In its heyday, MGM boasted that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”. But since the sale of its grand lot in Culver City in 1985, several changes of ownership and the initiation of few productions of its own, the studio has been more like a black hole than a galaxy, and its £2.4 billion debt has led to the postponement of the 23rd James Bond movie.
Though Leo — the MGM lion — may still occasionally roar, he will never be the beast he was from the 1920s to 1960s.
In 1920, the immigrant waiter’s son Marcus Loew, former furrier and owner of a movie chain, bought the ailing Metro company. Four years later he merged it with Goldwyn (co-founded by ex-glove salesman Samuel Goldfish and the Selwyn Brothers) and ex-junk dealer Louis B. Mayer’s company to create Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
MGM rapidly became the biggest and most successful of the eight corporations that dominated Hollywood, with the robust, pugnacious Mayer as head of production and the frail, sensitive Irving Thalberg as his right-hand man. They were the ultimate ruthless mogul who provided the model for Monroe Stahr in Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, the greatest novel about Hollywood’s golden age.
Together they established a factory that produced bespoke goods with a reputation for style, opulence and craftsmanship. Warner Brothers movies may have been grittier, RKO’s darker, Fox’s more in touch with political currents, but MGM had a special magic. In 1939, it created Tara in Gone with the Wind and the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, produced one of the greatest-ever comedies, Ninotchka, made Goodbye, Mr. Chips in England, and provided the space in At the Circus for Groucho Marx to sing of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady”.
The silent classic Ben Hur was an MGM film, and the 1959 remake brought a late burst of glory to the studio in the year it was forced by anti-trust legislation to sell off its cinemas.
Back in the 1950s, David O. Selznick, onetime MGM producer and Mayer’s son-in-law, said: “Hollywood’s like Egypt. Full of crumbling pyramids. It’ll just keep crumbling until the wind blows the last studio props into the sand.” Well, Judy Garland’s ruby slippers were auctioned off long ago, but the film in which she wore them and several other gems from the MGM crown will last for ever.