The history of MGM: the golden era

Zoe’s continues her journey through the turbulent history of one of Hollywood’s most influential studios, as we arrive at MGM's post-war golden era. Plus, a bit of 3D, too...

As the end of World War II approached, a new world dawned for MGM – a world which had changed dramatically. Attitudes and lifestyles had changed, but most importantly audiences had changed. Here was an opportunity: MGM’s chance to start afresh. And so in 1944, MGM embarked on what would become the most successful period in its history. After the war, the slate was wiped clean.

Gone were the tired, tried-and-tested formulas, and gone were the aging names and stars, as a new unit was established at MGM. It was up to this unit, anchored by an experienced producer and made up of bright young talent, to transform MGM’s signature high-production style into something new and modern in order to appeal to the entertainment-hungry masses. Led by Arthur Freed, who worked unaccredited as associate producer on The Wizard Of Oz, the unit was assigned the difficult task of reinventing the musical.

Following the horrors of the war, audiences were desperate for escapism. War and propaganda films had dominated the first half of the decade, and the musical offered light-hearted entertainment filled with comedy and romance. However, it would take more than a ‘let’s put on a show’ attitude to get the genre back in fashion.

It was Freed, along with a group of visionary directors and choreographers, who reinvented the musical into a more integrated style. For the first time, the songs and dances were interwoven into the plot and contributed to the story, either developing characters or simply moving the plot along. 

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One of the first films to follow the new formula was the beautiful Meet Me In St Louis, released in 1944 and starring Judy Garland. It was the first musical in a long line that other studios attempted to imitate, as audience numbers continued to fall after the war. But in true MGM style, the show went on, with Freed recruiting new talent from Broadway stages and around the world, including graceful French dancer Leslie Caron.

Freed also shaped the careers of many aspiring stars including stunning tap dancer Ann Miller, Lena Horne, Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse (billed as the woman with the longest legs in the world), Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly. Freed even lured Fred Astaire out of retirement to replace Gene Kelly in the hugely popular Easter Parade to star alongside Judy Garland in 1948.

MGM soon became the leading studio in the musical genre, as it furthered the boundaries of this once restrictive genre: this was due to the creative freedom Arthur Freed allowed his directors and choreographers. As a result, MGM stood alone, and other studios struggled to compete with its lavish, high production, sophisticated musicals.

One such example was An American In Paris. Released in 1951 and debuting Leslie Caron alongside Gene Kelly, the film featured a 15-minute ballet sequence set against impressionist sets. But it wasn’t just the musicals pulling in the crowds. 1945 was a big year for MGM, during which the studio capitalised on its rising stars, including Frank Sinatra.

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The studio also branched out as far as Britain to produce Perfect Strangers, its first British collaboration. However, the real hit of the year was The Clock. Featuring Judy Garland and Robert Walker, The Clock was a whimsical romance about a soldier who meets, falls for and marries a girl while on 48-hour leave.

MGM wasn’t the only studio that prospered after the war. Columbia hit the big time with Gilda, a film noir starring Rita Hayworth, and Cary Grant brough success to Warner Bros in Night And Day.

MGM matched that with The Yearling, which in spite of its cast changes, script amendments and numerous production headaches, became one of MGM’s most memorable pictures of the decade. Lady In The Lake reinforced MGM’s reputation as a risk taker, when in 1946, it became the first film to be shot entirely from its lead character’s perspective.

By the end of 1946, audience figures, admission prices and MGM’s profits were up. Although the studio was still regarded as the number one in Hollywood, it was, in fact, running behind Paramount. And competition from Great Britain in the form of Brief Encounter and Great Expectations meant MGM had to up its game.

It was during this time that the studio brought two new stars to the world’s attention – Cyd Charisse and Ricardo Montalban (later of Star Trek II fame), who starred in the Technicolor musical, Fiesta. The film was a huge success, and audiences flocked to see the new talent that would grace the silver screen for years to come, as Charisse later starred in one of the most famous musicals of all time, 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain.

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Sadly, 1947 was a bad year for the studio due to several misjudged investments – Tenth Avenue Angel was one of them, and its commercial failure would affect the studio for years to come. The Freed Unit, meanwhile, was flourishing, as MGM released Vincent Minnelli’s The Pirate, featuring the studio’s two biggest stars, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, Out On The Town, starring teen sensation Frank Sinatra, and the last ever Fred and Ginger film, The Barkleys Of Broadway. It was the first Fred and Ginger film to be made in Technicolor, which was now the studio’s signature colour process. 

With the scars of war now beginning to heal, MGM made time to focus on more serious social issues. Adam’s Rib homed in on husband and wife lawyers working against each other during a murder case. The film starred Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the lead roles, and was quickly hailed as a classic.

The decade turned, and once again, MGM had to prove its immunity to change. The studio system which MGM had given birth to was beginning to crumble. The very foundations of the studio’s success were shaking, and MGM was forced to cut loose some of its contract actors, among them Judy Garland.

Behind the scenes, co-founder Louis B Mayer had reached breaking point. It was no secret that Mayer and partner Nicholas Schenck were never in agreement in terms of MGM’s output, but The Red Badge Of Courage would be the final straw for Mayer who, in 1951, left the company. A new decade and a new approach to filmmaking began, as other studios continued to rival MGM.

