The Quick 10: 10 Facts About MGM Studios

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.

louis2. 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.

mgm6. 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.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”


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