Looking back: what daily life was like at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer once you entered the studio

A lot of (auto)biographical books and historical documentaries have been made over the years, all reflecting on (the pros and cons of) the studio system that was responsible for Hollywood’s golden era of filmmaking. So is this little piece. Even though some of the best films ever are being made today, the least one can say is that the studio system produced an awful lot of talent and film classics, and proved to a perfect and most influential training ground for upcoming filmmakers and for several generations, going all the way back to the very early years of the 20th century. A tribute with all the respect for the filmmakers of that particular era, seems, at least to me, very appropriate, celebrating a century of movies after “The Birth of a Nation”, still considered to be one of the first screen classics, became one of the very first feature films to become a box-office success.

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The main gate on Washington Boulevard as it looked in the late 1910s, long before MGM was founded. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

It’s very simple: had there been no flourishing, creative and influential studio system in the first half of the 20th century, it’s hard to imagine there would have been any kind of motion picture industry in America. On top of that, in the pre-war Hollywood era, MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was really The Wizard of Oz: he ran the Emerald City. The initial pioneers who started in the film business at the very beginning, were just a lot of people hustling, making 10 minute pictures that were awful. The audience paid 10, 20 or 30 cents to go in and see them. On the other hand, people like Harry Cohn (Columbia), Jack L. Warner (Warner Bros.), Carl Laemmle (Universal), or independent filmmaker Samuel Goldwyn, they did it and they made the industry, but it would have never happened without Mayer. How can you do it better: he once hired the world’s fifth greatest mathematician for no reason, he brought him from Europe and put him in an office. When the Atomic Energy Commission came along, they were looking for this mathematician. They had found out he was working for MGM, but what he was doing, nobody really knew.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was founded in 1924, after a merger of three American motion picture production companies: Metro Pictures (founded in 1915), Goldwyn Pictures (1916) and Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation (1918). The new studio took over Thomas Ince’s former Triangle studio building in Culver City (from an aerial point of view the property took a triangular shape). Later sold to Samuel Goldwyn in the late 1910s, he expanded the property by adding eight sound stages and buildings, but ultimately the studio with the impressive main entrance – the famous Greek colonnade – became the home of MGM in 1924.

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MGM’s main entrance in the late 1930s. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer acquired some of the best writers and literary people who knew plays, literary works and history, and they started to mold it. The studio built scenario departments, they brought in story editors, they signed the writers of the day, they went to Broadway, they bought plays,… They got the greatest artists, they developed the greatest cameramen, and some of the directors converted over from the silents, got on and could make talking pictures. It was only the studio system that allowed this growing, this pregnancy.

When they realized they had to have color, they got the greatest musicians of our time, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, along with the greatest choreographers, the greatest singers and dancers, and people who designed the most incredible stage sets. Just think about the numerous people who came from show business and entered the motion picture industry. Mr. Mayer could also sing beautifully; when it was decided that he would do a remake of “Show Boat” in 1951, someone sat at the piano, played ‘Ol’ Man River’ and Mr. Mayer sang it. Harry Cohn, although known to be ruthless and brutal, used to keep a hat on his piano and sometimes late at night, after he finished working, he’d put his hat on, a piano player started playing an Al Jolson song and he’d just started singing.

The men who ran the studios, were all filmmakers. Mr. Mayer could act, write and direct; Harry Cohn had a little projection room next to his office, he’d run in there and cut the film. They all could write, produce, direct and act. Today it’s changed because the studios had been controlled for many years now, Wall Street came along and took over where quality street was. The top, the people who make the decisions now, none of them have ever directed, produced, wrote, photographed or wrote the musical score for a film. Also now, there is television, syndication, DVD, VOD, the internet, etc.: it is an entirely different ballgame now.

Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

But in the studio days, the studio built people, they made these people, they had everything worked out. After all, where do you want to start? You want to begin with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer or Greta Garbo? Just keep on going, these people were all brought in and they were coached. There was coaching for everything you can possibly think. Men like Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Robert Taylor, Errol Flynn – when he left Tasmania, he could not ride a Western horse. Could Gene Kelly become a D’Artagnan? Of course not. But there were people and departments that taught everyone, they knew how to control it. When a person was signed, he was taught to sing, to dance, to have beautiful poise in walking, how to speak correctly, how to do accents, he was taught French, anything you could think of, like diction, language, manners, culture or history. It was a university of the world, and so actors became stars that way.

