"M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot": Book Review

"M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot"
by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan
Santa Monica Press, 311 pp., $34.95
Reviewed by David Marshall James


When theater-chain owner Marcus Loew purchased Louis B. Mayer's Mission Road Studio in downtown Los Angeles and put him in charge of production at the Goldwyn Studio in Culver City, California,
M-G-M was born.

The mandate was simple: Loew expected plenty of movies to facilitate the filling of his theater seats.

And Mayer-- supported by his young production chief, Irving Thalberg-- had a formula for delivery.

Taking a cue from Henry Ford's assembly line, Mayer transformed M-G-M into an efficient array of every conceivable department and shop required to produce a motion picture, from writer's desk to film lab.

Massive enclosed stages were in place for interior sets, and a backlot was expanded, with facades and other structures for exterior sets.

As the authors relate, the studio ultimately constructed more soundstages over its original backlot, and the coming decades would see the dawn of seven more backlots.

Although dressed and redressed for different movies, many of the backlot sets are easy to identify for regular viewers of Turner Classic Movies, or even viewers of "The Twilight Zone," the episodes of which were filmed at M-G-M.

In addition to the New York streets, Wild West towns, small-town square, and train platform, there were the "Andy Hardy" street, the stone bridge featured prominently in such costume pictures as "The Three Musketeers" (1948), and the "St. Louis" set, consisting of a curving street lined with ornate Victorian houses.

Some M-G-M films were produced entirely on soundstages, most notably "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) and "Brigadoon" (1954). Those stages continue to stand, yet don't expect any pieces of the Yellow Brick Road lying underneath the floor of Stage 27 (where Munchkinland was constructed), as the host of SyFy's "Hollywood Treasure" did in an episode aired this past year.

Although many a staircase and many a set partial (especially those created for "Marie Antoinette" [1938]) were reused, there simply wasn't enough storage space for sets and backdrops for which there was no feasible future use.

With a slash-and-burn-to-the-bottom-line lack of foresight, M-G-M executives of the early 1970s auctioned off the studio's costumes and props, then sold the backlots for real-estate development.

Because those fantastic and fascinating outdoor sets have disappeared, this volume presents a treasured record of Hollywood at its most golden, when writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner wrote original screenplays; when George Gershwin and Irving Berlin composed original film scores; and when an M-G-M producer merely had to say, "Build it," and it was good as done. All the necessary facilities were on the lot.

Many of the hundreds of photos that accompany the text are intriguing, from the "Oz" post-production report (almost 100 percent over-budget) to the commissary menu from 1957. I'm still puzzling over the ghostly figure in the photo of Jean Harlow on a "Red Dust" (1932) set.

Still, I've a quibble: The text needs to be tidied up to eliminate some errors. For instance, "I Take This Woman" (1940) wasn't Hedy Lamarr's first American film. The Truetts, not the Bluetts, live next door to the Smiths in "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944).

At the end, no need to complain about a good movie because of some hard kernels in the popcorn. This volume still earns "must-see" status.

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