Tuesday, February 10, 2009
MGM: When the Lion Roars Two-Disc DVD Set
MGM: When the Lion Roars was once a shelf-hogging three-part VHS set or a thick deluxe laser disc box set, well worth the space required to have this in your personal library. It is now a 2-disc DVD set, and it’s about damned time. This documentary was one of those reasons I was hanging onto my VHS player, for Pete’s sake. Departed from the DVD release is the booklet once included in the VHS set that contained information about the MGM coffee table tie-in book of the same name, as well as tragic images of the MGM back lots being bulldozed to rubble in the late 70’s. Nevertheless, this six-hour-plus documentary detailing the complete glorious-to-tragic history of the greatest motion picture studio of the 20th century is finally available to the public once again.
If you are a radster and think that musicals are just for girlies and are too “old school” for you, you are an idiot, and you should shut your mouth and sit down to learn how things were done with style and talent that you just don’t see anymore. I dare the most cynical modern-day individual to watch this historic journey and not at least walk away with more respect and interest in early film industry, needless to say in MGM studios.
Documentary host Patrick “Jean-Luc Picard” Stewart mentions in his opening monologue the sheer power of the MGM studio, psychologically and behind the scenes. Though he admits right away that he never was there to witness it in person, Stewart possesses the gravitas necessary to convey this magnitude, and to take us through this sacred story. We learn about the inception of the studio, and the merging of three pioneers of early film history. This triangle were three successful and prevailing silent film studios, Metro, along with two other studios led by Samuel Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer, two individuals who were pioneers of film production, trail blazing their way to power. These three entities were brought together by Lowes Incorporated to become the greatest motion picture studio the world has ever known: MGM. Immediately joining the new company, Irving Thalberg, the “boy genius”, was recruited from Universal Studios in 1924 and initiated by Mayer to become MGM’s head of production. He was 23 years old at the time. Tragically, Thalberg died in 1936 at 37 years of age, but his legacy is still celebrated today with the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which singles out excellence in the art of filmmaking every year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at the yearly Oscar ceremonies.
MGM was located in Culver City, and would become a self-sustaining complex behind its own walls, complete with everything from schools to a zoo, hospital, costume department, lakes, and millinery. A motion picture factory, capable of producing one motion picture a week, in order to supply the parent company, Lowes Inc. with first-run movies across the states.
This documentary doesn’t focus on any one movie, song or person, but is about one of America’s most fascinating moments in history, when poor American immigrants started off in the new industry of filmmaking and became power-hungry, money-mad movie moguls, who would rule the entertainment industry for decades. Their seemingly unlimited power even had enormous pull with the politics of the time. (Well, some things have not changed.) Hence an American film studio provided the gold standard for motion pictures.
This documentary features perhaps many of the last on-camera interviews of many of the stars and technicians who were all cornerstones of the success and magic of MGM. Along with the interviews are clips of all the essential MGM staple films, and even the obscure clip or two from shorts and behind the scenes coverage.
MGM provided escapism for the audiences of the time. Their films always had an elegance and art that was true eye candy. MGM’s stable of talent was made up of individuals hand-selected to become “stars”; Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Spencer Tracy, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the list goes on and of all made their films made by MGM.
The story arc of MGM is not without tragedy, as the glory years of the silent era through the 40s are glamorous and magical, but the struggle for power in the studio, mixed with the changing times like the advent of rock n’ roll in the 1950s along with the rise of television was the establishing the slow downfall of MGM. The last days are truly sad, although there are highlights, like with one of the best horror films ever made: “2001: A Space Odyssey”. This film was made at MGM via the genius of Stanley Kubrick, whose success quickly followed in 1969 with the selling of studio to Kirk Kerkorian, the hotel millionaire. Unfortunately was not interested in making movies at all, and eventually his purchase of the studio led to the selling off of MGM’s glorious back lot, piece-by-piece, to make more condos. Thousands of iconic props and costumes, rare antiques and paintings were all sold at a public liquidation auction for 1.5 million dollars. Today, one pair of Ruby Slippers from “The Wizard of OZ” is worth at least that, and six pairs were found in the MGM wardrobe department and sold at the auction. Perhaps my favorite interview comment was made by Debbie Reynolds, who mentioned that she tried to make the heads of MGM realize they had a potential tourist goldmine on their hands, as their back-lots were already a Disneyland, and that all they needed was to add a turnstile and let cars drive in to see where “The Wizard of Oz,” “Singing in the Rain”, and hundreds of other film classics were made. She said, “Universal did it. If a silly little girl from Burbank could see it, why didn’t they see it, it’s too late now.” (The Universal Studios Tour draws more revenue than their motion pictures or television programs do, yet Universal is now is planning on developing their back-lot into condos, the same as the MGM folly of the 70’s. I guess no one ever learns from history.)
MGM When the Lion Roars features no additional features, but really none are necessary as the information contained on this DVD set is magnificently exhausting with its 366-minute running time. Writer / Director Frank Martin is no novice to the world of documentary filmmaking as he has delivered numerous exceptional Hollywood related docs, including “John Huston: The Man, The Movies, The Maverick” (1989), “Elvis in Hollywood” (1993) and “The Warner Brothers 75th Anniversary: No Guts, No Glory” (1998). It is reassuring that this tent pole documentary was awarded the Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series. Only to be matched by “That’s Entertainment,” the 1974 documentary largely focusing on the glorious musical numbers, this enormous accounting of MGM’s history will be hard to top. This is without a doubt the best MGM documentary produced to date.