MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)THE RISE OF METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER
RULING 1930s HOLLYWOOD:
THE MAYER REGIME
STRUGGLE, DECLINE, AND DISMEMBERMENT
Created via merger in 1924, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was in many ways the consummate studio during Hollywood's classical era. With superb resources, top filmmaking talent, and "all the stars in the heavens," MGM factory-produced quality films on a scale unmatched in the industry. The key operatives in that factory system were MGM's producer corps—easily the biggest and the best in the industry—and its studio executives, Louis B. Mayer (1882–1957) and Irving Thalberg (1899–1936), who translated the economic policies and market strategies of parent company Loew's, Incorporated, into a steady output of A-class star vehicles that enabled MGM to dominate and effectively define Hollywood's "Golden Age."
MGM's dominion faded in the postwar era, however, when it failed to meet the monumental challenges facing Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus MGM was prey to takeover, and like Paramount, Warners, and United Artists, it was acquired by another firm during the industry-wide recession of the late 1960s. Whereas the other studios were bought by diversified, deeppocketed conglomerates that enabled them to keep producing and distributing films, MGM had the misfortune to be acquired by real estate tycoon Kirk Kerkorian (b. 1917), who exploited the MGM library and brand name but let the studio languish. Kerkorian would buy and sell MGM three times over a thirty-five-year span, steadily dismantling the studio in the process. A consummate irony of recent film history, in fact, has been the long, slow death of MGM from the 1970s onward, while the industry at large underwent a massive resurgence. Equally ironic in the longer view is MGM's utter collapse in the "New Hollywood," in stark contrast to its dominion over the industry during the classical era.
The creation of MGM was orchestrated by Marcus Loew (1870–1927), who began building a chain of vaudeville and nickelodeon theaters in 1904 and 1905; by 1919, when it became Loew's, Incorporated, it was the leading chain of first-class theaters in the United States, concentrated in the New York area. Loew began to expand beyond film exhibition with the 1920 purchase of Metro Pictures, a nationwide distribution company with modest production facilities in Los Angeles. Two major acquisitions in 1924 completed Loew's expansion into full-scale, vertically integrated operation. The first was Goldwyn Pictures, an integrated company whose major component was its sizable production plant in Culver City. Built in 1915 by studio pioneer Thomas Ince (1882–1924) as the home of Triangle Pictures, the forty-acre expanse featured glass-enclosed stages, a three-story office building, and a full complement of labs, workshops, dressing rooms, storage facilities, and staff bungalows. Cofounder Sam Goldwyn (1882–1974) had been forced out in an earlier power struggle, so Loew was in need of top executives to manage the studio. Thus the second acquisition involved Louis B. Mayer Productions, a small company that focused on A-class pictures and was capably run by Mayer and his young production supervisor, Irving Thalberg (then age twenty-five), who had already supervised production at Universal.
Metro-Goldwyn, as it was initially termed, was run out of New York by Nicholas Schenck (pronounced "skenk"), the chief executive of Loew's, while all production operations were managed by the "Mayer Group"—Mayer, Thalberg, and attorney Robert Rubin—whose value was underscored by an exceptional merger agreement giving them 20 percent of the studio's profits, and also by the addition of "Mayer" to the official studio title in 1925. MGM made an immediate impression with two major hits that year, Ben-Hur and The Big Parade, andit began a rapid rise to industry dominance in the late 1920s alongside Paramount, Fox, and the equally fastrising Warner Bros. Key to that rise were its astute management and efficient production operations, its well-stocked star stable and savvy exploitation of the star system, and its effective coordination of production and marketing strategies.
LOUIS B. MAYER
b. Eliezer Meir, Minsk, Russia (now Belarus), 4 July 1885 (or possibly 1882), d. 29 October 1957
Mayer was dubbed "Hollywood Rajah" by his biographer, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, and indeed he was the consummate power not only at MGM but throughout Hollywood during its vaunted Golden Age. Perhaps less creative than the other studio moguls and lacking their passion for movies, Mayer was never the less a shrewd administrator with a knack for surrounding himself with top talent—including production executives like Irving Thalberg and his son-in-law David Selznick—and also for maintaining a factory operation that consistently produced quality pictures. He rarely read a script (for that he relied on Kate Corbaley, his personal reader and "storyteller"), nor did he bother with MGM's filmmaking operations. And yet Mayer's taste for high-gloss, wholesome, escapist entertainment, his conservative values, and his naive sentimentality permeated MGM's pictures. He regarded the studio as one big family and himself as its beneficent patriarch, and although he could be a ruthless, quick-tempered tyrant, those within the MGM fold were rewarded with the highest salaries and the best filmmaking resources in Hollywood.
