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Waning magic

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Cinema MGM has made 4,000 films that won the company 205 Oscars. Today, the giant's trademark roaring lion has been silenced by bankruptcy. V. GANGADHAR

A veritable feast A still from “Ben-Hur”.
A veritable feast A still from “Ben-Hur”.

L overs of Hollywood cinema over the ages can be excused for feeling sad tinged with nostalgia as they watch old MGM movies which begins with its trademark Leo the Lion roaring and the inscription ‘Arts Gratia Gratis' on the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Channel. Movie giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which has a catalogue of 4000 titles that fetched 205 Oscars is now bankrupt and saddled with a debt burden of more than $ 4 billion.

Show business may be unreliable, but the fall of MGM is a kind of nightmare for the entertainment industry. Today, the studio has no releases, its glittering star galaxy disintegrated long ago and human vultures hovered around to pick at the carcass. Several reasons are behind the tragedy of MGM – inability to move with the times, ego clashes, the never-ending tussle among executives trying to figure out what exactly the public wants.

When the bankruptcy formalities were completed, people who had lent money to the studio had different plans. They would form a small production company, called Spyglass Entertainment which would run on a trimmed budget. Although two MGM releases flopped earlier this year, the studio owns the rights to make James Bond movies which have always been bankable in terms of the box office. The studio also has a share in two forthcoming films of J. R. R. Tolkien's “The Hobbit.” Logically, the new company has to make money in order to survive and money can be made only through successful films.

The task ahead is difficult because for several years the studio has been stagnant from the time it had been taken over by financier Kirk Kerkoran, which was followed by several changes of owners, some of whom had shady reputations. Studio lots and props were sold to raise cash for new movies. MGM's acquisition of United Artistes Studio did not bring in the expected profits and by mid-2009, debts had crossed the $ 3 billion mark. Movies were made without imagination and the distribution strategy was out of date. MGM lost its magic touch.

Colourful family fare

The entertainment world could only watch with dismay, as did people all over the world of this writer's generation who grew up watching MGM films. Although production companies such as 20th Century Fox, Columbia, Paramount and RKO Studios did come out with good movies, it was nothing like the lush, rich, colourful family fare offered by MGM . The golden era of MGM was from the late 1920s, when the stars under its contract included names such as Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor. Production was in the hands of men such as Louis B Mayer and Irving Thalberg.

MGM churned out more than 50 films every year and was also a leader in the production of cartoon films featuring the ever-popular Tom and Jerry series. Mayer shifted the filming of “‘Ben-Hur” (the older version) from Rome to the studio sets at Culver City and the studio had its first major hit. MGM was the first to experiment with colour and “Wizard of Oz” was a smashing success. Though produced by David. O. Selzinck, it was MGM which distributed the fabulous “Gone With the Wind” because its hero Clark Gable was MGM property loaned out to Selzinck.

When the studio system began to disintegrate from the late 1950s, MGM did suffer. But its creative teams were still capable of coming out with winners, such as expensive, gorgeous musicals which no other studio could match. In the early 1950s, musicals such as “An American in Paris” and “Singin' in the Rain” were a feast to watch. But making them cost a lot of money and when some of them failed, the losses were huge. The last great musical from MGM was the 1958 hit “Gigi”, which swept the Oscars. One year later, came the “Ben-Hur”, which made so much money that the studio could absorb the losses from other films. It also won a record number of Oscars.

But the old glory was fading. Thalberg died at 43, Louis Mayer and writer-producer Dore Schary often bickered, the former supporting glamorous, colourful productions as against the latter's preference for realistic, meaningful films. MGM's problems were compounded with a power vacuum at the top, a new threat from television and the reliance on one hit film (“Ben-Hur”) to cover up overall losses. The studio made some money by selling the movie rights to box office success such as “Wizard of Oz” to CBS TV Channel. But the overall sickness from 1967 began to spread, crippling every wing of the once famous MGM.

Will the new formula for MGM work in today's fast changing world?

MGM churned out more than 50 films every year. It produced greats like “Ben-Hur” and “Wizard of Oz”. It was also a leader in the production of cartoon films featuring the ever-popular Tom and Jerry series. MGM was the first studio to experiment with colour and produced “Wizard of Oz”.


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