photography studio, performance stage, casting department, sound facilities,
and technical buildings, special effects
department, miniatures department, camera and light department, neon studio and scores of other departments essential to the
production and manufacture of motion pictures.
The industrial center of the studio consisted of carpenters' shops, a lumber mill, plaster and plastic shop, foundry, machine
shops, blacksmith shop, florist, upholstering shop and nearly everything else used or needed for motion picture production. M-G-M
even operated its own railroad and spur line to ensure regular delivery of trainloads of lumber and other supplies to keep the movie
The library within M-G-M’s Music Department had approximately four million selections, ranking it behind only the Library of
Congress and the New York Public Library to make it the third largest music library in the world.
The Casting Office handled as many as 12,000 calls in a day. The Research Department averaged up to 500 fact-checking
questions a day to insure authenticity in scripts, costume and set design. A huge modern film laboratory processed an average of
four-and-one-half million feet of film per week and consumed up to 300,000 gallons of water per day supplied by the studio’s three
artesian wells. The Property Department was the world’s largest and maintained more than 1,000,000 items from every country
and historical period, providing anything from a mantel clock to a full-sized locomotive, row boats to horse drawn buggies,
antique furniture and crystal chandelier to medieval swords and machine guns. The M-G-M Makeup Department was run by
Jack Dawn and later, by Academy Award recipient William Tuttle. These artists could alter the appearance of an actor or actress,
making them appear young or old, enhancing or hiding their unique facial features, or even changing their race. The Makeup
Department had the capacity to meet the make up requirements of up to 1,200 actors an hour and could handle as many as
12,000 in a single day. The Art Department, headed by the legendary Academy Award winning art director Cedric Gibbons, was
renowned for producing the most lavish and detailed sets that served to create M-G-M’s indelible association with wealth and class.
And with the enormous resources of the studio, M-G-M’s historical period exterior and interior sets were considered the best by
industry standards. As many as 100,000 yards of fabric and other materials were cut annually in the Wardrobe Department which had
15 warehouses, housing 150,000 costumes representing nearly every historical period. Here the fashion designer Adrian supplied the
style for M-G-M’s biggest female stars. This department could equip as many as 5,000 actors and extras in a single day. The 22
screening rooms operated by the Projection Department ran enough film every day to provide prints to 40 exhibitors. At its peak in
the mid-1940’s, M-G-M employed as many as 4,000 people and utilized more skilled technical help than any other form
of manufacturing with 117 arts, professions and vocations and organized into 38 departments. The Studio Club, an employee support
group, had over 3,000 members. To maintain security and internal control, as well as deter the starry-eyed gate crashers and
Hollywood hopefuls, M-G-M supported its own 100 member Police Department headed by Chief W.P. Hendry. For decades, the officer
stationed at the main gate was named Kenny Hollywood.
The studio operators handled a switchboard with 2,400 extensions and routed thousands of calls a day. The annual electricity
used by the studio and supplied by the studio’s own electrical plant, would light over 25,000 homes.
Across Overland Avenue to the west from Lot 1 was Lot 2. This 37-acre
parcel was purchased specifically for studio expansion
and some of the first films to use it were King Vidor’s “The Big Parade” (1925) and “Quality Street” (1927). Many of the standing sets
from the early backlot built on the west end of Lot 1 were moved here to form “Waterfront Street.” The prison set from “The Big
House” (1930) was built here, as was “New England Street,” a curved street of well maintained, middle class homes used extensively
throughout the “Andy Hardy” series. The swimming pool, stables and mansion from “The Young Philadelphians” (1940), the exterior
Chinese set from “Green Dolphin Street” (1947) and the “Verona Square” set from “Romeo and Juliet” (1936) where among the many
others built here.
The Animation Department where
cartoon characters “Tom and Jerry,”
“Droopy,” and “Barney the Bear” were
drawn and filmed was located in a
streamlined building on the northeast
corner of Lot 2. The team of Hanna and
Barbera honed their cartooning craft here.