Born in Russia, Mayer migrated to the United States via Canada as a boy, and he broke into the film business with the 1907 purchase of a nickelodeon. He later moved into distribution and eventually went west to start his own production company. Louis B. Mayer Productions was a minor ingredient in the 1924 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer merger, and it was Mayer's management skills and his capacity to turn out first-class pictures that secured him the role of vice president and general manager. While Mayer ran the studio and managed its legions of contract talent, his protégé Thalberg supervised filmmaking. Together they engineered MGM's rapid rise, with Mayer's administrative acumen, fiscal and ideological conservatism, and predilection for star-studded glamour effectively countered by Thalberg's creative instincts, penchant for risk-taking, cynical romanticism, and confident rapport with writers and directors.
By the 1930s MGM ruled the industry and Mayer was, without question, Hollywood's most powerful figure. MGM's dominance began to slip after Thalberg's death, however, particularly in the 1940s as Mayer relied on an ever-expanding staff of producers and refused to modify the studio's entrenched but increasingly untenable factory operation. The postwar arrival of Dore Schary to oversee production signaled the beginning of the end for Mayer. The two quarreled bitterly, and in 1951, twenty-seven years after presiding over its inauguration, Mayer left the MGM lot without a trace of fanfare. He tried his hand at independent production, without success, and also tried to regain control of a struggling MGM in 1957, but the effort failed and he died a few months later.
Crowther, Bosley. Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer. New York: Holt, 1960.
Eyman, Scott. Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Marx, Samuel. Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints. New York: Random House, 1975.
The entire MGM operation was designed to deliver a steady output of A-class star vehicles to the first-run (major metropolitan) market, and particularly to Loew's theaters. The merger brought a few established stars like Lon Chaney (1883–1930), Lillian Gish (1893–1993),
Ramon Novarro (1899–1968), and Marion Davies (1897–1961) to MGM, which quickly developed a crop of new stars including John Gilbert (1899–1936), Joan Crawford (1904–1977), Norma Shearer (1902–1983) (who wed Thalberg in 1927), and Greta Garbo (1905–1990). MGM also signed New York stage stars Marie Dressler (1868–1934) and brothers John (1882–1942) and Lionel Barrymore (1878–1954), enhancing the prestige value of its films while also appealing to Loew's predominantly New York–based clientele. During the 1920s, Mayer and Thalberg developed a dual strategy of lavish spectacles and more modest star vehicles, with the latter frequently centered on romantic costarring teams. After Gilbert burst to stardom in the downbeat war drama The Big Parade and rapidly developed into a romantic lead, for instance, MGM successfully teamed him with Swedish import Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927), and A Woman of Affairs (1928).
MGM was among a group of leading studios that resisted the move to sound—Thalberg in particular deemed it a passing fad—but it had the resources and capital to convert rapidly once the talkie boom exploded. By mid-1928 sound effects and musical scores were added to its films (along with three roars from trademark Leo the Lion before the opening credits), and a year later MGM's full conversion was punctuated with its "All Talking! All Singing! All Singing!" musical, Broadway Melody, a huge hit that won the 1928–1929 Academy Award® for best picture—the first of many top Oscars® for the studio during the classical era. Other early sound hits included Anna Christie ("Garbo Talks!"), Greta Garbo's 1930 sound debut opposite sixty-year-old Marie Dressler playing a hard-drinking waterfront floozy, and Min and Bill (1930), a waterfront fable costarring the unlikely team of Dressler and Wallace Beery (1885–1949), which carried them both to top stardom.
