MGM:HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST BACKLOT

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This book written by Steven Bingen,Stephen Sylvester and Michael Troyan in 2011 looks for the first time at all the outdoor sets MGM used on their extensive backlots.
It adds so much to the history of this great studio.
It is a fascinating yet sad read,because practically everything is gone now.

For whatever the reason, financial no doubt, MGM, unlike Universal, didnt see the potential in developing public tours around the backlots where so many films were made.

It’s interesting to be reminded how MGM came into being. Marcus Loew from New York had a chain of cinemas by 1919 and needed lots of product. He bought Metro Pictures and then, in 1924 purchased Goldwyn Pictures. (Sam Goldwyn had left the company he founded).
Goldwyn Pictures was based in Culver City outside Hollywood.
By the 1920’s Louis B.Mayer had his own small company which Loew bought.
And so METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER was formed in 1924, with 25 year old Irving Thalberg supervising production under Mayer.
MGM’s famous motto ARS GRATIA ARTIS was in fact the Goldwyn motto and its Lion logo.
By 1934 MGM had 4000 employees including 61 stars and featured players, 17 directors and 51 writers.

Turning out so many films each year, sets and props had to be made to last for use over and over again.
The MGM motto was BUILD IT ONCE, USE IT FOREVER!
Cedric Gibbons was head of the Art Dept. and created and supervised all sets.

They were only facades but boy, they looked real on screen –
Andy Hardy’s New England street;
or the frontage of the house in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY where Katharine Hepburn took a fall after being pushed in the face by Cary Grant;
or the Railroad Terminal used in ANNA KARENINA and RANDOM HARVEST;
The Formal Garden used in GONE WITH THE WIND;
The Esther Williams Pool which was built in 1935 – Katharine Hepburn dived into it in The Philadelphia Story. Esther didnt use it till 1942;
The Cotton Blossom for SHOW BOAT cost $126,000 to build and ended up at the 1970 studio auction where it sold for only $15,000 to a Kansas City theme park. (It survived till 1995).

The hundreds of acres of the backlots had room for everything – a jungle for Tarzan, a Western Street, a French Courtyard.
A set of 8 houses was built for MEET ME IN ST.LOUIS at a cost of $250,000. (The book has a marvellous picture of Vincente Minnelli standing on a camera boom, directing a scene.)

Watching THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT again after reading this grand book, I felt I knew so much more about what I was seeing. By the time of this film in 1974, so much of the backlots were derelict but we saw quite a lot of what was left – Bing Crosby walked across the Waterloo Bridge, Mickey Rooney going down the Andy Hardy road, Esther Williams at her pool.

I realise now that back in 1979 I stood on more or less the same spot as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT 2 -on the steps  in front of the MGM sign of the Thalberg Building. ( before it became MGM/UA .)

It’s sad to read about the demise of the studio which had been such a hive of industry for 40 years.
in 1967 MGM was bought by Kirk Kerkorian,a Las Vegas airline and hotel financier who hired TV executive James Aubrey to run the studio.Aubrey shut the British MGM studio and then in 1970 came the famed auction of MGM props and costumes. In advance of the sale, the studio received $1.5 million. But the auctioneers made $8 million!
In another sale, Lot 3 was sold to a property developer for $7 million.
Hundreds of matchless facades were simply bulldozed.

The studio became MGM/UA in 1981 and was then sold in 1986 to Ted Turner who wanted the film library which included pre-1948 Warners films.

Such a well researched and fascinating book, about the part of a major studio never looked at in depth before.
Even if the actual backlot sets are no more , this book is now part of the history of MGM and so a big thank you to the three authors.

2 responses »

  1. This must rank as one of the best and most fascinating of all the film books about the Hollywood studios – a “must-have” for anyone remotely interested in the Hollywood backlots.

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