Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the largest and best known Hollywood studio, next to Fox, Warner Bros, and Universal. It was founded by the merger of several small companies (Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions) in 1924. Despite having Samuel Goldwyn’s name on the logo, the man left the Goldwyn company even before the merger. Thus, MGM was headed by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg.
In the beginning, Metro Pictures provided the leading stars and directors. Goldwyn provided the studio at Culver City and the roaring lion logo adopted by the company. Mayer provided his own small band of stars and was essentially the head of the studio until his death in 1927.
The company was best known for its continuous stream of new and upcoming stars and was well known for the quality and loyalty of their people. There were even technicians who worked in the company for over 30 years. However, the company was devoted more to the craft of filmmaking, rather than the art of it, and so most of its directors left after a relatively short time. Names like Stroheim, Ingram, Stiller, and Sjöström left the company, taking their creativity with them.
Effectively, MGM remained a B-Movie powerhouse, despite the quality and the mantra Mayer instilled in the company: “If it’s an MGM film, it has to look like an MGM film”. However, there were a few surprises MGM provided, such as the movies The Wind by Sjöström and Gish, The Crowd by Vidor, and Freaks by Browning.
It took some time for MGM to adapt to sound, but once it did, the company developed as rapidly as its first appearance in American cinemas. They created successful talkies, throughout the boom years of 1929 and 1930, starting with The Broadway Melody. Even the classic film Gone With The Wind held them high during these years.
The Beginning of the End
As the company grew more and more successful, the conflict between Mayer and Thalberg began to grow. Thalberg believed that Mayer took more credit than he deserved, and led him to renegotiate their annual bonus, with Thalberg to take more than Mayer.
His victory didn’t last long, since he became seriously ill in 1932, and had to take a long leave of absence. By the time he came back, Mayer had reorganized the company. He promoted several production supervisors to the role of full producers and even hired his son-in-law David O. Selznick. Eventually, Thalberg decided to become an independent producer and signed up some stars to work under him, even when he did leave the company.
In the 1930s the company really found its ground. It created films like Mutiny and the Bounty (1935), A Tale of Two Cities, and The Great Ziegfeld. MGM even went on to create several shorts and cartoons, of which one of the most famous and most successful was the Tom and Jerry series. For several years, the company would continue to grow. Its studio at Culver City grew from its original 40-acre plot to a 187-acre complex of six lots.
It wasn’t until 1951 did the company fully start to decline. 1951 was the year Mayer left, after a dispute between himself and Schary, who was added to the company to help bring a new image to the company. The company fell below the line in 1957, but in the next year broke even with the release of Gigi. A year after that, the epic Ben-Hur saw to their former glory, which didn’t last long. There were too many management changes and not enough positive leadership, to the point where nobody agreed on anything.
Back Down Again
Ever since the departure of Mayer and Schary, the company struggled to keep up with the demands of the film industry. Its films were nothing if not one-time entertainment spiels and forgettable at best. Despite some of their well-known films such as Thelma and Louise and Goldeneye, the company continues to struggle. Most of its shares have been distributed to the likes of Fox, United Artists, and Pathé. Now in 2017, it looks like the company has all but completely dissolved, and it is yet to be seen if MGM studios will ever regain its former glory.
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