By 1929 MGM was on a par with Paramount, Fox, and Warner Bros. in terms of revenues and resources, but with one notable exception: Loew's theater chain, which was crucial to MGM's domination of the industry during the Depression. In the early 1920s, Loew and Schenck had decided against wholesale theater expansion, holding the number to about 150 first-class downtown theaters while Warner and Fox pushed their totals above 500 and Paramount to well over 1,000. The decision to maintain a relatively small theater chain meant that the cost of sound conversion was considerably lower and, even more importantly, Loew's/MGM was not saddled with the enormous mortgage debt that devastated its chief competitors when the Depression hit.
MGM's domination of the movie industry in the 1930s was simply staggering, fueled by both the consistent quality of its films and the economic travails of its rivals. Three of the five integrated majors, Fox, Paramount, and RKO, declared bankruptcy, and Warners forestalled that same fate only by siphoning off a sizable portion of its assets. Loew's/MGM, meanwhile, turned a profit every year during the 1930s while its assets actually increased. From 1931 to 1940, the combined profits of Hollywood's Big Eight studios totaled $128.2 million; MGM's profits were $93.2 million, nearly three-quarters of the total. Equally impressive was the consistent quality and critical recognition of MGM's films. During the 1930s, MGM accounted for nearly one-third of the Academy nominees for Best Picture (27 of 87 pictures), winning four times; its actors drew roughly one-third of the best actor and best actress nominations as well, with six male and five female winners. During the first ten years of the Motion Picture Herald's Exhibitors Poll of top box-office stars (1932–1941), just under one-half (47 percent) of those listed were under contract to MGM—including Clark Gable (1901–1960), the only actor listed all ten years.
b. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, Stockholm, Sweden, 18 September 1905, d. 15 April 1990
The first and most important of MGM's remarkable pool of female stars during the classical era, Greta Garbo personified the studio's notion of glamour and style. A beautiful but large and ungainly woman, she was most often photographed either from a distance or in closeup—the better to display the elegance of her surroundings (she often appeared in costume dramas or in exotic locales) or, more importantly, to capture her exquisite face and ethereal personality. She appeared in only two dozen Hollywood films, all of them at MGM, before her sudden retirement in 1942. By then she was already a living legend whose myth had transcended her stardom—a myth that only intensified after her retirement.
Born and raised in poverty in Stockholm, Garbo stumbled into film acting, enjoyed early success (as Greta Gustafsson) in Sweden and Germany, and in 1925 was recruited by Mayer while he was scouting talent in Europe. She became Greta Garbo at MGM and was an immediate success in The Torrent (1926), and then broke through to top stardom teamed with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926). The two reteamed in several huge hits, although Gilbert's star faded while Garbo's rose even higher in the sound era—beginning with Anna Christie (1930), in which MGM announced "Garbo Talks!"—as her husky Swedish intonations added to her exotic, aloof mystique.
Garbo was MGM's most valuable (and highest paid) star in the 1930s, and her films were virtually assured of box-office success not only in the United States but overseas as well, particularly in Europe. Her forte was lavish dramas of ill-fated romance that emphasized her remote, enigmatic beauty. Indeed, Garbo herself was a larger-than-life figure who excelled playing legendary historical and literary heroines in films like Mata Hari (1931), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Conquest (1937). She worked with a wide range of leading directors, including Clarence Brown in a half-dozen films, but her key MGM collaborators were those responsible for the "look" of her films, notably cinematographer William Daniels, costume designer Adrian, and art director Cedric Gibbons, all of whom worked on nearly every one of them.
Garbo's career took two significant, unexpected turns during the prewar era: first in her successful shift to romantic comedy ("Garbo Laughs!") in Ninotchka (1939), and then her sudden retirement after another comedy, Two-Faced Woman (1941). The latter was a rare box-office disappointment, due largely to cuts demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Garbo spurned repeated efforts to coax her out of retirement in later years, living out her signature entreaty, "I want to be alone."
The Torrent (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1926), A Woman of Affairs (1928), Anna Christie (1931), Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931), Mata Hari (1931), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), Conquest (1937), Ninotchka (1939), Two-Faced Woman (1941)
Paris, Barry. Garbo. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Vieira, Mark A. Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy. New York: Abrams, 2005.
