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CRITIC AT LARGE

Ghostly Last Roar Of A Hollywood Class Act

June 12, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

No one whose first-run experience of the movies goes back beyond "Police Academy" can have been unmoved by the news last week of the dismantling of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

The studio that Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg built--with a lot of financial wizardry from less legendary men--underwent a kind of fiscal autopsy.

As the reports said, the Atlanta entrepreneur Ted Turner gets to keep that unequaled MGM film library; he sold off the physical plant in Culver City to one buyer and the company as a production and distribution entity to still another buyer. The corporate shell that used to roar like a lion will probably end up sitting tamely in a suite of offices in Beverly Hills.

Those incidental noises in the air are not only the ghostly laments of Gable and Lombard and William Powell and Norma Shearer, Wallace Beery and Robert Taylor and a dozen dozen other stars. What you hear as well as well are the sighs of several generations of the film faithful, for whom that roaring lion meant something quite special.

Metro (born in 1925 when Mayer joined his company to two other film firms) was from early days the class act of Hollywood, with the most stars and the biggest stars under exclusive contract. What the customers also benefited from but were not aware of, or took for granted, was that most of the best writers, producers, cameramen, costumers, set designers, coaches, choreographers, composers, musicians and editors in Hollywood were also on the payroll at MGM.

Even as early teen-agers, a lot of us sensed that MGM films looked different from the others, starting with that embossed white main title card with the elegantly skinny lettering.

The world was somehow brighter and cleaner in an MGM picture. This reflected, as we now know, Mr. Mayer's feeling that the movies should convey an idealized vision of life, in which father knew best and sons loved their mothers and there were no problems that could not be solved in the last reel.

Reality was harsher, dark with shadows, over at Warner Bros., for example. King Vidor once told me how he'd smuggled a reel of undeveloped film off the Metro lot so it could be processed at Warners to assure the rich black tones he wanted.

Each of the majors had its style, its strengths and its company of players. You looked to MGM for richness, for depth of casting, for squeaky-clean family values, for pure romance, for glamour, for the best musicals (after RKO had had its day with Astaire and Rogers). You looked elsewhere for impudence, a wicked wink or any hints that the world could be imperfect or ugly.

When I first came to Los Angeles the MGM back lot had not yet been sold off to developers, and you could do that magical tour from jungle clearing to New England pier to French village to Manhattan brownstone, all in what seemed no more than half a block.

Yet even then, in the slow late '50s and early '60s, you already detected, amid those peeling and disintegrating sets, the murmuring of ghosts and the fading echoes of better times. I fantasized a scenario in which a rejected, crazed old actor lived undetected in the ruins, emerging under the full moon to bay out his best lines to an audience of owls.

In a real sense, the MGM of blessed memory had largely vanished long before the funerary events of last week. The decline could even be dated from 1951, when Mayer was forced out of his own studio. It was a symbolic rupture with the past, a portent of changing times.

Like all the majors, MGM under a revolving-door succession of leaderships and then a new ownership, tripped over the young giant television and the consequent shrinkage of the film audience. And while the studio fought on, did some memorable television ("Dr. Kildare") and films ("2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Dr Zhivago" most notably, perhaps), it never again had the monolithic and commanding assurance of the great days. As a matter of fact, the question raised by the dismantling of Metro is this: What is a studio ? In the days of the founding moguls, the studio was the lengthened shadow of one man, or a handful of men: Mayer and Thalberg, the Brothers Cohn, the Brothers Warner, the Brothers Disney, William Fox and then Darryl Zanuck at Fox, Adolf Zukor and successors at Paramount.

Often as not, that lengthened shadow fell across the pictures, too, which reflected the instinct, hunches, aspirations and a touch of the cynicism of the gents in the largest offices.

In some ways, not much has changed. The measure of studio success is still in the leadership, in the figures that cast the shadows. The difference, in the post-mogul age, is that the leaders are usually paid managers (very well-paid managers, come to that) but not, in most cases, owner-managers in the way that Jack Warner was, for example.

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