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The name of the most profitable and most powerful studio during Hollywood's Golen Age was the combination of three film companies that merged in April of 1924. The companies were: Metro Pictures Corporation (founded in 1916), Goldwyn Pictures Corporation (1917) and Louis B. Mayer Pictures (1918). M-G-M was controlled by Loews, Inc., a vaudeville and movie theatre chain founded in 1904 by a man by the name of Marcus Loew. Louis B. Mayer was made head of the studio as a result of his success as an independent producer, Harry Ralf and twenty-five year old Irving Thalberg as production heads. Although Loew's Metro were the dominant partner in this deal, Goldwyn provided the production facility in Culver City, California, and came up with the studio's mascot: Leo the Lion. (Metro's original symbol was a parrot.) The logo itself (see left) has been in use since 1924, but a different logo (see right) has been the studio's logo, beginning in 2001. Goldwyn's corporate motto? Ars Gratia Artis -- Art for Art's Sake.
Inherited from Goldwyn Pictures Corpotation was the production of a film entitled Ben-Her, which had been filming in Rome for months without producing any good footage. Mayer took charge of this job, scrapping most of what had been shot and bringing the filming back to the home studio in Culver City. Ben-Her was the most costly film, it became MGM's first public triumph, establishing the fact that this studio seriously meant business.
Marcus Loew passed away in 1927 and in control of Loew's was passed to his associate, Nicholas Schenk. A rival theater-ower and entrepreneur William Fox then saw a golden opportunity to expand his own empire and two years after Loew's death, with the assistant of Schenck, bought the Loew's family holdings. Mayer and Thalberg who were employees and not shareholders, were outraged. Mayer was so upset he used his political connections to launch a Justice Department action. After wishing on them terrible luck, Fox was badly injured in a car accident and by the time he recovered, the stock-market crash of 1929 had left him with nothing. The Loew deal was off. Schenck, having seen his chance to make an instant fortune evaporate, he resented Mayer terribly, which led to the Fox incident to a Hollywood-New York antagonism that would last over thirty years.
Right from the beginning, MGM Studios were the Depression-era residents much-needed happiness booster. Their stars had the glamour and sophistication they wish they could have. After inheriting a few big names from the merging of the film company, Mayer and Thalberg began to create, not to mention publicize a host of brand-spanking new stars. Among them was Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, William Haines, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. Already having established stars such as Lou Chaney, William Powell, Buster Keaton and Wallace Beery were hired from other studios. With the silent era fast disappearing, talking pictures in 1928 and 1929 gave MGM the oppurtunity for them to hire new talent, stars that would carry them through the 1930s with an actual profit during the Depression. Unlike other rival studios, MGM didn't lose any money during the 1930s, no matter how bad the economy was. MGM had a profit every quarter all through the 1930s, producing fifty films each year. The stars were Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, among many others.
Irving Thalberg, who always was physically frail, was removed as production head in 1932. Louis B. Mayer encouraged other staff producers, including his son-in-law David O. Selznick, but none had Thalberg's touch. Rumors flew rampid that Thalberg was leaving MGM to form his own company, but his death in 1936 at thirty-seven cost MGM dearly in terms of movie quality. But, the company continued to bring in profits, which now included new "series" movies, such as Andy Hardy and The Thin Man.
Before and during World War II, Mayer became to rely on his "College of Cardinals" who were senior producers who controlled what the studio released. This management may explain why MGM lost its momentum, developing only few stars instead of multiple like in the 1930s and relying on film sequels and often bland material. Production values remained high and even B-rated pictures carried a certain polish. After 1940, production was put from fifty-pictures a year to a more manageable post-war twenty-five pictures a year. During this time, MGM also premiered animation. Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising came from Warner Brothers Studios and were joined in 1941 by Tex Avery, who gave the unit its image. With successes like Red Hot Riding Hood, Swing Shift Cinderella and the Droopy series, MGM's biggest cartoon stars were Tom and Jerry, the cat and mouse duo. Tom and Jerry actually won several nominations.
As audiences began to drift away after the war, MGM found it rough going. While other studios backed away from musicals, MGM increased its output to as many as five or six musicals each year. Such movies were extremely expensive to make and required a full staff of songwriters, musicians, dancers, arrangers and technical support--all of which took money. Making five or six musicals ate into studio profits like a moth through cotton. By the late 1940s, MGM's profit margins became dangerously thin and word came from New York that they needed to find another "boy genius" (a term MGM referred to deceased Irving Thalberg) who could bring up film quality without using too much of the studio's budget. Mayer thought he had found this savior in a man named Dore Schary, who was a writer and producer, along with a couple of successful years running RKO Studios.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, however, MGM began going downhill. In 1957, the same year in which Louis B. Mayer passed away, it was the first time MGM Studios actually lost money. The studio itself was unable to cope with the loss of its theater chain and the power shift from studio bosses to independent producers and agents. Now, in the present time, MGM is still making successful movies and although it has lost its "glamorous alore" from the Depression, it is still a known studio today, with Leo the Lion heading the way.
(Color photo of the MGM logo curtesy of Wikipedia.com.)