Geoffrey Macnab: For too long the studio has traded on its past

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The Independent Online

Think of MGM in its prime and the image that comes to mind is of unbridled movieland opulence. Glamour was the watchword. This, after all, was the home of Greta Garbo. No other studio could have made a star-driven melodrama like Grand Hotel (1932) in which Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore and Wallace Beery were all cooped up in the same hotel; no other studio was in a position to light up a single movie that level of star wattage.

MGM was where the "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg, the character who inspired F Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, oversaw the production of films as if he were the boss of a factory turning out the most gleaming luxury goods. He is credited with introducing the idea of "sneak" previews and then tailor-making movies to what he perceived was the audience's taste.

MGM was also the fiefdom of the thoroughly paradoxical Louis B Mayer, the former junk dealer and scrap-metal merchant who became the highest paid person in the US. Mayer was a bullying patriarch with a streak of meanness who encouraged thrift even as the studio was investing huge amounts in glossy A-pictures.

Everything about MGM seemed authoritative and upmarket. The studio had a Latin motto – Ars Gratia Artis ("Art for art's sake"), and the roar of the MGM lion demanded respect in a way that (for example) the beeping of the RKO pylon did not.

Of course, it is now close to 60 years since MGM's glory days ended. Like its rivals, it struggled to cope with the coming of TV and the anti-trust legislation of the 1940s that stopped the studios from owning their own theatres. For years, MGM lived off its glittering past. Among its biggest hits of the 1970s were the That's Entertainment films – nostalgic compilations of highlights from its golden years. As the Hollywood trade press noted even then, "while many may ponder the future of MGM, no one can deny that it has one hell of a past".

MGM's recent history has been a little tawdry. What MGM hasn't been doing for a very long time is what made it great during the Irving Thalberg/Louis B Mayer era: that's to say, grooming stars and making the glossiest, best-crafted films possible.

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