In 2009, I reviewed Frank Martin’s monumental three-part/six hour documentary, MGM: When The Lion Roars (1992) as an ambitious, behind-the-scenes, backstage pass into the magic and majesty that was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I find since a need to revise this feeble assessment and reconsider Mr. Martin’s efforts, not simply as Herculean, but of such an exquisite and rarified ilk, that to label them the finest exploration into any Hollywood film studio’s history isn’t so much my clumsy attempt at hyperbole as an exercise in summarizing such well-deserved praise. Hosted by Patrick Stewart, MGM: When The Lion Roars is perhaps the most comprehensive look at a Hollywood dynasty yet conceived. Few studios can boast a history as rich in lore, legend and legacy as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the studio once home to “more stars than there are in heaven.” But Martin’s unravelling of this complex and intricately woven tapestry of talents and temperaments is a marvel in concise writing, even as it remains densely packed with interviews from – then – surviving talents, both in front of and behind the camera.
Herein, Martin has also incorporated a myriad of vintage interviews, press junkets, and excerpts from virtually every major movie made at the studio; all of it tied to an riveting commentary, also written by Martin, and even more eloquently expressed with emphasis and feeling by Patrick Stewart. MGM: When The Lion Roars is a documentary that goes well beyond those ‘artifacts of quality’ the studio created; delving more deeply into the real back story, political intrigues, rumors and legends to deconstruct the mystique that was MGM; gleaning insight from such luminaries as June Allyson, Samuel Marx, Lew Ayres, Helen Hayes, Ricardo Montalban, Maureen Sullivan and Richard Chamberlain, to name but a handful of the incredible talents on tap. I have seen far too many glossed over ‘histories’ about other Hollywood studios that barely scratch the surface of the movies, much less probe into the lives of the artistic personnel toiling behind the scenes or inviting the casual viewer – novice and film buff alike – to dig for the hidden treasures in an untapped archive.
MGM: When The Lion Roars covers the girth of the studio’s formidable heritage and its cultural impact on mass entertainment. You are going to see a lot of great scenes from some thought-numbingly professional examples in movie-making – and not simply the iconic bits that made the studio great, gave it class and entertained us for more than a century (although, these too are very well represented). But MGM: When The Lion Roars also reveals the oft’ tempestuous corporate alliances between founding father, Louis B. Mayer and boy genius, Irving G. Thalberg; along the way, touching upon Mayer’s scorn for New York boss, Nicholas Schenck, and Thalberg’s marriage to MGM star – and queen of the back lot – Norma Shearer. Inside these hallowed walls we are also privy to the great romances that happened after the cameras stopped rolling; Garbo and silent legend, John Gilbert; Jean Harlow (dead from eremic poisoning at the tender age of twenty-six) and Clark Gable, and later, William Powell; Kate Hepburn’s chance meeting with Spencer Tracy on the steps of the Executive Building, eventually leading to an affair truly meant to be remembered.
I am not exactly certain by what enchanted properties of osmosis Frank Martin is functioning, but in the relatively brief span of six hours he manages to convey comprehensiveness par excellence, straddling six decades of production and virtually introducing us to hundreds of lives and thousands of films. And they’re all here, not merely referenced, but vividly brought to life in reflections put forth by historians and old timers alike, illustrated with rare and occasionally unseen footage, snippets and sound bites from the stars and directors, and famous sequences from the movies too. As the audience, privy to these time-travelogues, we vicariously walk the concourse and byways of MGM’s fabled backlot, peak inside those cavernous soundstages, and sneak into the ‘iron lung’ executive suites of the Thalberg Building; enjoying the experience, not simply as a trek into antiquity, but as a past regression into this vibrant netherworld of make-believe; celebrated and resurrected by someone who truly recalls what all the excitement was about. And Martin is unafraid to meander away from this central narrative on occasion, if always with a grand plan to bring us full circle and back to these legendary stomping grounds where prancing unicorns and wishing wells intermingled, and, where the dreams they all dared to dream really did come true.