A prime example of MGM's house style in the 1930s was Grand Hotel, an all-star ensemble drama featuring Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore; it was a solid commercial hit and won the Oscar® for Best Picture of 1932. The film emphasized glamour, grace, and beauty in its polished settings as well as its civilized characters—all of whom are doomed or desperate, but suffer life's misfortunes with style. Indeed, Grand Hotel in many ways was about the triumph of style, expressed not only by its characters but also by cinematographer William Daniels (1901–1970), editor Blanche Sewell (1898–1949), recording engineer Douglas Shearer (1899–1971), art director Cedric Gibbons (1893–1960), and costume designer Adrian (1903–1959). Each was singled out, along with director Edmund Goulding (1891–1959) and playwright William Drake (1899–1965), in the opening credits of the film, aptly enough, because they were in fact the key artisans of the distinctive MGM style, vintage 1932.
The one individual whose name did not appear was Irving Thalberg, who disdained screen credit but was, without question, the chief architect of the MGM house style. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the studio exemplified the "central producer system" that dominated Hollywood at the time. While Louis Mayer handled studio operations and contract negotiations, Thalberg and his half-dozen supervisors (chief among them Harry Rapf [1882–1949], Hunt Stromberg [1894–1968], and Bernie Hyman [1897–1942]) oversaw the actual filmmaking. And although Thalberg eschewed screen credit, his importance to the studio was widely recognized. A 1932 Fortune magazine profile of MGM flatly stated: "For the past five years, M-G-M has made the best and most successful motion pictures in the United States," and that success was directly attributed to Thalberg. "He is what Hollywood means by M-G-M, … he is now called a genius more often than anyone else in Hollywood." The studio's success was due in part to "Mr. Thalberg's heavy but sagacious spending," noted Fortune, which ensured "the glamour of M-G-M personalities" and the "general finish and glossiness which characterizes M-G-M pictures."
There were other subtler components as well. Thalberg was obsessed with "story values," taking an active role in story and script conferences, and assigning up to a dozen staff writers to a film. He also relied heavily on preview screenings to decide whether a picture required rewrites, retakes, and reediting, and thought nothing of assigning different writers and even a different director to the task. This evinced an ethos of "teamwork" at MGM and generated remarkably few complaints, since the contract talent was so well compensated and so deftly handled by Thalberg and Mayer. Thalberg also had a penchant for "romance" in the form of love stories or male-oriented adventure—or preferably both, as in costarring ventures like Red Dust (1932) and China Seas (1935) with Gable and Jean Harlow (1911–1937). Another important factor was Thalberg's impeccable and oft-noted "taste," which was evident not only in his inclination for the occasional highbrow prestige picture but also in his ability to render frankly erotic stories and situations (as in the Gable–Harlow pictures just mentioned) palatable to Hollywood's Production Code and to mainstream audiences.
While many of these qualities remained essential to MGM's house style well into the 1940s, Thalberg's overall control of production diminished by the mid-1930s. His ill health and an internal power struggle at Loew's/MGM, spurred by both Mayer's and Schenck's growing resentment of Thalberg's authority, led to a shake-up in studio management in 1933 and a steady shift to a unit-producer system, whereby a few top executive producers—principally Thalberg, David Selznick (1902–1965) (Mayer's son-in-law), and Hunt Stromberg—supervised high-end features, while Harry Rapf and a few others handled the studio's second-rank films. Thalberg went along with the change, and both he and Selznick thrived under the new setup, particularly in the realm of prestige-level costume dramas and literary adaptations—Thalberg's productions of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Romeo and Juliet, and Camille (both 1936), for instance, and Selznick's David Copperfield (1934), Anna Karenina, and A Tale of Two Cities (both 1935). Stromberg proved especially adept at launching and maintaining successful star-genre cycles, as with the Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy operettas (for example, Naughty Marietta, 1935, and Rose Marie, 1936) and the Thin Man series with William Powell (1892–1984) and Myrna Loy (1905–1993). Many of Stromberg's productions were directed by the prolific W. S. (Woody) Van Dyke (1889–1943), including the first four Thin Man films and six MacDonald–Eddy musicals; Van Dyke's thirty Depression-era credits also included Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), San Francisco (1935), and Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939).