During the late1950’s, a young Hollywood
hopeful named Jack Nicholson worked
as an errand boy in this department and
received his introduction to a business and
a industry in which he would later become
a legendary figure.
Eight blocks to the south at the intersection of Overland Avenue and Jefferson
Boulevard was Lot 3, a 65-acre parcel where
even more elaborate exterior sets were built and maintained. These included the “Jungle Island” for the Tarzan series that was at the
southern end of a 63,000,000 gallon M-G-M made lake that was used effectively in “Show Boat” (1953) and “The Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn” (1960). At the north end of the lake, a cluster of Colonial style commercial building called “Salem Waterfront” was
built and seen in films including “All the Brothers Were Valiant” (1953) and “Plymouth Adventure” (1953). Most studio backlots
would have had at most one western street façade, but not M-G-M. They had three. A prosperous and established town called
“ Western Street,” a deserted and faded “Ghost Town” and a frontier town called “Billy the Kid Street”.
found on Lot 3 was “Dutch Street” built for “Seven Sweethearts”
(1942) and featured a lake and stone bridge. To the north of
that set was a giant poured concrete processing tank with a massive painted sky background used for filming large scale miniature
ships first used for “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935). All of these were permanent standing sets that were used over and over again,
altered, redressed, repainted and shot from multiple angles. They represented a realistic, yet cinematically stylized portrayal of nearly
every place on earth. And by utilizing these sets year after year, movie after movie the studio’s production costs were greatly
reduced while giving studio management the opportunity to keep a close eye on the set. Spread around this Lot were 15 humming
refrigerated film vaults to preserve the factory’s pricy product.
The other three lots were located across the street on Jefferson Boulevard. The studio zoo was once located on Lot 4 where, at
various times for numerous movies, lions, elephants, monkeys and dogs all found a home while waiting for their close-ups. In addition
to the animal cages, pens, bungalow and a performance ring in the center of it all. The majority of the 5.4 acres of this lot was
used for Lot 3 parking. The 7.8 acres of Lot 5 was south of Lot 3 and was used as the studio “bone yard” and featured all aspects of
transportation, including wagon wheels, axels, circus carts, and sections of and parts for trains, planes and automobiles. The
southeastern border of the lot contained horse stables with stalls for more than 25 horses where Louis B. Mayer and Fred Astaire kept
their revolving collections of Thoroughbreds. To keep these champions in top shape there were 2 large and 3 small corrals with Tack
shed and barn Lot 6 was kitty corner from Lot 5 and its 6 acres contained the studio nursery where plants, exotic trees, shrubs and
flowers were grown for interior and exterior sets as well as studio landscaping. Here M-G-M even had the necessary facilities to grow
their own grass sod!
A “City Within a City” Indeed!
Throughout its history, M-G-M was the premiere Hollywood studio, with top grossing pictures that lead the industry with both
Oscar nominations and wins. The company motto was “Do it Right, Do it Big, Give it Class” and as long as the money kept pouring in,
they did just that. But by the late 1940’s, the empire was developing cracks in the ample foundation. In 1947, an Anti Trust decree
divorced studios from their theatre chains, which had a drastic effect on profits. Moreover, movie attendance started to drop
dramatically; post war audiences' tastes were changing, and early television programming encouraged former regular paying movie
patrons to stay at home and be entertained for free. Soon, what had been an almost sure thing at the box office became an ever-
increasing game of chance.
During the 1950’s, M-G-M’s profit/loss charts resembled a roller coaster ride, with just one or two hits keeping the studio afloat.
There was even talk of real estate developments on all the backlots. And to add insult to injury, Culver City officials began to grouse
that the land M-G-M owned and occupied could be better suited for uses that would generate more property tax. By the early 1960’s
the very assets that had made MGM the biggest and best had become enormous liabilities. With huge overhead expenses and box
office receipts more miss than hit, the red ink ran and ran. In the late sixties, new buyers emerged for the studio, but they were
more interested in the perceived easy money of Las Vegas casinos than the movie-making gamble of Hollywood. Studio assets were
sold at wholesale prices to halt the bleeding and to raise money for the new MGM Grand Hotel. Every prop and costume that could be
carried or carted was dispensed of at an 18 day public auction. And what didn’t sell at auction was sold for pennies on the pound.