Dividing the girth of Metro’s real estate and heritage into three, 2 hr. installments affords Frank Martin the luxury of indulging in a wealth of unearthed material, interviews archived and nearly forgotten, many given renewed life to the creative personnel long since deceased. Even more fascinating are the candid outtakes and newsreels, stitched together to provide a cohesive living/moving tableau of what life must have been like behind these studio gates. Part One: The Lion’s Roar, takes us inside the Irving Thalberg era. We witness the amalgam of the studio’s fledgling assets, accrued on the west coast by Mayer and Thalberg, managed by Marcus Loewe, and arguably, later mismanaged by the likes of Nicholas Schenck in New York; men responsible for infusing MGM with its frothy excesses, stardom and glamour.
We learn about Samuel Goldwyn, whose name is neatly sandwiched between the call letters of Metro Pictures Corp. and Louis B. Mayer Productions; unceremoniously ousted from this merger and basically barred from participating in the triumphs that followed. Maureen Sullivan, Samuel Marx, Helen Hayes and a host of others expound upon the virtues and vices of the studio system. We relive the real-life backstage romance between Thalberg and Norma Shearer, learn new truths about producer, Paul Bern's untimely suicide/murder scandal, and, relish in the virtual creation and transformation of Teflon-coated personalities like Lucille LeSeur, remade as Joan Crawford. Finally, Frank Martin has corralled a veritable stadium-full of character studies attesting to the conflict between Thalberg and Mayer and, perhaps more importantly, Mayer and his New York boss, Nicholas Schenk. Between these compelling private intrigues we are treated to the real reason most consider MGM’s legacy peerless and irreproachable: its movie heritage. Johnny Weissmuller swings into action from vines as Tarzan, Norma Shearer denounces her husband’s philandering in The Divorcee, Clark Gable forces Mary Astor to shoot him in Red Dust, Garbo utters her trademark “I want to be alone” in Grand Hotel and the pigmies make mincemeat of white explorers in Trader Horn.
Part One concludes with the sudden and very tragic death of Irving Thalberg; a sickly youth, who stubbornly rose like a phoenix to accomplish feats in the industry still being talked about with hushed reverence today; Thalberg – dead at the age of thirty-six. Here was the real ‘man behind the curtain’; the real genius whom even Mayer leaned upon and entrusted with the day-to-day operations of the studio; Thalberg - who devoted a whole portion of his considerable efforts to ensure his wife’s movie career remained an enviable cornerstone within the yearly output of MGM’s classic movies, while juggling so many outstanding literary adaptations and newly created projects. Thalberg was, as Grand Hotel’s authoress, Vicki Baum, once labeled him: “The little dynamo.” “He died of genius,” actress and close friend, Helen Hayes declares with bittersweet remembrance. Hayes, of course, had her impressions of Mayer too, “He wasn’t a bully…on the surface. He wasn’t anything bad…on the surface. But he was evil.”
Part II of Martin’s epic - The Lion Reigns Supreme is a glittering homage to MGM’s unmatched supremacy as purveyors of popular entertainment throughout those terrible years of WWII. With Thalberg’s demise, Mayer assumes absolute control and sets about to shift the studio’s focus from literary adaptations to more congenial – and less expensively produced - family films. Younger, more malleable talent comes in: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew and Jackie Cooper among them. Garbo retires after the disappointing performance of her second comedy – Two-Faced Woman (1940), leaving behind an aura of greatness unparalleled to this day. The exodus continues as Norma Shearer realizes her supremacy at the studio is at an end following her husband’s death. She is no longer considered ‘queen of the lot’. Joan Crawford negotiates a new contract to retain a toe-hold in her future at Metro. But even this is short-lived. Under Mayer’s aegis, the studio basks in the afterglow of its most costly super-production to date: The Wizard of Oz (1939); Mayer, also reveling in his ‘deal of the decade’: distribution of the independently-produced zeitgeist, Gone With The Wind (1939). Metro in the 1940s was an untouchable paradise, its movies and stars the envy of the world; its box office clout rivalling all the other studios’ combined revenues.
