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MGM Counts Its Lucky Stars

March 22, 1992|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boasted it had "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven."

Included in its galaxy were Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Spencer Tracy, Norma Shearer, Van Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor, Greer Garson, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

MGM's stars shine once more in TNT's "MGM: When the Lion Roars," which premieres Sunday.

The three-part documentary chronicles the rise and fall of the famous Culver City dream factory and how a onetime junk dealer named Louis B. Mayer and his assistant, the "Boy Wonder" production supervisor named Irving J. Thalberg, became the rulers of a movie-making empire that lasted almost 60 years.

Hosted by Patrick Stewart of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the documentary features clips from such MGM films as "Camille," "The Big Parade," "Gone With the Wind," both versions of "Ben-Hur," "The Champ," "Mrs. Miniver," "An American in Paris" and "Gigi."

Several studio stars and behind-the-scenes veterans also reminisce, including Maureen O'Sullivan, 80, who played Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan in the studio's enormously successful series. The Irish-born actress, who is the mother of Mia Farrow, was 20 when she joined MGM. She had previously been under contract to Fox, where she was being groomed to be "the second Janet Gaynor," she said. "They built me up to be a big star and I hadn't any experience." Fox dropped her, and shortly thereafter MGM tested her for the role of Jane.

"They tested a lot of people and I got the part," said O'Sullivan, who added that she had no idea 1932's "Tarzan, the Ape Man" would ever achieve legendary status.

"It was actually an inexpensive picture," she said. "We shot it in three months. It has become a classic. Film has a kind of immortality."

Though many employees considered Mayer a vindictive bully who ruled his "family" with an iron hand, O'Sullivan has fond memories of the MGM patriarch.

"He was a father figure," she said. "He was very nice as far as I was concerned. He really upbraided me when he learned I hadn't written home. I guess my father had written him. When I look back I think what a kid I was. I thought I was so grown up."

Luise Rainer's stint at MGM wasn't as pleasant. The diminutive Austrian actress had a meteoric rise in Hollywood. She arrived at MGM in 1935 and within three years made eight films, winning back-to-back best actress Oscars for 1936's "The Great Ziegfeld" and 1937's "The Good Earth." But she found life under Mayer's rule repressive. So she quit.

An MGM talent scout had discovered Rainer performing on stage in Vienna as a member of Max Reinhardt's famed theatrical company. "I came here and thought it was all crazy," Rainer, who lives in Switzerland, said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "I didn't know what I was in for. ... I couldn't say anything about films."

Winning two Oscars created havoc in her young life. "Suddenly, somebody is being put on a pedestal like the Queen of England," Rainer, 80, said. "I didn't enjoy it. You know you have to be groomed. I wanted to develop and develop and develop and become the greatest actress ever and instead, after three years, I said, 'This is all nonsense.' They put me in movies that were very, very idiotic. I couldn't stand it anymore."

Her personal life also was in a shambles. "I had a very sad and very short marriage to an extraordinary man (playwright Clifford Odets). You cannot do those things together when you are very young. You cannot have a huge career and have a monstrous private life. I couldn't manage it without killing myself."

After marrying a London publisher in 1945, Rainer sporadically appeared on stage and television. She turned down offers to return to Hollywood.

"I did very little," she said. "I was very happily married. (Her husband died two years ago.) My life was full. I was so happy. I worked only when I cared and when I could be without my beloved."

Looking back, Rainer said, she sometimes thinks she may have been foolish to turn her back on Hollywood. "I should have given out more, more, more instead of withdrawing. To give out joy and give thought ... is lovely. But it just didn't happen. Life sometimes plays tricks."

"MGM: When the Lion Roars" airs on TNT: Part I Sunday at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.; Part II Monday at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Part III Tuesday at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. The documentary will repeat later this month and in April.

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