What wasn’t sold, like M-G-M massive collection of neon signs, were bulldozed and buried in a landfill.
The fabulous backlots were in fact finally sold off for real estate development.
Now tract houses and apartments would replace
those once wondrous lands of make believe. What had been the greatest of all movie studios was now reduced to an empty shell.
With the ever-changing fluctuation in global finances and ever-increasing sources of entertainment, and never ending advances in
computer technology, the likelihood of such a magical empire ever being built again is highly improbable. Perhaps Frank Sinatra put it
best in a line from the film “That’s Entertainment”, “You can wait around and hope, but I tell you, you’ll never see the likes of this
But all is not lost!
Now, for the first time ever, this lost world of wonder has been rediscovered. After 12 years of research, interviews, photo
collecting, screenings and writing, you too will have a chance to experience the majesty of this vanished institution of Hollywood’s
motion picture industry. Much like archeologists uncovering a long lost civilization and unveiling it for all the world to see, now the lost
empire of M-G-M has been reconstructed in book form by its authors. This book, “M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot will take the
reader on a comprehensive tour into this wondrous world of movie making magic.
By combining photos, maps and archival information, this book brings it all back to life from cover to cover. This is the closest
movie lover or student of film can get to relive the romance of the classic M-G-M without having had the good fortune of working
there or at least knowing someone who did. By the time the reader is finished with this book they will have a complete understanding
of why the studio was know as “the Tiffanys" of all the studios within the industry itself.
A Lavish Illustrated History of Hollywood’s Greatest Movie Studio
The book features many exclusives:
350 never before published photos and illustrations of the studio, stages
and the backlot sets
(including many from Marc Wanamaker's Bison Archives) http://bisonarchives.com
·Never before published maps of Lot 1, Lot 2 and Lot 3 that put the photos in their proper context
and take the reader on a “ virtual” tour.
·Exclusive never published interviews with Richard Anderson and Betty Garrett and including the last interviews with Hollywood’s Master of Make-Up and long time M-G-M employee, William Tuttle and Robert Nudelman, the preservation activist who valiantly tried to save Lot 2 from demolition.
·An extensive list of the M-G-M titles that matches the films with the backlot sets utilized during their
Here is your chance to take a trip to these magical lands of make believe. It’s the perfect book for all movie lovers, serious students of film, architecture enthusiasts, and hopeless romantics. And last but not least, it’s guaranteed to reignite the childlike sense of wonder that lives in us all.
THE REVIEWS ARE IN!
" For anyone who has ever dreamed what it was like to live in the Golden Age of Hollywood, this visit to my grandfather's studio will vividly re-create the experience.
From hometown USA to eightenth century France to medieval England to a village in China, the memories of all the great films that were made there will spring back to life."
Daniel Mayer Selznick
book reflects the truth about M-G-M’S backlot. I ought to know–
"Under contract for six years in twenty four films...seeing this extraordinary
new book of photos and commentary...took me and will take you on a journey where Louis B. Mayer's"More Stars Then Their Are In Heaven" acted on the magnificent grounds and sets of "M-G-M's Five Back Lots"
“Reading this was like being there. I know. I was there.”
“What a cornucopia of valuable behind-the-scenes information and rare photos. I’ve got one word to describe this book: irresistible.”
"The first ten films I made for MGM changed my life. Now, you can go back in time as I have in the pages of this remarkable book, learning how and where the Land of Make Believe became real. Once you take the journey, you, too will be transported. "
read many books about Hollywood over the years and this is by far the
"This book, 'MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot' brought back a lot of wonderful memories, many scenes from the original 'Time Machine' were shot there, Yvette Mimieux and I spent many long working hours at the old backlot."
"What an achievement! Having spent a great deal of time on the backlot myself, this book brought forth so many memories. The description of the last days of MGM is brilliantly done, and the list of films shot on the various sets is incredible. All in all, it’s a spectacular project!"