MGM's success continued under this new production regimen, and in fact its profits in 1936–1937 returned to the record levels enjoyed before the
Depression. But the studio was severely shaken by Selznick's departure for independent production and, far more importantly, by Thalberg's sudden, untimely death (at age 37) in September 1936, which marked the end of an era for MGM and a far more radical change in both the production operations and the studio's distinctive style.
Mayer assumed complete control of MGM after Thalberg's death, managing the studio as well as production through a committee system that swelled rapidly in the late 1930s, adding several levels of bureaucracy to the filmmaking machinery. Where Thalberg had managed production with a "staff" of a half-dozen supervisors, Mayer by 1940–1941 required forty highly paid producers and production executives. This was a disparate lot, including some with no filmmaking experience, although it also included some of Hollywood's premier producers and hyphenates—Joe Mankiewicz (1909–1993) and Dore Schary (1905–1980), who rose through the screenwriting ranks, for instance, or Robert Z. Leonard (1889–1968) and Mervyn LeRoy (1900–1987), who came up as directors (LeRoy at Warner Bros.). Despite the freedom and authority being enjoyed by top directors at other studios, not to mention the growing ranks of independents, MGM remained a producer's studio where even top directors like King Vidor (1894–1982), George Cukor (1899–1983), and Victor Fleming (1889–1949) had very little authority over their pictures. And under Mayer's production-by-committee system, the producers themselves enjoyed little creative leeway as MGM's output became increasingly conservative and predictable. There were occasional exceptions, like LeRoy's first MGM project The Wizard of Oz (1939), an ambitious, innovative, and costly film that was distinctly out of character for MGM at the time. In fact, the studio's only other notable high-risk project was David Selznick's independent production, Gone with the Wind (1939), which MGM partially financed and distributed.
The clearest indication of the conservative turn and risk-averse market strategy under Mayer was MGM's increasing reliance on upbeat film series like the Hardy Family films that rolled off its assembly line at a remarkable rate—one every three to four months from 1938 to 1941—and vaulted Mickey Rooney (b. 1920) to the top position on the Exhibitors Poll of box-office stars, just ahead of MGM's Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. The Hardy films, along with the Dr. Kildaire, Thin Man, Tarzan, and Maisie series, were produced by Joe Cohn's low-budget unit. Mayer prohibited any use of the term "B film" on the lot, and in fact the casts, budgets, running times, and access to the first-run market of MGM's series films qualified them as "near-A's" by industry standards. Mayer let Dore Schary create a unit to produce high-quality, moderately budgeted films, and its two biggest hits, Journey for Margaret (1942) and Lassie Come Home (1943), developed two new child stars—Margaret O'Brien (b. 1937) and Elizabeth Taylor (b. 1932), respectively—and reinforced the wholesome family values espoused by the Hardy films.
Mayer also favored more wholesome depictions of love, marriage, and motherhood, as seen in the rapid wartime rise of Greer Garson (1904–1996) and her frequent costar, Walter Pidgeon (1897–1984), in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), and Mrs. Parkington (1944). Garson and Pidgeon were among several costarring teams that embodied Mayer's idealized version of on-screen coupling—a far cry from the hard-drinking, wise-cracking Nick and Nora Charles of the early Thin Man films, let alone the openly sexual (and adulterous) Gable and Harlow in films like Red Dust and China Seas. As Rooney began to outgrow his Andy Hardy role, he teamed with Judy Garland (1922–1969) in a cycle of energetic show-musicals—Babes in Arms (1939),
Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), and Girl Crazy (1943)—directed by Busby Berkeley (1895–1976) and produced by Arthur Freed (1894–1973). A more mature and far more credible couple, Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003) and Spencer Tracy (1900–1967), began their long-time partnership in Woman of the Year (1942), the first of six teamings for MGM in the 1940s.
During the war, MGM reduced its output by about 30 percent and benefited from the surging movie business along with other major studios, but to a lesser extent due to its continued output of high-gloss, high-cost productions and its smaller theater chain. In fact, Loew's/MGM revenues during the war years were not significantly higher than in the peak Depression years, and in 1946, the height of the war boom, MGM's profits of $18 million were dwarfed by Paramount's $39.2 million. MGM continued to spend lavishly, but its dominion over the industry clearly was ending, as its profits lagged far behind Fox and Warners as well as Paramount in the late 1940s, and its critical cachet faded as well. Oscar® nominations and critical hits became rare, and the MGM house style looked increasingly anachronistic in the postwar era of film noir and social-problem dramas.