In this age of Andy Hardy, Mayer’s kingdom reigned uppermost and herein, Mickey Rooney waxes affectionately about those halcyon years and the homespun father and son movies; also, his relationship with L.B. and Judy Garland – the great love of his life. Ricardo Montelbaum reminds us of Metro’s commitments to Latin America and the studio’s zest for ultra-chic good taste: a fictitious glamour that, as Van Johnson admits, he “hated to leave behind each night…because what I was leaving – to me – was the real (reel) world!” Johnson’s career is one of the most celebrated of the war years; his destiny, to become the male pinup in absence of Gable, James Stewart and other male talent who joined the war effort and made their contributions abroad – perhaps, to the detriment of their enduring popularity back home.
The lion’s share of memorable movie moments fondly recalled today makes up the bulk of the references in Part II. MGM’s musicals are in vogue: the elephantine ‘A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody’ number from The Great Ziegfeld; Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh and Judy Garland making her pilgrimage down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. At war’s end, L.B. Mayer believes MGM is headed toward a return to the even more profitable years before it began. But the ground beneath his feet is about to shift in a most unexpected way, leading to all sorts of shake-ups in the executive boardroom and the eventual, slow demise of this legendary Camelot. Part III: The Lion In Winter begins in earnest with a celebration of producer, Arthur Freed’s career at MGM. Freed, who was embraced by Mayer and made an untouchable during the early talkies; whose contributions to the movie musical – first, as a composer of some very popular songs (Singin’ in the Rain, and, Wedding of the Paper Doll, among them) – then, later, as a full-fledged producer of the musicals themselves, is given carte blanche under Mayer’s auspices. Freed is likely the individual one thinks of when movie musicals in general are discussed. His itinerary of mega successes is, frankly, humbling: Meet Me In St. Louis, Cabin in the Sky, Babes on Broadway, The Barkleys of Broadway, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Brigadoon, Gigi among them. Metro’s pioneering ingenuity in this genre is also explored, particularly in its celebrated showcase of Esther Williams’ aquacades; Williams also lending her inimitably glib commentary to these reflections.
Alas, the overall tenor in this third installment begins to turn sour. Mayer is ousted from power by Nicholas Schenck; his replacement, Dore Schary – ambitious, though miscast, rocking the creative boat with B-budgeted ‘message pictures’ clashing against MGM’s ultra-sophistication. Vintage interviews with directors, Vincente Minnelli and Richard Brooks, also, actress Katharine Hepburn, as well as retrospective critiques provided by Roger Mayer take us through Metro’s ‘silver age’. As television eats away at badly needed profits, we witness MGM’s mad dash to outdo that little black box in everyone’s living room with a final flourish of lavishly appointed spectacles. A pair of Biblical epics - Quo Vadis (1950) and Ben-Hur (1959) – bookend the fabulous fifties: a decade that sees the likes of Hitchcock, John Frankenheimer and Stanley Kubrick making indelible imprints on the studio’s history. Tragically, even their formidable contributions are unable to stave off the studio’s decline, as is David Lean’s superbly realized and perfectly timed Russian epic, Doctor Zhivago.
As MGM enters the 1960’s it falls victim to an ever-revolving roster of New York appointed exec’s, who understand the film-making industry only a little and MGM’s particular place in it even less; all of them bent on producing fewer movies, dubbed ‘landmark’ pictures: over-produced and terribly expensive. The strain of their losses will eventually deplete the studio’s coffers. The star system ends and Schary is relieved of his command. Without a strong mogul to helm Metro, the studio founders badly; rife for a corporate takeover. In 1974, Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian digs in to stay, buying up and selling off all of MGM’s assets in order to raise capital for his casino/hotel on the strip. In his wake, MGM becomes ‘a hotel company, and a relatively insignificant maker of motion pictures’.