Hollywood's Greatest Backlot
" The world probably will not see anything quite like it again," concedes talk show host Dick Cavett about the Culver City home to some of the 20th century’s most renowned and respected actors, actresses, screenwriters, and artists. A production company in its truest sense, the eventual 1924 merger of Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer pioneered an assembly-line approach to filmmaking and initial profits paved the way for the introduction of sound stages and innovations in set design, special effects, and many other aspects of film production. Chapters are sub-divided into "Lots"--as was the MGM site itself--and readers are transported into a bygone era through candid b&w photographs, lucid commentaries, testimonials, and anecdotes that bestow a behind-the-scenes experience.
But the tale had a darker side as well: cracks were showing in the pristine veneer and the editors aptly include the studio’s undignified demise amidst squandered assets and disillusioned takeover attempts.
historians, sociologists, and economists will swoon at the intricacy
and insider information here; detailed balance sheets of frequently
over-blown production budgets are even included. Readers will be
educated, inspired, and enthralled by this handsome book. Photos.
Vintage MGM - A nostalgic look at the
Culver City studio is provided in the book 'MGM: Hollywood's Greatest
MGM backlot aerial photo. (Marc Wanamaker,
MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot ," a new coffee-table book from Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan, offers a nostalgic look at the sound stages and expansive outdoor sets of the famed Culver City studio that boasted of having more stars than are in the heavens. Besides interviews with folks who worked there — including a foreword by Debbie Reynolds — the book features hundreds of rare photographs that illustrate MGM's status as the dream factory."
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times
MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot
by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan
One of the most pleasant benefits of running a book review blog is getting free books, mostly pre-pub review copies but a few published editions as well. Authors, publicists, and publishers offer me titles almost every week. I say "no thanks" more often than not because the titles do not interest me. I suspect many of these book advocates do not bother to check the blog to see what kinds of books I read, for I am declining steamy romances, conspiracy thrillers, and miracle diet books with regularity. When I do accept a book, such as a biography or a history, I caution the giver that I will only review it if I enjoy it. The latest such book is MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, a big photo book celebrating the history of movie making.
the title suggests, Bingen and company's book is more about the MGM maze
of sets and soundstages than actors, directors, producers, and studio
executives, though they all come into the story as well. Through maps
and historic photos, the authors take readers on an extensive tour of
MGM lots One (44 acres), Two (37 acres), and Three (65 acres), where they
estimate twenty percent of America's 20th century feature films were made,
including the Andy Hardy and Tarzan series, the beloved MGM musicals Meet
Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain, and the aquatic
films of Esther Williams, as well as TV series, such as The Twilight Zone
and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The authors show how the flat lots of Culver
City, California were made into the streets of New York, Western frontier
towns, African jungles, and ancient Rome. The
authors also identify and describe all of the administrative and support
staff buildings. There were luxurious dressing rooms for the stars, a
cafeteria with Mrs. Mayer's own chicken noodle soup, and endless prop
departments. I particularly liked learning about the research department,
which was a library with 20,000 books and a 250,000 item clipping file.
The irony here is that a team of researchers would report the facts, and
then the producers would play fast with history for the sake of story
anyhow. I also liked learning about the combined newsstand/barbershop
where the barbers sang four-part harmony. In some ways, it really was
a magical place.What happened to it all? In the final twenty-four pages,
the authors recount the slow dismantling of the MGM empire, highlighting
executive errors in judgment in script selection, bad contracts with outside
firms, and money-losing real estate deals. No one seemed to have a clear
vision after Louis B. Mayer was dethroned. The MBAs who held more sway
than career filmmakers essentially gave the assets away. Even when Universal
Studios discovered that tourists would line up to take historic studio
tours, MGM executives remained determined to bulldoze over fifty years
of set building. Sadly, housing developments cover most of the land today.I
know several movie buffs who will enjoy MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot
and am putting this copy into our library collection. Other public libraries
should consider it, too. Bingen, Steven.
MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot. Santa Monica Press, 2011. ISBN 9781595800558.
