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, 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, 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 Miklos Rozsa 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.