Ted Turner attempts damage control, but is only successful at acquiring Metro’s formidable library of movies to help propel his newly inaugurated cable TV empire. The studio is sold back to Kerkorian, who liquidates its props and costumes in an epic sell-off; then bulldozes the back lot acreage to make room for residential development. Lorimar buys up the production facilities and the MGM trademark is removed from the back lot. Interestingly, Frank Martin’s documentary skirts through these sad final days. He makes no reference to the pictures MGM acquired after the mid-1960s and continued to distribute and occasionally finance; nor does he bother to touch upon the tragic fire in Vegas that destroyed Kerkorian’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in 1980, killing 174 guests and making it the third most tragic hotel blaze in U.S. history. Arguably, there is a fourth part – as yet to be made – about this sad last act.
Mercifully, Martin ends his documentary on a high note; a montage of Metro’s most celebrated faces and films set to the semi-romanticized strains of ‘Over the Rainbow’. In these penultimate moments, Martin’s documentary reminds us of several tragedies all at once: chiefly, that MGM – the studio Mayer and Thalberg co-founded - exists no more; also, how much of the studio’s incredible output of classic movies remains MIA on Blu-ray since having been acquired under Warner Home Video’s umbrella. But MGM: When the Lion Roars is a potent reminder of Metro’s importance in shaping what we laughingly refer to today as ‘movie culture’. I have the deepest respect and admiration for those ole-time industry titans who came to a little known and seemingly uninhabitable hot spot on the California landscape, known then as ‘Hollywoodland’, transforming it into this starlit mecca and, in the process, creating iconic and indelible moments of screen magic that have remained cultural touchstones in an industry since too far gone and self-absorbed in the present to astutely pay well-deserved homage to its past.
Martin’s documentary is jam packed with nostalgic; it is a stroll, bursting at the seams with secret tales, memorable movies and the just deification of its legendary personnel who gave Hollywood its luster and made certain the magic endures to this day with a mind-boggling amount of professionalism. Watching MGM: When The Lion Roars reminds us all of this era of quality. It also serves as something of a terrible, inescapable reality: that the stunning compendium of talent and genius – the men who made the movies – no longer exists. In their stead, have come a line of MBA graduates, bean counters and advertising boys who know only of the ‘bottom line’ and how best to exploit it for instant returns. The movies showcased in Martin’s documentary are not disposable relics of their time, but timeless and enduring works of art meant for all time – alas, too few of them readily made available to the viewing public today. Happily, a good many of Metro’s byproducts – the movies – remain a part of our collective consciousness. As Charlton Heston comments in the final moments of Part III: “I’m glad of that.” I’ll second the notion, Chuck. Me too!
Warner Home Video has really bastardized Frank Martin’s monumental documentary on DVD. They haven’t even bothered to release it as three separate discs, properly divided according to episode. Instead, they’ve managed to cram the entire documentary on a DVD-18 flipper disc; dividing Part II down the middle so that half plays on Side A, the other half on Side B. Ugh! Would it have broken the bank to spend another ten to twenty cents per DVD to effectively separate and restore these episodes to their original broadcast length? Really, Warner? Would it have?!? Personally, I’d like an answer. To make matters worse, the powers that be seem to think Martin’s contribution to documentarian film-making ought to be handed out like PEZ candy. To date, MGM: When The Lion Roars has appeared as a virtual appendage to every Blu-ray box set put out by the studio; albeit, still slapped to a flipper disc and presented in squalid 720i, without the benefit of any clean-up for preservation. MGM: When The Lion Roars is a testament, chocked so full of history and art it remains an embarrassment of riches to be mined over and over again by film scholars and casual movie fans alike. And yet, both the image and sound quality on this disc is abysmal.
As many of the clips incorporated into this documentary have since been restored, it would have behooved Warner to go back and do a refreshed image harvest, because even the newly recorded ‘interviews’ exhibit chronic video noise and color bleeding. The entire image could also do with some basic video stabilization. Of course, Warner has given none of the aforementioned consideration to these elements. So, what we have here is an Award-winning documentary, arguably, the best archival compendium of MGM’s luminous history, presented to us looking like VHS quality dreck. Badly done! Very badly done, indeed! I strongly endorse this documentary. I cannot stand behind this DVD incarnation of it, however. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)