Gene Kelly. Photograph: from the archive of Leo Verswijver

In the studio they had a research department, anything to try to make it better was right there at your fingertips. The studio system built an industry that could own its own theaters, stock companies, etc. When MGM was doing the remake of “Show Boat” in 1951, they needed a stern wheeler. It was very simple: they just built it. They drained a lake, built it, flooded the lake, waited to see whether the damn thing would float, and yes, it floated! They had stables with horses that were trained to pull the chariots in “Ben-Hur” (1959). When that film was made, there weren’t any chariot drivers around: they were a few thousand years out of date. So they took cowboys and they taught them. The studio taught them how to swim, to sing and to dance. The people who had experience, like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly or Sinatra and Bing Crosby, got a wider horizon to work their talent.

The studio was a big family. There was a big restaurant; everybody ate in there, there were different tables assigned to different departments. There was a camera table for the cameramen, a writers’ table, a table for the music department, and in the center of the commissary was a looong table: that was the directors’ table. The day that a director finally made it, he was allowed to sit there. At one end there was a chair, that was reserved for Clark Gable; he would come in there and Charlie, the waiter, would have his newspaper ready. As for the check, there was a game called ‘Chuck-a-luck’: that was a box filled with dice and you’d turn it over. Well, the man who had the highest number, had the pick up the check for everybody that ate there that day, which could be hundreds of dollars actually. Then they always would wait until some visitor came in from out of town, an exhibitor or something. He would always get caught somehow.

There was a coffee shop, as well as a private little dining room where Louis B. Mayer would have his lunch. He would go in there with four or five guests, they could be anyone from a great prizefighter or Henry Ford, the Governor of California to the President of the United States: people of all different walks of life. Mr. Mayer would entertain them and they would seek his wisdom and advice.

On lot 2, MGM had another commissary, that also served all kinds of food and, of course, on holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year – and especially on the Fourth of July, which was Mr. Mayer’s birthday – all the families were invited, they got a free lunch, a turkey dinner and everybody got entertained. No outsiders, it was a very clanish thing. There were eight studios, but they would never mix it up. A former MGM director once told me a story that one of his colleagues took a girl out to dinner one Saturday night, she was under contract with Warner Brothers. The next Monday when he showed up at MGM, everybody asked him, ‘Well, how was it?’ He said, ‘What do you mean, how was it?’ ‘Well, the girl from Warners!’ And he said, ‘What do you mean? She had arms, legs, eyes, just like any other girl!’

MGM had a baseball team that used to play 20th Century Fox. The heads of the studios would stand in the back of their team; the players had a bowling team, and someone was also the captain of the bowling team at MGM. They beat all the other studios in Hollywood which made them very proud. Robert Stack won different ski tournaments in California and different places in the world, and they’d have New Year’s Eve parties and Thanksgiving and all of it.

It really was a big family: they were taken well care of. MGM had its own hospital with 16 beds, there were doctors, nurses and ambulances. It was a factory with 4.000 to 5.000 people working there, they were always building and tearing down, so there could be accidents. They had an excellent dental department: one dentist was William Randolph Hearst’s dentist and everybody would use these facilities.

The studio system founded the Motion Picture Relief Fund, later renamed Motion Picture and Television Fund, and built a home about thirty miles outside of Hollywood, in Woodland Hills, with the finest medical care and many great stars lived their life out there ever since. They went there for their operations – also workmen and extras. Today it’s a very large complex that takes over four or five other different hospitals. In order to be allowed to stay there when they got old, actors, directors, screenwriters etc. had to give 5 percent of their salary to the home. So they did manage to take care of their own.

Today an actor may come out of television if he’s lucky, he may have learned some things that really have nothing to do with motion pictures, but needless to say, he has to go out and get his own dramatic teacher, his own fencing teacher, or swimming and boxing teacher – whatever it may be. In those days, the studio owned them: they were hired, they were bought, say for seven years and one can say now, ‘Well, that’s a cruel way’, but they were paid very well.

In those days, at a studio like MGM, there was a certain group of people who were all paid the same salaries. A top director, producer, actor, executive, they all got the same salary. One day, Clark Gable went from the $ 5.000 group to $ 7.500 a week. That was really it. Well, a lot of them all went along, and those who had success made more than the others, that was about the same in every studio. Everybody was paid very handsomely, some became great collectors for art and antiques, so it was a very nice living. They all owned very beautiful homes, boats, jewelry, and several beautiful automobiles – if not the studios could supply you with cars.

Each studio had a deal with a different automobile company; MGM had a deal with the Ford family who would always come out to visit, they would have dinner and a very small circle of MGM employees was always brought in as dinner partners who knew which type of fork to use and things like that, and they got all the Lincolns and the Fords they wanted. Some MGM directors owned various Lincolns, or a Ford, and – why not – even a Chrysler too, since Chrysler also had a connection with MGM. In any Warner Bros. picture, it’s always a Buick you get to see, like in the final airport scene in “Casablanca” (1942).

