This series surveys the history of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios from its creation and rise in the 1920's, its pinnacle in the 30's and 40's to it's decline in the 1950's.Written by
Kenneth Chisholm <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The on-screen subtitles (and running times taken from the TCM print) for the three individual parts are: "Part One: The Lion's Roar" (02:02:06) "Part Two: The Lion Reigns Supreme" (02:01:00) "Part Three: The Lion in Winter" (02:02:24) See more »
Following the last ending credit of "Part Three" is displayed the following dedication text: Dedicated to the memory of Samuel Marx and Freddie Bartholomew See more »
I first discovered "MGM: When the Lion Roars" on PBS about 5 years ago. Even then I only saw part of the documentary- and out of order, the last section first. I didn't know how much detail of the MGM history it actually covered until I saw the complete, 3-part documentary on Turner Classic Movies 18 months ago. When I finally digested even part one, I was flabbergasted. The documentary, lovingly narrated by Patrick Stewart, starts at the beginning (to coin a phrase from one of MGM's great fantasy films). We see the formation of Metro, Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer's "Mayer," starting from 1924 and the silent film "He Who Gets Slapped." We see the union of the brilliant young Irving Thalberg and Mayer as they concoct a bona-fide production factory- replete with school, hospital, police force, fire department, and commissary. The New York stockholders (headed by Marcus Lowe, later by Nicholas Schenck) are the magnates who actually oversee MGM, as well as the theaters who distribute the films made by MGM. And part 1 introduces MGM's first stars: Garbo, Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Helen Hayes, the Barrymores, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer Thalberg, and the studio logo- the MGM lion. Remembrances by many of MGM's staff- including Samuel Marx, King Vidor, William Tuttle, and Margaret Booth- give a no-holes-barred outline of just how the studio made (and in some instances broke) their stars.
A lot of the veterans interviewed seem almost hypnotic in their praise of the factory and the tyrannical Mayer- which is curious because there are a few pointed recollections by actors (including double-Oscar winner Luise Rainier and swimming star Esther Williams) who did not particularly care for the bullying, manipulative showman- a man not above fainting on cue to get what he wanted, or reminding his contractors that they were his property to do with as he liked. Part 1 ends with the untimely death of 37-year-old wunderkind Thalberg, and part 2 takes the factory into the 1940's and the war years when Mayer decrees wholesome, pious, family-oriented film only. The child stars are introduced: Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, June Preisser, Freddie Bartholomew, and most of all, Judy Garland (given a particularly long testimony by Rooney, who then curiously denies that MGM was responsible- even in part- for her drug addiction). A sobering begins to creep into the dream factory as stars- particularly the females- are unceremoniously dropped (or at least not picked up) as they begin to age. The new contractors- Lamarr, Allyson, Van Johnson, Greer Garson, James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Tracy & Hepburn- are introduced. A lot of MGM's male stars enlist and go to fight in the war, which annoys Mayer (of course) to no end. Producer Dore Schary (Mayer's political and spiritual opposite) is brought into the fold as "a new Thalberg," thought to improve movie quality while paring the ascending film costs and tolerate the emergence of the new medium of television.
Finally, MGM's legendary musicals make up a significant part of Act 3. One of the most pointed revelations is the contrast in musical film styles between sophisticated Arthur Freed and schmaltzy, sentimental Joe Pasternak (and they're absolutely right). The 1950's arrive and Mayer's 20-year feud with boss Schenck reaches an unimaginable climax when an "office coup" of sorts terminates Mayer from his own studio- and replaced by Schary, who puts an end to all the sweetness and virtuosity and concentrates on gritty message dramas. Many wonderful, stupendous film clips are shown- but amazingly, none of dancer Fred Astaire in the DVD release. (Despite having made some of the greatest musical films from 1948 to 1957- it appears that his widow holds the release rights to all his images, decreeing license fees for the use of his image. Consequently she had all his footage removed from this documentary, which is unforgivable.) The studio shifts management several times in the next dozen or so years, until the factory is more or less liquidated in 1974 and turned over to the MGM Grand Hotel project of Kirk Kerkorian. A particularly sad image is seeing the MGM sign removed from the executive office building in 1986. But what a time it once was.
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