Perhaps the last great film noir, Sunset Boulevard, was a critical and popular hit, and in 1952, Cecil B DeMille directed the Best Picture-winning The Greatest Show On Earth.

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Annie Get Your Gun and King Solomon’s Mines were huge successes, and the latest Freed musical, The Bandwagon, put MGM back on top form. Sadly, the studio’s British collaboration failed to meet expectations when The Miniver Story fared poorly at the box office. The film was an ill-advised sequel to the 1942 hit, Mrs Miniver, and lacked the original’s spirit.

MGM continued to foster fresh talent, and introduced screen newcomer Bobby Van in Small Town Girl in 1953. Leslie Caron was also pushed forward, playing the lead in Lili, a cute musical which showcased her stunning dancing skills. And in 1952, Vincent Minnelli ventured out of the musical genre when he directed the melodrama The Bad And The Beautiful, which won five Academy Awards.

MGM’s output was by now more balanced, as it released musicals, dramas and thrillers. But there was a new avenue to venture down, and MGM was the studio prepared to take the risk. 3D was the new cutting edge technology of the time, and MGM saw this as the perfect opportunity to release Never Let Me Go. The plot billed third after the new technology and its star Clark Gable. However, the colourful musical extravaganza Kiss Me Kate, starring Ann Miller amongst its stunning cast, was the 3D film of the year, and was a box office hit. 

1954 was the beginning of a bad spell for MGM, after the government ordered the ‘divorcement’ of the studio system. Cinemas which were previously only allowed to show material produced by its sponsoring studio were now allowed to distribute any film they liked. It would be the start of MGM’s fall from power and, in 1955, audience numbers reached a record low, the lowest since 1923.

Hollywood’s output drastically decreased, and by 1956 it was impossible to ignore the latest entertainment rival, the television. In a shrewd move, MGM cautiously released The Wizard Of Oz to four television companies, as well as the musical High Society, starring Grace Kelly. 

Once again, audiences were changing, as was the social climate. Cinemas were attended by increasing numbers of teenagers, and to tap into this new market, the studio released its first sci-fi picture, Forbidden Planet. In addition to this, MGM repeated what it had done years before, by putting latest teen sensation Elvis Presley in his own film, Jailhouse Rock, in 1957. But it wasn’t enough to save the studio’s profits that year, and MGM reported a loss for the first time ever.

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1957 was also the year that MGM lost Fred Astaire, as he tapped his last dance in Ninotchka remake Silk Stockings alongside Cyd Charisse, and symbolically compressed his trademark top hat during his last film performance. Silk Stockings stood out in cinema billings as dramatised novels began to dominate the silver screen. The most successful of these was Dunkirk, released in 1958 and starring Richard Attenborough.

The moving story was produced by Ealing Studios and distributed by MGM. MGM was determined to get back on track following its 1957 loss, and turned to its stars to pull in the crowds. Using his name as insurance to ensure all production costs would be covered, actor Robert Taylor received top billing in the western Saddle The Wind. Robert Taylor was box office gold dust, and was placed in numerous crime dramas such as The Law And Jake Wade (1958) which, despite its conventional and unoriginal plot, made a tidy profit. 

The big hit of 1958, though, was Cat On A Hot Tin Roof starring Elizabeth Taylor, and was the top money maker of the year. With its highly charged atmosphere, dramatic conflict and sexual tension, it was a hit with audiences, and dealt with issues only MGM dared portray. The film focused on a husband’s homosexuality and its effect on his wife. It was the first film to deal with such issues so frankly, as films in the past had only ever briefly touched what was then seen as a taboo subject.

With pressure mounting from the press, fellow studios and the government to rid Hollywood of the studio system, MGM soldiered on, and released Gene Kelly’s last MGM musical, Les Girls, which also featured Cole Porter’s final film score. The film was praised by critics, and did well at the box office.

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As 1958 drew to a close, the whole filmmaking industry was changing the way it was run in order to keep up with audience trends. Times were changing, and MGM realised there was no longer a market for the escapist Freed musicals that had re-established the studio after the war. And so, in 1958, the last Freed Unit musical was produced, and it went out with a bang.

Gigi, starring Leslie Caron and directed by Vincent Minnelli, won ten Academy Awards and was Freed’s highest grossing musical, Even today, it is still regarded as one of the best musicals ever made.  Although 1958 had been an improvement on the year before, MGM decided it needed to prove it was still the leading studio in Hollywood, and that the film which had established its name back in 1925 was long overdue a remake: Ben-Hur.

Back in 1925, the company’s success depended on it, and now, it was the studio’s prestige and reputation at stake. Thankfully, Ben-Hur was a hit, and put MGM back on top – so much so that, by the end of the year, the studio had returned to its former glory.

However, the future still remained unsure for MGM. In March 1959, the studio finally gave in to the Government’s campaign, and released its cinema chain Loews Inc. Six months later, MGM recorded its highest profits since 1951.

The end of the decade was approaching fast, and what it held for MGM was unknown. The very foundations of the studio’s success had vanished, and so MGM entered a new decade, which required a new kind of filmmaking…

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