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A system gone with the wind

Small kingdoms known as MGM, RKO and Warners once ruled. Buildings and names remain, but most everything else is history.

May 21, 2006|David Thomson | Special to The Times

HERE is your starter question. In the following four trios, explain what the three people have in common, and identify what unifies each of the groupings:

a. Alan Hale; Henry Blanke; Sid Hickox

b. Arthur Freed; Joseph Ruttenberg; Frank Morgan

c. Travis Banton; Daniel L. Fapp; Victor Young

d. Albert S. D'Agostino; Nicholas Musuraca; Kent Smith

If that's leaving you cold, try this by way of introduction: In your daily life in Los Angeles, how often do you find yourself saying or thinking, "It's an antiques store just a few blocks east of Paramount," or, more poignantly, "I heard about this Thai restaurant near Metro."

I say poignant because the most aspiring or pretentious lot ever built in Hollywood -- the white citadel where Arthur Freed ran the musicals unit, where Joseph Ruttenberg photographed so many of Garbo's pictures, where Frank Morgan was Mr. Matuschek in "The Shop Around the Corner" and the Wizard in "The Wizard of Oz" -- is a property in Culver City that is now identified as "Sony." Truth to tell, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has no more existence than the studio system itself.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
MGM cinematographer: An article in Sunday's Hollywood special section said cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg shot many of Greta Garbo's movies. He shot one, "Two-Faced Woman."

But in the crucial three or four decades -- from the end of the First World War to the end of the Second World War -- in which the city of Los Angeles found its shape and its identity, to say nothing of a prosperity that would guarantee its eventual size, the studio system was its core structure.

Yes, there were universities and schools; there was local government and a police force; there were highways and automobiles. But L.A. was like Italy before Garibaldi. It was a set of small kingdoms and principalities . And these were called MGM, Warners, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Universal, Columbia and RKO. (If you still haven't settled the starter question, a. is Warners; b. is Metro; c. is Paramount and d. is RKO.)

The studio system was a set of competing filmmaking powers, with their alliances to the means of distribution and exhibition and their access to big bank money. There were smaller studios (like Republic and Monogram), and there was, for a long time, United Artists, which released films throughout the world. The system bloomed in the early '20s, its crown jewel being the 1924 amalgamation of three companies -- Metro, Mayer and Goldwyn -- at the Culver City premises, with Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg as heads of the West Coast operation, and Marcus Loew, then Nicholas Schenck, heading the East Coast administrative center.

If you do make a detailed study of the Metro organization, you will find a tremendous stress on viable star personalities. MGM had Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable. It had Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, after Thalberg had lured them away from Paramount. For a vital part of the studio system was that talent was hired with seven-year contracts. You had a star property for that period, and you knew in advance the rising scale of his or her salary. More or less, the stars had to do the films chosen for them. Reject one and time could be added at the end of your seven years.

The contract system shrewdly stabilized economics in an explosive situation. Starting in the '20s, the movies became a bigger business with every year. The public was -- more or less -- paying to see the stars, and the story atmospherics that supported them. But the studio system, even after the first attempts to gain control by agents, never allowed the proper recognition of star power. So a star's salary went up by reasonable increments. Stars had a lot of cash in hand, but very few were able to get their hands on any of the profits and residuals from their work.

The studios' power only began to break in the '50s, and it was later still before stars as a whole became their own producers, with points on the net or the gross and residuals through the entire life of a project. Today, we take such things for granted, even if we are only onlookers. But in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios enjoyed the upper hand.

If you want an example of how that worked, try this. David O. Selznick was the son-in-law of Louis B. Mayer, and he had been a staff producer at MGM before he broke away to be independent in 1935. His major project, working on his own, was "Gone With the Wind." But in putting the film together, he faced great problems: How could he find the money from his small group of partners for a $4-million picture; how could he get it distributed; and how could he resist the overwhelming public belief that Clark Gable was born to play Rhett Butler?

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