Mr. Mayer always called several of his employees boy. He would come on the set, take them aside, and he’d say, ‘Boy, how is it going?’ and then they’d say to him something like, “Well, it’s going well, boss, but I’m a little behind schedule because I like to make big close-ups with a few of the girls, and I think I can make a star out of this girl.’ ‘So you’re a little behind, huh?’ he’d say. ‘Well, I tell you what boy, you make the picture you want to make, but if you tell them at the production office I said that, I will deny it.’ It just put muscle on them to go ahead.

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Discovered, trained and launched by MGM, destined to become a star: Ava Gardner. Photograph: from the archive of Leo Verswijver

Only a few people were among the very privileged to go through the back door to Mr. Mayer’s office. They’d sneak in the back door while he’d be having a meeting with bankers or something like that. He’d look at them and say, ‘What is it, boy?’ And he’d say something like, ‘Boss, yesterday I made a test of someone, I think you should see it.’ So Mayer excused himself, they’d go down to the projection room and he would look at it. He was always reaching out, the motto of MGM was more stars than there are in heaven. One of his talent scouts once went East one day, and they showed him a girl. ‘You think she’ll photograph? Or would it be a waste of time?’ Or a waste of $ 20, because that was the cost of a roll of film. ‘Of course she’ll photograph, sign her for $ 35 a week, and send her to California’, which they did. Her name was Ava Gardner. She didn’t speak English quite well, she was from the South, you could not understand her, people even laughed. So they made a test and Mr. Mayer said, ‘Boy, make another test in a year’, so she took dramatic lessons. A year went by and they made another test. Mayer looked at her and said, ‘Boy, you make another test’, this went on for a few years. He had faith and great sensibility, and ultimately, she became a star.

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The Gumm Sisters, mid-1930s. Top: Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia Gumm. Bottom: Frances Ethel Gumm, later known as Judy Garland. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

MGM was a great way to learn, a lot of people who worked there never went to school. As opposed to now, it was considered a waste of time, because, especially at MGM, people were learning on the job. On Sunday nights at a theater, they had amateur showings and amateur acts. One night, three little girls came out, they were called the Gumm Sisters. Their mother played the piano, and the girls sang. Someone from MGM got backstage and when he got to the youngest kid, he said, ‘Will you come to the MGM studio tomorrow, Monday? Come to stage 16, I will arrange a screen test of you.’ They all came, they took the two older sisters over to the side, put their mother at the piano, and the little girl came in front of the camera. She was asked to sing the song she did the night before. They photographed it, the test came up, they saw it and a couple of days later, they signed her and changed her name to Judy Garland. Well, now they had this little kid with the big voice and what happened? They didn’t know what to do with her.

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Deanna Durbin, Universal’s leading lady from 1936 until her retirement in 1948 at age 27. Photograph: from the archive of Leo Verswijver

So, at one point, MGM had two girls who both sang, one did opera and the other one jazz. They decided to get rid of the ugly one, so to speak, but they made a mistake: they got rid of the pretty girl who was signed the next day at Universal by producer Joe Pasternak, and he cast her right away in “Three Smart Girls” (1936), an immediate success which established her as a star: Deanna Durbin. Her success as the ideal teenage daughter in her subsequent Universal films, until she retired from the screen in 1949, saved the studio from bankruptcy.

At MGM, they first didn’t know what to do with the other girl, because who would believe a voice that big could come out of a little girl 14-year old girl? So they sent her over and put her in a radio show; Bob Hope had a very fine radio show then. She went there and could sing her lungs out. It was all very acceptable, because nobody could see her. But somewhere along the line, they decided they wouldn’t keep her and the studio dropped her. So she and her family opened up a little flower shop, there are photographs of her on the opening night of their flower shop. Her agent later said, ‘Oh, I did a great thing, I sold this kid’s contract for $ 1.800, isn’t that terrific?’ He sold Judy Garland’s contract for $1.800! Well anyway, they were going to do “The Wizard of Oz”(1939) and they brought her back, which was a terribly wise decision: it was thanks to the touch, the feel, and the pointing of Louis B. Mayer who said, ‘Stick with this girl, stick with her, stick with her’ that she made it. He did that, whether it was with writers or whoever it was. He had that instinct, right for a winner.