Hollywood's Greatest Backlot
MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot is the illustrated history of the soundstages and outdoor sets where Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced many of the world's most famous films.
During its Golden Age, the studio employed the likes of Garbo, Astaire, and Gable, and produced innumerable iconic pieces of cinema such as The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain, and Ben-Hur. It is estimated that a fifth of all films made in the United States prior to the 1970s were shot at MGM studios.
All of this happened behind closed doors, the backlot shut off from the public in a veil of secrecy and movie magic. MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot highlights this fascinating film treasure by recounting the history, popularity, and success of the MGM company through a tour of its physical property.
Featuring the candid, exclusive voices and photographs from the people who worked there, and including hundreds of rare and unpublished photographs, readers are launched aboard a fun and entertaining virtual tour of Hollywood's most famous and mysterious motion picture studio.
Product Details: Format: Cloth/hardcover
Publication Date: February 2011 - Publisher: Santa Monica Press
TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES
And Notable Film Books
might think that by this time, every conceivable film-related topic
has been covered in book form…but the newest releases prove
that this isn’t so. Perhaps the most unusual, and exciting,
addition to the library of movie books is M-G-M: HOLLYWOOD’S
GREATEST BACKLOT by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael
Troyan, with a foreword by MGM veteran Debbie Reynolds (Santa Monica
Press). As the authors explain in their Introduction, “Our
purpose in producing this book is not to discuss the films that
MGM produced. That particular road has been well traveled elsewhere.
Our interest here is not in the product at all, but rather the
factory responsible for that product. Our goal is to preserve,
in print and in memory, if not in brock and mortar, the actual
physical place that was once Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the first
is much more than a collection of
behind-the-scenes photos: it is a guided tour inside the walls of a magical kingdom,
building by building, street by street, peppered with quotes from people who
worked there over the years. From scene storage to the fabled Little Red Schoolhouse,
from the standing sets to the backlot jungle and lake, this is a closeup look
at Hollywood’s most prestigious studio from its earliest days through the
takes readers on tour of MGM's legendary studios
As last week's
death of Elizabeth Taylor reminded us, the Golden Age of Hollywood
can never be repeated. But an informed, nostalgic
visit is possible in the pages of "M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest
Backlot" by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael
Troyan (Santa Monica Press, $34.95, 312 pages).
Hollywood's Greatest Backlot.
For all aficionados of Hollywood’s golden age, when MGM was at the apex of U.S. film production, with stars like Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and Judy Garland (to name just the Gs), this book is rewarding because it isn’t just another celebration of MGM’s luster. But it’s also a tearjerker. What was the most glorious back lot in film history is gone. The book’s final section, “Backlot Babylon,” narrates the studio’s postwar decline and its 1969 purchase by Kirk Kerkorian, whose top executive declared “The old MGM is gone,” and then bulldozed and sold off the back lots. Authors Bingen (Warner Brothers: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of); Stephen X. Sylvester, who explored the MGM back lots before they were demolished and captured oral histories of many studio employees; and Michael Troyan (A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson), a film archives specialist, reveal the entire MGM infrastructure, including fascinating documentation (with hundreds of photographs) of the use and reuse of film sets across many years and genres. The oral histories of studio employees are treasures amid many in this revelation of all the workings behind that gloss. An appendix of “Films Shot on the Backlot” is invaluable. VERDICT Highly recommended to buffs and specialists alike; for all comprehensive film collections.—
Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
Hollywood's Greatest Backlot.
One of the greatest surprises I ever received came on the day that a former student arranged for me to watch a rare 1932 movie in Louis B. Mayer's private screening room at MGM. For one glorious afternoon, I was transported back to Hollywood in its heyday, an experience I had never expected to repeat—that is, until I read "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot," by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan. As Debbie Reynolds writes in her foreword: "Although the studio is gone, it lives on vividly in the pages of this remarkable and beautiful book." Both a fan's delight and a scholar's roadmap, "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot" is stuffed with rare photos, production charts, studio maps, shooting schedules, budgets and insider quotes from both the famous and the not-so-famous who worked there.
