Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Flashback, April 1924: Merger Sends MGM Roaring

A century ago this month, what became the most structured—and successful—studio in Hollywood’s Golden Age was formed with the merger of Metro Pictures Corp., Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions.

Though theater chain magnate Marcus Loew orchestrated the deal, the prime mover for the next 27 years in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—MGM for short—turned out to be a Ukrainian emigrant who not only celebrated American values onscreen, but even pushed his actual birthdate up to July 4 to coincide with that of his adopted country.

In his office in Culver City, studio head Louis B. Mayer may not have been the most hated movie mogul (that dishonor probably goes to Jack L. Warner), but he was the most paternalistic—an executive you wanted on your side and dreaded to cross.

Those in “L.B.”’s lair might find themselves subject to shouting (MGM president Nicholas Schenck, who, upon Loew’s death, dealt with the theater side of the business from New York), groping (young musical star Judy Garland, who, according to notes for an unpublished memoir, claimed she finally summoned the nerve to tell him to stop), and crying (matinee idol Robert Taylor, who, after having his boss cry on his shoulders, gave up his demand for more money).

Directors might fume at rushed production schedules, favorite scenes left on the cutting-room floor, or being replaced mid-production.

But all of these C-suite theatrics produced as many as 50 films a year, including Gone With the Wind, all-star vehicles like the Oscar-winning Grand Hotel, beloved musicals such as The Wizard of Oz —and, in 1937, in the midst of the Great Depression, a princely yearly salary of $1.3 million for Mayer.

The roaring lion appearing at the start of its films may have been MGM’s most instantly recognizable branding element, but its most important asset was its stable of actors.

“More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” the studio’s advertising slogan went—a boast that held true from the silent era (e.g., Greta Garbo, Jack Gilbert, Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney) well into the coming of sound (Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Gene Kelly).

The Culver City complex was a true movie factory—“scattered over six separate lots, cramped and shedded and separated from one another by public thoroughfares,” with Lot 1 given over to stages  dressing rooms, and offices, according to James Curtis’ 2011 biography of the studio’s most respected actor, Spencer Tracy.

Here, stars were manufactured virtually from whole cloth (Lana Turner, Ava Gardner), shrewdly redesigned when found to be imperfect elsewhere (Tracy, Wallace Beery, and Marie Dressler); or imported from Europe (Garbo and Hedy Lamarr).

It all stemmed from Mayer’s frequently expressed belief that the movies were the only business where the assets walked out the gate every night, and Thalberg’s understanding that “without stars, a company is in the position of starting over every year.”

And, long before Hollywood went endlessly to the well with the “Star Wars” and Marvel series, MGM milked the commercial value of multi-film franchises, including:

*The 12 Tarzan movies made by Johnny Weissmuller from 1932 to 1948;

*The six “Thin Man” movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy;

*The nine Doctor Kildare movies made by Lew Ayres;

* Mickey Rooney’s 15 “Andy Hardy” films from 1937 to 1946;

*The 10 “Maisie” comedies with Ann Sothern as a lovable Brooklyn showgirl; and

* The “aqua-musicals” of “America’s Mermaid,” Esther Williams.

Several Mayer lieutenants were crucial in churning out all this product:

* Irving Thalberg: Nicknamed the “Boy Wonder” by the press and “The Last Tycoon” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (who fictionalized him as the title character of his posthumously published Hollywood novel), he served as production head of the new studio and a kind of surrogate son to Mayer, before dying of pneumonia, after a dozen years of overwork as the epitome of a Hollywood creative producer, at age 37.

* Eddie Mannix: Installed as a studio snitch by Nicholas Schenck, he soon went over to Mayer’s side, where, as general manager, he became LB’s indispensable “fixer”—soothing insecure stars, along with squelching innumerable scandals involving pregnancies, fatal auto accidents, abortions, a precursor of Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment crimes—and, some have argued, the murder of “Three Stooges” director Ted Healy.

* Howard Strickling: Head of publicity, the studio exec in charge of communication was, ironically, afflicted with a communication handicap of his own—stuttering. But, 24/7, he controlled access to the industry’s greatest assembly of talent, rewarding reporters who played ball and punishing those who didn’t.

* Howard Dietz: Head of advertising and publicity at the studio for 30 years, he not only came up with its famous lion (an idea he borrowed from the mascot of his alma mater, Columbia University), but also pursued a simultaneous sideline as the lyricist partner of Arthur Schwartz.

The landmark 1948 Supreme Court case United States v. Paramount effectively ended the quarter century of studio dominance by outlawing the block-booking system of selling multiple films to a theater as a unit and by recommending the breakup of studio-theater monopolies.

Three years later, Nicholas Schenck finally resolved his multi-decade clash with Mayer by persuading the studio’s board of directors to replace the mogul with writer-producer Dore Schary, who would suffer the same fate as his predecessor five years later.  

By the 1960s, MGM’s onetime ability to achieve profit margins even with handsomely mounted productions had devolved into boom-or-bust blockbusters that left it vulnerable to takeovers. It’s now a subsidiary of Amazon. 

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