The history of MGM: the silent era

In the first part of a new series, Zoe takes a look back at the history of MGM, one of Hollywood’s oldest and most notable studios...

Studios have come and gone since the birth of cinema, and the film business is an unpredictable one, as the history of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reveals. Founded in 1924, its name conjures up images of lavish musicals, sweeping historical epics, glamorous stars and its mascot, Leo the lion.

It’s fair to say that MGM is one of the most famous and influential studios in Hollywood, and certainly one of the most iconic studios to come out of American film industry. But where did it all begin?

The story begins in the early 1920s. Vaudeville, previously one of the most popular forms of entertainment, is beginning to dwindle, as movies capture the public’s imagination. Enter Marcus Loew, a theatre chain owner. What Loew wanted was a steady supply of bigger and better films for his ever-increasing audience numbers, so he bought Metro Pictures, originally founded in 1916. This is where it all began.

Metro Pictures began life producing small films for various outlets. But in 1924, Metro got exactly what it needed after Loew merged the studio with Goldwyn Pictures, another film company founded by one Samuel Goldfish. Loew intended to produce silent melodramas, with trusted assistant Nicholas Schenck remaining in New York to manage Loew’s successful theatre chain. After purchasing Louis B Mayer Productions that same year, Loew made Mayer the studio chief along with Harry Rapf (a no-nonsense supervisor of ‘bread-and-butter’ movies).

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Irving Thalberg, regarded as Hollywood’s ‘boy wonder’ due to his ability to choose bankable scripts and actors, left Universal Studios, and moved to the newly-established MGM, where he became the head of production.

With this dream team put together, Loew set to work harnessing the best assets from each merged studio. Each brought countless talents to the newly formed MGM, with actors such as Norma Shearer, Huntley Gordon, Hedda Hopper and Buster Keaton, along with numerous directors, including Rex Ingrid, Victor Schertzinger and Victor Vidor, to name a few. Another important player was brought across from Goldwyn – one that would star in every MGM film ever produced, even today: Leo the lion.

Also hidden in the background during the merger was Cosmopolitan Pictures, which had recently shifted its release outlet to Goldwyn. This was a great advantage for MGM, as William Hearst, the studio’s founder, was a well-respected media tycoon who was highly influential due to his powerful group of newspapers, magazines and newsreels.

With its new name, new logo, and new motto (“Ars Gratia Artis”, or, “Art for art’s sake”) MGM began work on its first film, He Who Gets Slapped.

Based on a Russian play, the film starred three of the studio’s newly acquired actors – John Gilbert, Norma Shearer and Lon Chaney, and was directed by Victor Sjöström. The film was a risky choice due to its tragic content, but this was neatly sidestepped by changing the play’s downbeat ending to an altogether happier one. He Who Gets Slapped was a success, and set the standard for what was to come.

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Another early success for the studio was a project inherited from Metro, Ben Hur. The majority of it was scrapped and reshot with more lavish production values. The film ran significantly over budget as a result, and remains the most epxpensive silent film ever made. Thankfully, MGM’s efforts were not wasted, as the film became the studio’s first big hit, and established the company’s reputation for historical epics that persisted for many years.

The Big Parade, also released in 1925, was an even bigger hit. Starring John Gilbert and Renée Adorée, it was a love story set in WWI France, and among the first to use panoramic shots. The Big Parade surpassed all expectations, even putting MGM ahead of its rival Universal as Hollywood’s number one studio, a distinction that would last for 30 years.

The self-described studio with “More stars than there are in heaven” began to live up to its boast, as new actors were discovered and grew in stature. The most proflic was Greta Garbo, discovered in Berlin, and Greer Garson, from London. The company’s short films were also lucrative, particularly Hal Roach’s Laurel and Hardy comedies.

Within 12 months, MGM was supplying the now highly successful and profitable Loew theatres with around 100 pictures a year, as well as smaller B pictures to other theatres.

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By 1926, society was beginning to change. The Jazz age had arrived, and newspapers were littered with lurid stories of sex scandals and murder trials, the Charleston was a new dancing craze, bootleg booze was everywhere, and all the studios had a flapper girl. Paramount had Louise Brooks and Clara Bow, but MGM had Greta Garbo.

Garbo’s first film, Torrent, released in 1926, was a success, and her performance acclaimed, as would most of her performances throughout her career. The Temptress, also starring Garbo, went on to become the top grossing film of the year, and Garbo received sparkling reviews for her performance once again.

1926 was a good year for MGM, as the hits rolled off the film factory line, each one creating a new star. La Boheme, starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, for instance, proved popular with audiences with its pathos and stunning performance from Gish, whose career rocketed after the film’s release.

Other films produced during this period, such as Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr, The Taxi Dancer (starring Joan Crawford), London After Midnight (which starred Lon Chaney, and terrified audiences with its murderous plot), and the most highly praised film of 1927, The Crowd, were huge successes, establishing MGM as the leading studio both in terms of star talent and technology, as in 1926, The Black Pirate was released in glorious Technicolor.

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MGM had hit the big time, but there was a new technology on the horizon that would test everything MGM had built up. Warner Bros was the first studio to make the jump, and now it was MGM’s turn. Talking pictures were coming, and they were approaching fast.

Tune in tomorrow for the second part of Zoe’s journey through MGM’s history.

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