anniversary of one of the grandest studios in Hollywood. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...