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Judy Garland in the mid-1940s, at the peak of her popularity and one of MGM’s top stars. Photograph: from the archive of Leo Verswijver

Carl Laemmle had built Universal studios, which he proudly opened on March 14, 1915. He brought in his entire family, a whole dynasty. In those days he travelled back and forth on the train a lot, and he had a travelling secretary, a young man by the name of Harry Cohn, who later became the president of Columbia. One day, Harry decided he wanted to stay in New York. At Universal’s New York office, there was another man, more a little boy really with a little typewriter: his name was Irving G. Thalberg. Harry went to him and said, ‘If you wish, you can be Mr. Laemmle’s travelling secretary from now on.’ Cohn went to Uncle Carl, as they called him, and said, ‘Mr. Laemmle, I got you a new travelling secretary’. One of his jobs was to transcribe and edit notes that Laemmle made during screenings of his films. But Laemmle couldn’t give a damn about it one way or the other who did that job. Yet, this new, young boy went West as Laemmle’s travelling secretary and within two and a half years, in 1919, that little boy Irving G. Thalberg, aged 20 then, was Universal’s new studio executive.

MGM’s leading lady Norma Shearer and her husband, production executive Irving G. Thalberg in 1929. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Thalberg stayed on at Universal, but he was in love with a girl. Mr. Laemmle had a daughter Rosabelle and it would have looked great if Thalberg, by that time the head of production, would marry her. But Irving had other ideas. There was another girl called Norma Shearer, and she was the one he wanted to marry. He left Universal and of course Mr. Mayer scooped him right up. They were all friendly enemies, but if there was someone they could grab – it’s like footbal or baseball – if they were able to get a better fellow on their team, they did it. So Mr. Mayer brought Thalberg to MGM and, of course, coming there, Thalberg had an intellectual mind, feeling and thinking. He could do films like “The Merry Widow” (1925), “Ben-Hur” (1925), “The Crowd” (1928), “The Trial of Mary Dugan” (1929), “Grand Hotel” (1932) or “Romeo and Juliet” (1936). He brought in higher class writers, he became extremely successful and of course, Norma Shearer became his wife in 1927 at the time when she was hailed as the ‘First Lady of the Screen’. She was very good, not only because she had become Thalberg’s wife in the meantime. Along with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (married in 1920 until their divorce in 1936), they were Hollywood’s second royal couple.

Everybody called Mr. Thalberg just Irving. He was a very gentle man, he didn’t scream or yell, and he would always stop to explain things. He took young and promising film directors in the projection room, they sat there and he explained absolutely everything to them. But when he died prematurely in 1936 at age 37, it was a very sad day at the studio. His wife Norma Shearer made a few more pictures, but then she quit. She gave it up.

Several years later, Harry Cohn had bought a new play and they asked him, ‘Well, maybe we could get Norma Shearer to play it?’ So they called her and explained it to her, ‘What about it? Just come back, you know.’ She thought about it and said, ‘Well, I have to see how I look.’ They said, ‘With our range of screen tests, we’ll make a screen test at night, so no one will know. We’ll get the great photographer Harry Stradling and a wonderful make-up man. We’ll make it at night, we’ll develop it in our own laboratory and we won’t even run the film in the studio. We’ll take it right here and we’ll run it in a private projection room.’

She thought about it and said, ‘All right.’ She read the script and they were going to do the test a few days later. One night, around midnight, she sent a note: ‘I thought about it and you were very kind to get all of these wonderful people to come out at night to see how I look, but I just want to leave it the way it was. I’m very happy with my new marriage to Martin Arrouge. The past is the past and it shouldn’t be trampled on. No sense to revitalize it.’

Greta Garbo in an MGM publicity still from the 1930s. Photograph: Marvin Paige Motion Picture and Television Archive

Greta Garbo thought the same about it: both actresses retired from acting in the early 1940s. She was very professional too; when she came to the studio, she always was on time. She drove her own car, a little two-seater kind of a car, she would put her make-up on at home and she just came right up to the dressing room, put on the outfit and she was ready to go at nine o’clock. Sometimes she would come with a lady companion and there was a time when director Rouben Mamoulian would drive her; he directed her in “Queen Christina” (1933). When she made “The Painted Veil” the following year, directed by Richard Boreslowski, they asked W.S. Van Dyke to reshoot a scene. He was a real tough director, known as colonel W.S. Van Dyke. Everybody was watching her at work, and he said to her, ‘Now honey, come over here and walk down the stairs. Okay, roll ‘em, print it!’ and then he would move over for another shot. He then said, ‘Okay honey, now you go over here’, they were shooting the next shot – it was about eleven o’clock – and she said, ‘Mr. Van Dyke – and now here it was gonna come, everybody thought the studio would fall apart! – my name is chocolate, not honey.’ And there it was, she was a pro!