One bright spot for MGM was its musical output, which during the postwar decade comprised one-quarter of its releases (81 of 316 films) and more than half of Hollywood's overall musical production. Several staff producers specialized in musicals, including Joe Pasternak (1901–1991) and Jack Cummings (1900–1989), but the individual most responsible for MGM's "musical golden age" was Arthur Freed, who after the Rooney–Garland cycle had a breakthrough with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), an ambitious Technicolor production starring Garland and directed by Vincente Minnelli (1903–1983). That film's success enabled Freed to assemble his own unit whose distinctive emphasis on dance utilized the talents of choreographers Gene Kelly (1912–1996), Stanley Donen (b. 1924), and Charles Walters (1911–1982), all of whom Freed developed into directors.
The currency of the Freed unit's "dance musicals" was established in late-1940s films like Minnelli's The Pirate (1948), Walters's Easter Parade (1948), and Donen-Kelly's first co-directing effort, On the Town (1949), and the cycle reached a sustained peak in the 1950s with such classics as An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), Singin' in the Rain (Donen-Kelly, 1952), The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953), It's Always Fair Weather (Donen-Kelly, 1955), and Gigi (Minnelli, 1958). Freed's musicals were critically and commercially successful, but they also were symptomatic of the profligate production operations that were squeezing MGM's profit margins. The studio could scarcely afford not to produce them as its postwar fortunes ebbed, however, and thus the cycle became, in effect, the last bastion of MGM's classical-era operations and house style, the last manifestation of its fading industry rule.
Mayer was a major advocate of Freed and the lavish musical cycle, predictably enough, and one of the acute ironies of MGM's postwar era is that the Freed unit far outlasted the Mayer regime—and subsequent regimes as well. By 1948 Nick Schenck realized that Mayer was fundamentally incapable of adjusting to the rapidly changing postwar conditions. He stubbornly adhered to the studio's entrenched production policies and bloated management setup, he openly criticized the industry trends toward realism and social drama, and he was reluctant to work with the growing ranks of independent filmmaking talent. Schenck was equally concerned about other developments, particularly declining theater attendance, the government's antitrust campaign, and the emergence of television, which threatened the studio system at large. In an effort to cut costs and bring MGM in sync with the changing industry, Schenck demanded that Mayer "find another Thalberg." Thus Dore Schary, the RKO production chief and former MGM writer-producer, was hired in 1948 as MGM's vice president in charge of production.
The Mayer–Schary union was troubled from the start, due to Mayer's adherence to the studio's entrenched operations and the two executives' very different sensibilities. Schary's liberal politics irked the arch-conservative Mayer—no small matter in the age of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the nascent Cold War—but even worse, in Mayer's view, was Schary's taste in films and his proclivity for freelance talent. The rancor reached a flashpoint over Schary's support of two projects with freelance writer-director John Huston (1906–1987), The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Red Badge of Courage (1951). The former was a downbeat, realistic crime thriller with an all-male ensemble cast that Mayer publicly castigated. But the film was a hit, prompting Schary to approve The Red Badge of Courage, an adaptation of Stephen Crane's bleak Civil War novel. Mayer refused to finance production, forcing Schary to go to Schenck for approval, and when the film ran over budget and then died at the box office, Mayer demanded Schary's ouster. Schenck backed Schary, however, and in May 1951 Mayer was forced out of the studio that bore his name.
Mayer's departure scarcely improved MGM's fortunes. Schenck and Schary were both out by the mid-1950s, leading to a quick succession of top executives at both Loew's and MGM. Mayer himself attempted to regain control in 1957, but the effort failed and he died late that year—just before MGM announced the first annual net loss in its history. The studio moved very tentatively into TV series production and was among the last to open its vault to television syndication, although MGM did lease The Wizard of Oz to CBS for a color broadcast in October 1956, making it the first Hollywood film to air on prime-time network television. The program was a ratings hit, and another signal of an industry transformation that was leaving MGM behind. Loew's/MGM fought the Supreme Court's 1948 Paramount decree, the anti-trust ruling that mandated theater divorcement, to the bitter end, with Loew's finally divesting of MGM in 1959. The studio enjoyed one of biggest hits ever that year in Ben-Hur, but subsequent big-budget remakes of Cimarron (1960), King of Kings (1961), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) were disappointments.
