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History Of Mgm Studio

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Macy Weiser


Film History Group Project

The Studio Personnel of MGM

When discussing the historical personnel of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, it would seem most appropriate to start of with a discussion of Irving Thalberg. Born in 1899 with a heart condition, doctors estimated that he would not live past his thirtieth birthday. With his imposed bed-rest state for much of his childhood, his mother instilled a love of reading, which later would be credited for his ability to tell a story.

Through a family friend connection, Thalberg got a start to his career by being hired as a secretary to the head of Universal at the time, Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was so impressed by the work of Thalberg that he quickly worked his way to head of production at Universal while still so young in age he couldn't sign the payroll checks. In 1924 he got hired as vice president at MGM.

Despite his fragile health, Thalberg oversaw every movie made at MGM between 1924 and 1932 (Pawlak, 1), and instilled a rigorous method of both pre and post production including sneak previews for the public and a strong belief in retakes after viewing their reactions to the films. Thalberg is also famous for creating the "unit production management scheme", by which Hollywood productions are split more definitively into "units", thus spreading out the creative control of a film among producers, directors, etc (Wikipedia).

Thalberg married one of MGM's coveted starlettes, Norma Shearer. The relationship was mutually beneficial and Thalberg often chose screenplays in which his wife could star. Thalberg suffered from a heart attack in 1932, during a period when he was supervising up to 5 films a week. Upon Thalberg's illness, Louis B. Mayer, who had come to resent Thalberg's power and success, replaced him with David O. Selznick and Walter Wanger. When he returned to work in 1933, it was as one of the studio's unit producers. (Wikipedia).

Thalberg died of pneumonia at the age of 37 after a very prolific and successful career. The only film he ever received screen credit for (by choice) was the last film he worked on, The Good Earth, which was dedicated to his memory. There is also an award given in his memory to "Creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production" by the Academy that has been give to such legendary filmmakers such as Bergman, Hitchcock, Lucas, and Spielberg.

Louis B. Mayer, the figure head and father figure of the company for twenty seven years (Schulberg), also one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (IMDB), and the highest paid American business executive throughout the 1930's (IMDB), as the first executive in America to earn a million-dollar salary (Wikipedia).

A Russian immigrant from an impoverished family, Mayer's first break came when he "earned a breakthrough $500,000 by putting up $50,000 for a lopsided 90% of the New England ticket sales on the first movie blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation" (Schulberg, 1). Marcus Loew offered Mayer the position of "commanding officer of a new company merging Metro and Goldwyn, with Mayer soon adding his big M to the mix" (Schulberg).

As discussed in class, Louis B. Mayer (and in turn, MGM) had a high regard for the studio's star system. He's credited with wooing some of the greatest stars of the time into contract with his company while at the same time helping manipulate the public into falling under the magnetic power and prowess of these stars. Mayer boasted a list of household names that almost lived up to MGM's slogan, "More stars than there are in heaven" (Schulberg). He was also credited with discovering the great screen legend Greta Garbo.

Mayer's interest in American family values and the idealism represented by the theory of the American dream were quite apparent in his interest in politics. A strongly conservative man interested in increasing his wealth, he put to use the Henry Ford method of production when it came to his studio's films, using the assembly line theory to produce as many films as possible, which is perhaps why MGM stayed the only studio to pay dividends during the Great Depression.

Conflict began to develop with Mayer's protйgй and (some say the genius behind the work of MGM) studio exec Irving Thalberg, who then died of a heart condition. Mayer continued to rule the lion's den for 15 years or so, until the glory days of the "sentimental family fare and glossy romantic productions" and the "golden years of the moguls" both began to lose their edge (Schulberg, 3). A showdown between Mayer and Thalberg's successor Dore Schary caused Loew's successor Nick Schenck to make a choice, and Mayer lost (Schulberg, 3). Mayer died in 1957, leaving quite the "dream factory" in his wake.

Another legendary filmmaker in the history of MGM was Arthur Freed, who began his career in vaudeville (Wikipedia), then started writing songs, often partnering with Nacio Herb Brown. The songwriting and lyrical composition talents of Freed were largely helpful in turning MGM into the musical making factory that it turned into, and he was promoted to the position of producer in 1939. "If the MGM musical of the 40s and 50s represents the peak of the genre, its biggest hits were Freed's: dazzling Technicolor productions scored by some of the 20th century's greatest songwriters and employing the studio's top technical and creative talents" (Film Forum). Freed won 2 best picture Oscars, for Gigi and An American in Paris (IMDB). He also won the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award in 1952 and he has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (IMDB).

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