The Story of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Published: Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film
Date: Thursday, March 10, 2005
MGM was the most famous of the Hollywood studios of the 1930s. From a business perspective, however, the studio merely functioned as a highly publicized subsidiary of Loew's, Inc., a fully integrated movie company that also owned a highly profitable theater chain headquartered in New York City. Indeed, from 1924 until 1954 Nicholas M. Schenck ran MGM as if it were simply a supplier for Loew's theaters.
MGM's method of film production reflected Schenck's conservative business philosophy. Founded in 1924, the studio projected an image of itself as the "Tiffany of studios," producing high-toned feature films starring luminaries such as Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. During its golden era in the 1930s, however, the studio made most of its profits with films starring down-to-earth types like Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, Spencer Tracy, and Clark Gable. Alongside high-glamour star vehicles the studio also turned out jungle adventures (the Tarzan Series), slapstick comedies (Laurel and Hardy in Son of the dessert, 1933), and the satire and burlesque of the Marx Brothers (A night at the opera, 1935; A day at the races, 1937).
During the 1940s MGM became closely associated with Technicolor musicals produced by Arthur Freed, such as Meet me in St. Louis (1944), starring Judy Garland and directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli. But it also made millions with the low-budget Dr. Kildare Series and Andy Hardy Series as well as with "Tom and Jerry" cartoons.
Loew's put up a concerted struggle against the Paramount decrees that forced Hollywood studios to divest their theater operations. The company finally relinquished control of MGM in 1959, by which time the studio was in serious trouble. Famed studio boss Louis B. Mayer had been fired in 1951. His replacement, Dore Schary, had introduced more socially conscious subject matter to MGM's production schedule, but the company had floundered under his brief reign. Schenck decided to retire in 1955 and Schary left a year later. Violent corporate struggles then became the order of the day as a succession of executives tried in vain to revive the studio's former glory. Hits emerged infrequently and usually from unexpected sources: Elvis Presley starred in Jailhouse Rock (1957); a remake of Ben-Hur (1959) was the top-grossing film of 1960 and won a record eleven Oscars; a tidy profit was made from Doctor Zhivago (1965), a film based on a novel about the Russian Revolution.
In 1969 airline mogul Kirk Kerkorian purchased controlling interest in MGM simply to gain a symbol for his new Las Vegas hotel. In the early 1970s the company turned to low-budget films. With the exception of the wildly successful black exploitation feature Shaft (1971), the strategy did not pay off; in October 1973 the once mighty MGM abandoned the moviemaking business.
The company made a comeback in 1980 when Kerkorian split MGM into a hotel empire and a movie company, and acquired United Artists a year later. The regular release of James Bond films, however, provided most of the studio's few hits of the decade. Meanwhile, Kerkorian continued to make money by selling off parts of the company; at one point he sold MGM to cable television mogul Ted Turner, only to buy it back again, minus the studio's movie library. Lorimar-Telepictures took over what remained of the fabled backlot. In 1989 Kerkorian sold MGM/UA to Qintex, an Australian broadcasting company, which in turn sold it to Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti the following year.