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The front door of the house from the opening scene of “The Philadelphia Story” (1941) where Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn run into trouble (as seen in the clip below). Picture taken in 1978, before the MGM lot was demolished. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

During those golden years, the director was often considered to be the cook: he was cooking it up and put it all in the editor’s hands. People didn’t realize this: they thought that when he made a picture, he just had to walk on the set and say, ‘Roll ‘em, action, print it’. Not at all. The scene as it was written, the director may have seen it in his head maybe a hundred times before he finally got that film in his hands. So the contribution of an editor was very important. A good editor was also helpful to work with and at MGM they had an executive editor, Margaret Booth, a great lady. She was a great help to many filmmakers. Sometimes she came down on the set and said, ‘I saw some of your film today. It’s lousy!’ Or, ‘Hey baby, it’s great!’ Several directors like Edward Dmytryk, Robert Wise or Don Siegel had been editors once.

The secret of becoming a good director in those days was going through the various stages. Very important in any particular career, whether it is medicine, law, painting or whatever, is to try to know as much about the career, about the ambition, about what makes two and two is four. Starting at A and then go through all the letters of the alphabet so that he knows everything there is to know. Many directors thought they should take all that experience, put it in their back pocket and someday they’d reach around and it was there for them to use. Today there are film schools and the students learn it, but also back then, they had some very fine directors coming out of film schools. But maybe it was not the kind of experience that the second generation of filmmakers went through. Take King Vidor, a great director, he came up from Texas. In the silent era, everybody got five dollars a day – no matter what they did – five dollars and lunch. So he came up; the first day and the second day, he worked as an extra, he got five dollars. The third day, he was a director, he still got five dollars and lunch.

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The entrance of the Irving Thalberg Building (1978) on the MGM lot. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

So it is very important to have technical experience and today it’s even more important to have that in the back pocket. People have to be true to themselves; directors are often asked the same question, ‘How does it feel when you’re directing and you hopefully know that millions of people are going to see that picture?’ Some had a very accurate answer ready when they said, ‘I’m the only one that has to be pleased, I can’t worry about the millions of people that may see it and might hate it. I have to try to do the best I can.’ Of course, the technique of making pictures today, would be very exhausting in the old days with only one person in charge – the director. Producers never came on the set, they worked in their offices. If there was some question about a scene between a director and a producer, they would meet in the projection room and look at it there. After all, that’s where the producer sees a film and that’s the film that will go out to the public. The producer or the public didn’t know that, even though they’d shoot a scene that looks fine with a girl who’s smiling, although she may have broken her ankle. That’s the burden the director had to carry: he had to keep moving everything along, keeping track of what he had done.

In the old days, when they shot a scene, they saw it the next day and if they didn’t like it, they’d go back and redo it. They owned the studio, they owned the set, they owned the actors, and everyone got paid – whether they were working or not. Reshooting a scene costed $ 20, the price for a roll of film, as I mentioned earlier. The digital process now makes it so easy to shoot and reshoot anything and anytime, but during the Golden Era, things weren’t so bad either.

When Mr. Mayer was dethroned in 1951 as the studio boss and was replaced by his former production chief Dore Schary, everybody was shocked. It was like Pearl Harbor – like one day in Rome, when Julius Caesar was brutally dethroned. When Mr. Mayer left, it was the start of the Deluge – the end of the greatest film production facilities ever built. It was the end of the ‘Golden Years of Cinema Greatness’ and MGM never recovered from it. The workers – from laborers, executives, producers, stars, directors and all – they volunteered to leave with the boss, and have him build and create a new production facility. But he would never have allowed this mass exodus. Everyone had a healthy, generous retirement pension coming up which they would have lost.

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The street where Andy Hardy (Mickey Rooney) lived and played in the “Andy Hardy” film series, as it looked in 1978, shortly before it was torn down. Photograph: Leo Verswijver

Of course, people stayed in touch with him. They all lived within five miles, they visited, dined and kept close. When filmmakers started leaving MGM afterwards, it was no longer the home of Leo the Lion, dedicated to entertainment – the Mayer star system was created from ‘Garbo to Lassie’. It was a great assembly of stars, producers, writers, directors and a family that loved and dedicated themselves to the making of movies.

As Julius Caesar had a closing line, ‘Et tu, Brute?’, so did Louis B. Mayer. Looking back through the door, he said, ‘Dore, they will have to cut down the forest in America to make enough plaques to suit your ego.’ Dore was known as ‘Plaque-happy’.

Since the 1970s, much of the acreage MGM used during its reign has been converted into apartments, condominiums and homes.

What remained of MGM’s former studio property was purchased by Sony in 1990.

© Leo Verswijver