The history of MGM: Hollywood domination

Our look back over the history of MGM continues, as the silent era gives way to the talkies and musicals of the 20s and 30s...

It’s 1928, and the success of Warner Bros’ musical, The Jazz Singer, has ushered in a new age of talking pictures. Audiences adored it, and it was sink or swim time for MGM. Suddenly, the silent cinema rule book was thrown out of the window and numerous opportunities opened up in Hollywood.

Composers were in demand, and song and script writers, along with voice coaches, were needed more than ever. White Shadows In The South Seas was the first MGM sound picture, although not a talkie. Originally filmed as a silent picture, MGM realised that sound wasn’t just a passing fad and, like most studios at the time, swiftly added sound effects to its music. But they did make one character speak – and that was Leo the lion, who roared for the first time.

The first MGM talkie picture, and the first MGM star to speak on the screen, was William Haines in crime drama Alias Jimmy Valentine. The film was only part talkie, but it was nevertheless a step in the right direction for MGM. The new technology meant a big change around for the studio – for some stars, their career was over, and for others it was just beginning. Stars like Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald, and Nelson Eddy were among them.

However, it was MGM’s regular stars who continued to pull in the crowds after the conversion, with The Trail Of ‘98. Based on a 1911 novel, the film was one of the year’s biggest releases, portraying the story of San Franciscans who leave for the Alaskan gold rush. The film was an exciting epic directed by Clarence Brown and starred a host of MGM’s favourite names, including Dolores del Rio, Ralph Forbes and Karl Dane.

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The talkies also brought about the birth of a new genre. Having previously been limited to the stage, the musical could now be enjoyed by audiences around the world. The first of these was The Broadway Melody, released in 1929. It was the first MGM musical ever produced, and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. It arrived just in time too, as in 1929 Wall Street crashed, and audiences desired the escapist rag-to-riches stories the musicals offered.

MGM recognised the need for glamour and sophistication in its movies, and that was what they offered. In 1930, the studio released The Rogue Song, the first all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing and, most importantly, all-colour musical.

Despite the deepening depression, MGM’s profits rose significantly as did most studios that year. The introduction of sound had stimulated Hollywood and protected it from the full wrath of the crash. In later years, MGM boasted that its films never lost money, a claim not too distant from the truth. Throughout the 30s, rival studios struggled, many making great losses, particularly in 1932.

In the 1930s, MGM continued to release the popular Laurel and Hardy shorts from Hal Roach’s studios, as well as the Charley Chase and Our Gang series. In addition to these, it began producing its own series of children’s comedy shorts up until 1944, including The All Barkie Dogville Comedies from 1929 to 1931. The shorts, featuring costumed dogs, were voiced by actors, and parodied contemporary films – most famously, The Dogway Melody.

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Studios didn’t merely push sound and colour boundaries. In 1929, director King Vidor was held in such high esteem that he was given complete creative control over his work, and later that year Hallelujah! was released. It told the tale of religion versus sin in the Deep South; the film was notable for its cast of entirely unknown black actors. It was a huge risk for MGM to take, but despite all reservations, the film did well and was deemed revolutionary at the time.

MGM was flying high, as it continued to profit, making 50 pictures a year for Loew Theatres. It had the stars and the glamour no other studio could match, and dominated the film industry. By 1932 MGM, was the only studio not greatly affected by the Depression, due to its increasing name power, and realisation that comedy was the way forward. As breadlines grew longer than box office queues, the studio knew clowns were what audiences wanted, and clowns were what MGM had. Grand Hotel was MGM’s major hit of the year, which showcased its catalogue of huge stars.

Amidst all the glitz and glamour on the screen, problems were beginning to arise behind it, starting with the death of one of its biggest names, Lon Chaney. The last of the silent stars, the actor died after the completion of The Unholy Three, his only talking picture. It was also around this time that Irving Thalburg, the driving force behind the studio, was removed as head of production due to ill health, leaving Mayer to temporarily take over the role.

It was no secret that Thalburg and Mayer never saw eye to eye, with Mayer favouring crowd-pleasers and money-makers as opposed to Thalburg, who favoured literary adaptations. By 1936, MGM’s output had lost its momentum. Although its films retained their high production values, the material was bland and unoriginal, and the studio’s dependence on name power increased.

The king of Hollywood, Clark Gable, continued to bring in revenue and reached the peak of his career in 1934 with the release of It Happened One Night. After much criticism from the media, MGM started lending its stars to fellow studios to avoid further bad press. They did the same thing again years later for what was to become one of the studio’s most celebrated films, Gone With The Wind. 1939 was an important year for MGM due to the release of two of the year’s biggest hits, which battled it out at the Academy Awards.

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The other being the all-time favourite The Wizard Of Oz featuring one of MGM’s rising new talents Judy Garland in the lead role. Between 1937 and 1938, Garland’s career took off after the studio bosses took notice of her glorious singing voice. She was the triple threat the studio had been looking for; she could sing, dance and act, all of which made her the perfect candidate for the latest Technicolor musical that would catapult her to worldwide fame.

The year was also notable for the release of smaller, but no less great films such as Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka, in which audiences glimpsed Garbo’s comic side for the first time. The film would go down as one of her greatest performances of the era, and with good reason too, as Garbo threw off her sombre and melancholy image and was nominated for an Academy Award.

But just when it seemed MGM had got its old magic back, World War II arrived. In 1940, profits were at an all-time low as English speaking films were banned in 11 countries and production was cut to just 25 pictures a year. Once again, another era was approaching, and MGM decided to say goodbye in the best way it could – by producing the last Broadway Melody in 1940. The film starred Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell, and marked the end of a series of films which had borne the same name throughout the 1930s.

The arrival of war changed people’s outlook on life. In Britain, the movies were more important than ever before, and audiences flocked to the picture houses to forget the troubles and hardships of war. Realising this, MGM turned its hand to propaganda movies which kept up the morale of English speaking audiences. In 1942, tap dancing reached new heights when Ship Ahoy was released. The war drama-musical showcased Eleanor Powell’s incredible tap dancing abilities, and started a tap dancing revival.

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After the war ended, MGM awoke to a harsh reality. Audiences had changed, attitudes had changed, and most importantly, Hollywood had changed. MGM no longer had all the stars; the names of yesteryear had all largely gone into retirement, and the tried and tested formulas of previous successes were tired and predictable.

What dawned was a new age of movie-making, where only the best would make it to the top. But could MGM continue its reign over Hollywood?

You can read the first part of Zoe’s history of MGM here.

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