Founded on April 18, 1924, MGM was the Rolls-Royce of the old Hollywood studios. On its streets walked, as the studio itself put it, "more stars than there are in the heavens": Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Hepburn and Tracy, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and many, many more. Its roster of movies contains some of the most enduring and award-winning films in history: "Grand Hotel," "Ben-Hur," "The Wizard of Oz," "National Velvet," "Mrs. Miniver," "The Philadelphia Story," "Singin' in the Rain" and dozens of others. For those who love old movies, MGM was a romantic Ruritania. For those skeptical of its overly long and sometimes sentimental movies, it was closer to Freedonia, a perfect subject for satire.
M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot
The authors have put together "complete and accurate maps of each of the main MGM lots." Page by page, a reader can "walk" around MGM as it once was—a highly organized, efficient modern factory. The first thing that stands out is the sheer size of the place—more than 175 acres of prime real estate. A 1932 aerial-view map of Lot One has a list of all the buildings and departments it took to manufacture dreams: a purchasing department, spaces for accounting, payroll and insurance, a property building (with clocks of all types, lamps in all shapes and sizes, and enough weaponry to outfit a large army), a barbershop and newsstand, a water tower, a power plant, and a first-aid department.
By 1934, MGM
had more than 4,000 employees, including 61 stars and feature
players, 17 directors and 51 writers, all under exclusive
contracts. By 1941, there were 178 people working in the costume
building alone, overseeing 250,000 designs from almost every historical
period. The Irving Thalberg Administration Building (built in 1937-38
as a tribute to its namesake, who died in 1936) was a white Art
Deco edifice nicknamed "the iron lung" because of its
early air-conditioning system. It had 235 offices. Mayer's was
on the third floor, smack in the center, and above him, on the
fourth, was a private gym, an executive dining room and a chiropractic
office. Apparently it took a lot of aching backs to release 52
features per year.
The maps of MGM's famous sound stages and backlots (accompanied by lists of films shot on each) are particularly fascinating. "The Wizard of Oz" used Sound Stage No. 27 for Munchkin land. Esther Williams owned Stage No. 30, which had her swimming pool and underwater tanks. "The Thin Man" was shot entirely on Stage No. 9, and Joan Crawford ice-skated (on very thin ice) for "Ice Follies of 1939" on Stage No. 12.
A reproduction of the "Plan of Lot Number One" shows that MGM maintained a lake, a castle, New York streets, a French district, escarpment rocks, an Irish street, a small town, a Spanish hacienda, and much else, including, inexplicably, a cabbage patch. Lot No. 2, which F. Scott Fitzgerald said "under the moon" looked like "the backlot of 30 acres of fairyland," had a cemetery, Tarzan's jungle, Grand Central Station, a Southern mansion and one of MGM's most familiar sets, the home of Andy Hardy and his family. It was officially known as "the New England street" even though the Hardys lived in Ohio, and it was used by other movies, including Elvis Presley's 1957 "Jailhouse Rock."
The authors acknowledge assistance from film historians such as Kevin Brownlow, Leonard Maltin and Richard Schickel, as well as the staffs and archivists at Warner Bros. (the company that now controls most of the MGM material). "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot" does not shirk the sad task of explaining clearly why the assets of MGM's proud legacy were eventually sold. The reasons for MGM's decline are complex and not easily summarized. They include bad management and the collapse of the Hollywood studio system.
The listings at the final auction in 1970 of what was once the most storied studio in Hollywood included "Star Wardrobes," "Antiques and Furniture," and an item that broke my heart: "one Magnificent Paddle Wheel Steamer" (the Cotton Blossom from the 1952 musical "Showboat"). Debbie Reynolds sums up the truth that everyone who loved all those great MGM movies has had to face: "Well, it's all gone now." Gone but not forgotten.
—Ms. Basinger is the author of "The Star Machine."
“From the Studio That Brought You Iron Man,” declares the poster for Thor. Hmm, what studio? Marvel? Except that’s not a studio. Disney owns it, so, Disney? No, actually, Paramount, due to deals that preceded the Marvel/Disney merger for those superhero franchises.
