Movies have always reflected the hopes and dreams of the public, especially in terms of romance. Since almost every movie genre - from mysteries to swashbucklers, from war to love stories - features a leading man and a woman, it is not surprising that thousands of different screen couples exist on film. Only a relatively few couples created real magic, and of these, a surprising number worked for MGM.
At the studio with "more stars than there are in heaven," Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg acted as divine matchmakers. If a couple proved successful in a film, it was likely they would be recast as a team, especially if they were both under contract to MGM. Thalberg, for example, noticed a chemistry between Joan Crawford and Clark Gable when they co-starred for the first time in Dance, Fools, Dance ( 1931 ). He set the story department to finding scripts that would suit the two actors. Subsequently, Crawford and Gable made eight films together, in most of which she played the working girl who rose to fame and glamour, and he was the rugged he-man who loved her. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, the perennial happy-go-lucky teenagers, co-starred in nine MGM movies. And Myrna Loy and William Powell, the quintessential happily married couple of the forties, made thirteen films together in as many years.
What made a great screen couple? The answer is as difficult to determine as it is to explain what makes a relationship work in real life. Like all great lovers, screen couples exude mystery and wonder. "We're inevitable, " John Gilbert tells Greta Garbo in Queen Christina ( 1934 ), "Don't you feel it?" She does and so do we. Great lovers always seem inevitable, part kismet, and part coincidence.
Casting two actors together creates a third entity, a single ideal. And no movie studio in the world paired couples together with as much frequency as MGM. In some cases, screen couples served to perpetuate a series, such as Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in the Tarzan films, or Lew Ayres and Laraine Day in a succession of Dr. Kildare episodes. But the great MGM screen couples came to symbolize a singular aspect of romance: Greta Garbo and John Gilbert ( Temptation ); Clark Gable and Jean Harlow ( Lust ); Joan Crawford and Clark Gable ( Glamour ); Myrna Loy and William Powell ( Sophistication ); Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy ( Sentimental Love ); Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ( Good, Clean Fun ); Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon ( Enduring Love ); Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn ( Mutual Admiration ).
Perhaps the popularity of these couples can be attributed to moviegoers' longing for the romantic ideals these costars projected on the screen. Certainly, their popularity also was a reflection of the times. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy sang sentimental arias to each other, lavishly adorned in period costumes, while the world suffered through the Great Depression. Their love was always chaste and their relationship was as idealized as someone like Louis B. Mayer couple imagine. In Mrs. Miniver ( 1942 ), Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon stoically endured the hardships of World War II. ( Winston Churchill said that the movie did more for the war effort than a fleet of destroyers ). But the common bond and the lasting appeal of the majority of screen couples from this era also had to do with equality of the sexes.
We may think of the liberated woman as a phenomenon of the seventies, but just look at the female characters of the thirties and forties. They were women who stood up to their men; Women who could wisecrack, work, even fight, if necessary, for the things they wanted and for the men they loved. They were equal partners in solving a crime, running a business, singing duets, or dancing on Broadway. These women held their own with men in the bedroom, the boardroom, and even the barroom, when necessary. In a classic scene from The Thin Man ( 1934 ), Myrna Loy discovers that William Powell has consumed six martinis, and tells the waiter, "....bring me five more martinis, Leo, and line they right up here."
These women matched their men, drink for drink, or any other way, and the men loved them for it.
The influence of MGM's screen couples continues today on late-night television and in video rental stores, where these movies of yesteryear are still popular, reinforcing the fantasies created by Hollywood's most powerful dream machine. Obviously, we still want to believe that, in real life, Loy and Powell or Garson and Pidgeon stay happily married for decades. "Ah! Sweet mystery of life, " as Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy would croon. And the mystery was this: Why can't real life work like the movies?
- Peter Hay
The above article was an excerpt from "MGM: When the Lion Roars", written by Peter Hay and published by Turner Publishing Inc ( 1991 ).