There's no doubt that MGM has given us some of the greatest and most enduring movies ever made - Mutiny on the Bounty, The Wizard of Oz, The Pride of the Yankees, An American in Paris, Doctor Zhivago, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Poltergeist, Thelma and Louise. Of course, they've given us some real stinkers too: Night of the Lepus (yeah... check that link out), Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Getting Even with Dad among them. It would also appear that they have a third installment of Bill and Ted slated for 2010, which I am simultaneously thrilled and horrified by.
Anyway, the studio that has provided hundreds of memorable movies celebrates an important anniversary this month, so here are a few of the notable things that have happened to them in the last 85 years.
1. The studio was founded by Marcus Loew, a rags-to-riches story if there ever was one. His family was very poor and Marcus ended up working as a child instead of going to school. He saved up some money and bought a penny arcade, then he partnered with Adolph Zukor to buy a nickelodeon. The business expanded into Loew's Theaters, which enabled him to buy three movie studios in the early '20s - Goldwyn Pictures, Metro Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures. He combined them all and MGM was born. Zukor, by the way, went on to found Paramount.
2. Louis B. Mayer only allowed Loew to buy his company if he could become studio head. Loew agreed, and Mayer turned MGM into the marketing powerhouse that it was in the '30s and '40s. It was really because of his efforts that MGM was known for having "more stars than there are in the heavens." That's old L.B. in the picture to the left with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
3. Mayer's son-in-law was David O. Selznick. Sound familiar? It should - he was one of the industry's biggest producers, winning two Best Picture Oscars in a row - Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. But his success was not because he was taking handouts from his father-in-law. In fact, Selznick worked for Paramount when he married Mayer's daughter Irene. Their marriage lasted about 18 years, but he had been having affairs for most of that time - including one with one of his leading actresses, Jennifer Jones. She became his second wife the same year that he and Irene divorced.
4. Fox and MGM almost merged once a long time ago. After Marcus Loew died in 1927, William Fox bought out the Loew family's holdings in MGM. Louis B. Mayer was not happy about that, and tried to use political connections to have the motion blocked, saying that it violated antitrust laws. But Fox was in a bad car accident, which held up all of his business deals until he recovered. Sadly, by the time he did, the stock market crash of 1929 had literally wiped out his fortune, making the MGM deal totally moot. Fox tried to bribe the judge during his bankruptcy proceedings in 1936, which landed him in prison for six months. When he was released, he retired from the film industry.
5. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were the heads of the MGM animation department when it closed in 1957. They went on to create their own animation company - maybe you've heard of it. They had a few successful cartoons.
6. MGM's famous "Leo the Lion" logo was a carryout from the Goldwyn Pictures part of the business. Samuel Goldwyn had used the lion logo to honor his alma mater, Columbia University. So far, there have been five lions used - Slats, from 1924-1928; Jackie, from 1928-1956; Tanner, from 1934-1956; Bob AKA Jackie 2, from 1956-1958; and Leo, the current lion, who has been in use since 1957. You can check them all out over at Neatorama - and learn the stories behind other Hollywood studio logos as well.
7. The current MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas originally had a Wizard of Oz theme. Inside were animatronic versions of Dorothy and her friends, along with a yellow brick road that led to an amusement park (see #8 below). The journey included some of the same stuff Dorothy encountered on hers - a haunted forest, an apple orchard and a corn field. You also entered the building through the open mouth of a lion that resembled the studio's logo. The theming was eventually pulled, but you can still see the lion logo represented in the five-ton bronze statue outside and the real lion habitat inside. There are also the Majestic Lion slots, which are tucked back in a remote corner of the casino and are supposedly looser than the rest of the slot machines. I've never had any luck with them, though, and I make it a point to try every time I'm in Vegas. Sucker.
8. Despite being called "Disney-MGM Studios," the theme park in Orlando really had very little to do with MGM. The licensing agreement allowed Disney to use the MGM name and logo and also allowed the MGM content in The Great Movie Ride. That was about it. The two companies had a pretty touchy relationship, with lawsuits flying back and forth from 1988 (and the park didn't even open until 1989) until 1992. MGM was upset that Disney was building a working studio; they said they had only signed on for a studio-themed amusement park. Then when MGM announced plans to build an amusement park in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Disney sued and said that a theme park in a casino would hurt their sterling reputation. Oh, Hollywood. Eventually it was ruled that both companies could just keep on keepin' on with both projects. None of it matters now anyway - Disney changed its name to Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2008 and MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park closed in 2000.
9. The studio's motto is "Ars gratia artis" and can be seen on the film scroll around Leo the Lion's head in the logo. It's Latin for "Art for art's sake."
10. There used to be an MGM record label. It was created in 1946 to distribute the soundtracks from MGM's hit musicals - The Wizard of Oz, Gigi, Annie Get Your Gun and Singin' in the Rain, to name a few. In the '50s it was considered one of the major labels of the time, but by 1972 it ceased to be profitable. MGM Records was sold to PolyGram, which was sold to Seagram in 1999 and is now part of Universal Music Group.