But, really—who cares? Studios generate balance sheets, not movie magic; little differentiates one from another. There’s nothing “Paramount” about either of these films. The tag line resonates with Viacom shareholders, not the general public.
M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot returns us to an era when audiences could tell the distributors apart, by the stars they had under their employ and the sorts of movies they specialized in. Dwarfing the other dream factories was Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s, and this handsome, plus-sized volume is unique—not another paean to its Golden Era glories but an exhaustive, and revealing, anatomy of its architecture and inner workings, with each of its buildings given a look-see. At its height MGM was as much a city-state as it was a production company. Told by Prince Rainier, husband of Grace Kelly, that Monaco was five square miles, producer Dore Schary exclaimed, “Jesus, that’s not even as big as our backlot.”
“Do it right…make it big…give it class!,” was the studio’s slogan, and where better to practice this philosophy than a multitude of controllable environments, which proved remarkably durable against the elements and the occasional earthquake. Art director Cedric Gibbons was tasked with turning the large land purchases made by the front office into something, and it was he “who would find a look and physicality and for the MGM backlot—for backlots in general—and for the physical look of the 20th century.”
Needless to say much ground is (literally) covered by this book, a good deal of it in pictures that are a triumph of archival research. Especially delightful are photographs organized as progressions, where we see, for example, the Girl’s School on Lot Two age from a pristine, snow-covered campus for Elizabeth Taylor in Cynthia (1947) to a relic of a forgotten America in Logan’s Run (1976), by which time the MGM of Taylor’s day was also history. Until location shooting became more the norm (a factor that rang down the curtain on the backlot), we’re shown how the ten acres of New York streets were synonymous with the city itself in movies like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), complete with a three-sided house of worship that did triple duty for productions with Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant themes. The essential nature of the backlot was always transformation, so with redressing these streets also did shifts as Nazi Germany, India, and Red Square. In their ill-attended dotage, plagued with peeling brick, potholes, and other signs of neglect, dystopian fantasies returned them to a crumbling New York for the likes of Soylent Green (1973).
Though the authors are scholarly, unsentimental, and unfailingly entertaining in their analyses—this is a coffee-table book that merits reading as well as gazing—a strain of melancholy runs throughout, as the properties are amassed, developed, and discarded. They’re very good at going behind the facades, showcasing the ingenuity and beauty behind, say, Andy Hardy’s neighborhood (a cozy hamlet of false fronts, with no interiors) or the elaborate French sets for 1938’s Marie Antoinette, for which studio researchers spent a year in the country, sending back 12,000 photographs that Gibbons’ staff then “improved on” for film and recycled for numerous other movies. “Gibbons’s sets generally tended to be overlit, so as to show off their craftsmanship; whites, rather than shadow, tend to predominate…his 1930s Deco and later streamlined-Moderne stylings created, if not the actual look of an era itself, then certainly our later perceptions of what that era looked like.”
But the idealized world that Louis B. Mayer revered and Gibbons authored, its tasteful and conservative values embedded in the very walls of the sets—Gibbons, Elia Kazan said, was the most influential person on the lot after the owners—clashed with the realism and harder edges that audiences began to expect from the movies. In the last theatrical film shot in full on the backlot, the detective picture They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), one could argue that the masters being killed are Mayer and Gibbons—on its weather-beaten streets lot stalwarts like Peter Lawford and June Allyson are cast way against MGM type as crooks, drug dealers, and predatory lesbians. They’d toe the company line once more in the teary-eyed That’s Entertainment! movies, the last time audiences got a look at what was left of the once-mighty backlots.
Nostalgia, however, is only one facet of M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which, thanks to the wealth of photos and keen writing, is an excellent map to this vanished terrain, with a helpful index to what was shot where. (Andy Hardy/New England Street was also home to Jailhouse Rock, Some Came Running, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) At a time when studios have to advertise their identities on the backs of superheroes, it’s also a potent reminder that it wasn’t just the stars who had faces then.—Robert Cashill
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc
March 15, 2011
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