FILM / The lion that whimpered: The MGM lion roared through the 1940s, but had all but croaked by the 1960s. Will it ever regain its once powerful voice? Sheila Johnston on Metro Golwyn Mayer at 70

These days, Emerald City can be found on the Las Vegas Strip. At the great green ziggurat unveiled by the American gambler-entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian at the beginning of this year, the Land of Oz is the central attraction. And an 88 ft golden replica of Leo the Lion, MGM's famous mascot, now guards the entrance to the MGM Grand, the biggest hotel-casino complex in the world.

It is just the latest of a long series of indignities. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, the most famous, the most sumptuous, the most legendary of all the old Hollywood studios, celebrates its 70th anniversary this year amid some rather half-hearted festivities (the re-release of a handful of classic videos). But there is not a whole lot to shout about.

The name still carries a formidable cachet: large, glossy hardbacks appear at regular intervals to remind us, with a cavalcade of achingly beautiful production shots and a roll-call of honour. There are the great films - Ben-Hur, Queen Christina, The Thin Man, The Great Ziegfeld, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Ninotchka, Singin' in the Rain, The Philadelphia Story, Meet Me in St Louis . . The roster of stars: Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Charlton Heston, Judy Garland.

And, above all, there is the MGM look: bright, classy, opulent. Louis B Mayer, its architect, was one of the tidal wave of immigrants who built Hollywood and who were more American than the Americans (after taking US citizenship, Mayer resolved thereafter to celebrate his birthday on the Fourth of July). 'The story he wanted to tell,' said Spencer Tracy at his funeral, 'was the story of the land for which he had an almost furious love.' Only an outsider could embrace such a pristine version of the American dream.

The first signs of mid-life crisis came in 1957, when the studio reported a loss for the first time in its history. Hollywood as a whole was in trouble by then anyway, thanks to television and the decline of the star contract system on which the studios' power depended. Ten years later, MGM was bought by Kirk Kerkorian, an old-style American buccaneer who had made his fortune flying visitors to Las Vegas.

The story since has not been edifying. The following year, thousands of props, costumes and other priceless memorabilia went under the auctioneer's hammer. And in 1973, just in case any cherries were left, Kerkorian plundered the vaults for trinkets to stock the souvenir shop of his main business interest, a new hotel in Vegas (the first MGM Grand, which he later sold after a devastating fire). William Wyler's personal, annotated shooting script of his Oscar-winning Mrs Miniver was discovered there carrying a price tag of 12 bucks. Even the rights to the famous MGM logo were flogged off to Disney for use in its theme parks. The studio's motto remained 'Art for art's sake'.

In 1986, Kerkorian began to tango with the media entrepreneur Ted Turner and some very fast and fancy footwork left Turner with the studio's treasured 3,650-film library for use on his cable channels and Kerkorian with the production arm. He sold the studio on in 1990.

The proud new owner was Giancarlo Parretti, an Italian financier alleged (like Kerkorian) to have Mafia connections. Parretti poneyed up over dollars 1.3 billion for the studio in March 1990. By the end of 1991, amid a maelstrom of dodgy dealings, he was out on his ear. One might marvel at how MGM fell into the clutches of an Armenian farm boy with an eighth-grade education (Kerkorian) or a former waiter from Orvieto (Parretti), if it weren't that Mayer himself was a Russian immigrant who spent his early years in his father's marine salvage business. Hollywood was built by visionary arrivistes, but the new generation seems to have lost the Midas touch.

Now MGM is in the hands of the French bank Credit Lyonnais, which found itself more or less lumbered when Parretti defaulted on the loan he had taken out to buy the studio. Thus, by a sharp ironical twist, it is up to France - Hollywood's new arch- foe after the Gatt talks - to save this small piece of history from extinction.

Under US banking laws, Credit Lyonnais is required to sell MGM by 1997. To this end, much energy is being spent on fattening up the mangy old lion before he goes to market (for who would pay a decent price for him in his current condition?): according to the US business magazine Business Week, Credit Lyonnais has already invested or committed dollars 2.3 billion so far.

Some critics see it as a case of throwing good money after bad: 'It's like a gambler who owes a lot of money to the loan sharks and keeps on gambling in the hope that one day he'll win something,' one entertainment analyst said. By contrast, Jean Peyrelevade, the chairman of Credit Lyonnais, is already rubbing his hands at the prices being fetched by other studios. He hopes that, by its sell-by date, MGM will make dollars 2 billion - 'maybe more'.

It will not be easy. Among the assets, there was still the film library of MGM's sister-studio, United Artists, which includes the Bond, Pink Panther and Rocky movies; there were still the American and international distribution networks. But production had almost ground to a halt: only 100 films since Kerkorian and Turner carved the studio up between them eight years ago. MGM has lost dollars 1 billion over the past three years, at the rate, by some reports, of dollars 1 million a day.

The facelift began last summer with the precipitate firing of Alan Ladd Junior, the studio's previous chairman. In his place came the 61-year-old Frank Mancuso, an old studio hand (he was formerly head of Paramount) whose track record includes Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the first two Beverly Hills Cop movies. For the first time in years, MGM became, wrote the Los Angeles Times last April, 'a serious buyer of material'. It plans to release eight movies this year and up to 20 in 1995.

Alas The Lion King, which looks set to be one of America's biggest holiday earners, is not one of Leo's offspring (it is Disney's latest animated feature). MGM's own slate looks unlikely to contain a huge blockbuster. The studio which once boasted 'more stars than there are in heaven' is fielding Macaulay Culkin and Ted Danson in Getting Even with Dad, which opened very weakly a fortnight ago. Clean Slate, a comedy with Dana Carvey (Mike Myer's sidekick, Garth, in Wayne's World), already crash-landed this spring. And the biggest gun, Blown Away, a thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones, opened on Friday across America to chilling reviews: 'Business will be fast and commercially undistinguished,' predicted Variety. '(Its) arrant cynicism will probably turn off far more people than it turns on,' wrote the Los Angeles Times.

One suspects that, in a stand-off with MTM-television's kitten (their logo parodies the MGM insignia), Leo might still come off the worse. It may be that no one cares much any more. It may be that the old studios have all lost their identity: what average film- goer would know whether The Fugitive, say, came from Warners or Columbia or Universal? It may be that the strong personalities that made them so distinctive have vanished: the stars have gone freelance and the abrasive, colourful moguls have been replaced by suits anonymous to all outside the Los Angeles community. But it would, all the same, be sad if this were to be the way Leo ends, not with a roar but a whimper.

(Photograph omitted)

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