MGM produced a few major hits in the 1960s, notably Dr. Zhivago (1965) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The latter, directed by Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999), provided major impetus to the auteur-driven New American Cinema of the late 1960s, as did MGM's earlier release of Michelangelo Antonioni's (b. 1912) Blow-Up (1966). But the studio had no real stake in this movement, nor did it pursue any other production or marketing trends during the late 1960s, when it was plagued by frequent changes in leadership and struggles for corporate control. These struggles culminated in 1969, a year in which MGM posted its biggest loss ever ($35 million) and was taken over by Las Vegas mega-developer Kirk Kerkorian. Though Paramount, Warner Bros., and United Artists were acquisition targets as well, they were bought by diversified conglomerates, which allowed them to continue operations despite the industry-wide recession. Kerkorian, conversely, was a financier and real-estate tycoon who was primarily interested in MGM for its brand name and the value of its library, and had no inclination to underwrite its failing movie production–distribution operation.
Kerkorian immediately installed former CBS president James T. Aubrey (1918–1994) to run the studio, with instructions to cut costs and reduce output. One result was MGM's successful run of low-budget "blaxploitation" films, notably Shaft (1970) and its various sequels and television spinoffs. But soon Aubrey began to dismantle the studio, auctioning off a treasure trove of memorabilia and archival material, and selling the MGM backlot for real-estate development. The most drastic move came in 1973, the year that Kerkorian opened his MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (then the largest hotel in the world), when Aubrey sold MGM's distribution operation to United Artists, which had been acquired in 1967 by Transamerica, and announced that MGM would produce only a few pictures per year.
Thus, just as the movie industry began its economic recovery, MGM ceased operating as a major Hollywood producer-distributor. Its most successful pictures at the time, aptly enough, were That's Entertainment! in 1974 and its 1976 sequel, documentary celebrations of MGM's past glories. While MGM foundered in the late 1970s, Kerkorian's real estate business thrived, enabling him to purchase United Artists in 1981 when that studio was reeling after the Heaven's Gate debacle, as huge cost overruns on an unreleasable film forced UA into bankruptcy. Returning to active distribution, Kerkorian ramped up production at "MGM/UA" after the merger, although few films of any real note were produced by the company until 1986, when it was purchased by Ted Turner (b. 1938)—who then promptly sold UA and the MGM trademark back to Kerkorian, and sold the MGM lot to Lorimar, a major television producer.
Thus began an even more intense period of chaos, confusion, and legal wrangling for MGM, during which time the company repeatedly changed hands, was in continual litigation over the ownership of its library and several of its key movie franchises, and was increasingly difficult to define as a "studio"—particularly after Lorimar sold the lot (in 1989) to Warner Bros. MGM produced a few hits like Thelma & Louise (1991) and was involved in the theatrical or home-video distribution of many others, including United Artists' James Bond films (Golden Eye, 1995; Die Another Day, 2002). After ownership passed from Turner to Kerkorian and then in the early 1990s to Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti (then owner of Pathé's film operation) and to Credit Lyonnais (which foreclosed on Parretti), Kerkorian put together a consortium to repurchase MGM in 1996. That led to further acquisitions, particularly in MGM's library holdings, which became sufficiently robust to attract multiple offers. In 2004 Kerkorian sold MGM to a media consortium whose principals included Sony (which bought Columbia Pictures in 1989) and the cable giant Comcast for $4.8 billion.
This acquisition finally aligned MGM with a global media conglomerate, but it scarcely signaled a return to active motion picture production. Sony and Comcast clearly were interested in MGM for much the same reason as Kerkorian had been previously—that is, for its brand name and library holdings (along with the James Bond and Pink Panther franchises that MGM acquired via UA). And the amount the new owners paid well indicates the value of "branding" and "software" in the current media era. Thus, even as the Sony group announced plans to reduce MGM's output to only a few films per year, it is quite likely that the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer name (and logo), along with its classic films, will maintain their currency, and will serve too as constant reminders of Hollywood's Golden Age.
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