The proposed course will focus on the history and evolution of MGM from its inception, in the late 1920s, up to the present. Using an institutional approach, the course will focus on MGM as a multi-faceted production and distribution company, drawing on its interrelated organizational, technological, narrative, ideological, and aesthetic foundations,
Assisted by a brilliant publicity machine, particularly during Howard Dietz’s witty chairmanship, MGM was Hollywood‘s most quintessential studio for at least three decades, from the beginning of the sound era through the late 1950s and early 1960s. As such, Metro was more responsible any other studio for what is described now by scholars as Classic Hollywood Cinema and Mainstream Movie Entertainment.
Garbo Talks! (for Garbo’s first sound film, Anna Christie), Garbo Laughs! For Garbo’s first comedy, Lubitsch’s Ninotchka), Gable’s Back and Garson’s Got Him, for Clark Gable’s first movie after military service in WWII. These were some of the brilliant campaigns used by MGM to draw audiences to their movies on a regular basis.
Taking an institutional approach, the course will place Metro vis-à-vis the other major studios in town: Fox, Warner, Columbia, Universal, Twentieth Century-Fox. This comparative framework will help students understand what was special and distinctive about MGM in terms of genres, movies, director, and stars.
For example, MGM was always more a producer’s studio than a writer’s studio, and more a writer’s studio than a director’s studio. However, above all, Metro was the studio of the stars, thus the motto, More Stars Than There Are in Heaven. Garbo, Gable, Gilbert, Shearer, Crawford, Tracy and Hepburn, Beery and Dressler, the Taylors (both Robert and Elizabeth) defined and shaped the studio’s aesthetics for decades.
As documented in my book, “All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards” (latest edition, 2003), MGM was the most popular (by box-office receipts) and most prestigious (as measured by number of Oscar Awards and nominations) of all the studios. MGM ‘s movies were successfully merchandized, pervasively publicized, and widely marketed and distributed. A case could be made that Spencer Tracy’s MGM period is better documented and more celebrated than his Fox period, and deservedly so. Ditto for director like George Cukor, when he moved from RKO to MGM.
Historically, MGM can be credited with having made the smoothest transition from silent to sound in the late 1920a, even though Warner and Fox had served as technological trailblazers in this transition.
Arguably, Paramount was more stylish and European in the 1920s than MGM, and Fox was more artistically ambitious. Nonetheless, overcoming the shocks of both sound revolution and the Wall Street Crash, only MGM emerged with full solvency and prestige, while the other studios were on the verge of bankruptcy.
Certain artistic and ideological choices at MGM can be traced to the middlebrow tastes of Louis B. Mayer and Irving J. Thalberg, and these choices had much to do with MGM’s status at its heyday. With tighter organization and higher level of craftsmanship for its lower-level productions, MGM averaged out better than other studios. Wunderkind Thlaberg’s close supervision of writers enabled him to achieve a gloss for most of his productions.
Often it was matter of emphasis rather than exclusivity, since most studios produced the similar mixture of genres and trends. Even so, within that mix, MGM excelled in the making of literary adaptations (both dramas and comedies) in the 1930s and musicals in the 1940s and 1950s. These specialized genres often reflected the structure and personnel but also artistic and ideological tendencies of MGM as a studio.
In the 1930s, during Thalberg’s regime as head of production, George Cukor was the most prominent MGM director. Indeed, the artistic highlights of that era included such adaptations as The Guardsman (1931), Grant Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Camille (1936), Night Must Fall (1937), and The Women (1939), among others.
The Arthur Freed Unit, a unique sub-structure within MGM, for example, was responsible for making Hollywood‘s the most popular musicals. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Gigi (1958), to name a few were all directed by Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen and acted-danced-and sung by Hollywood’s most prominent musical talents, such as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, and others.
Historically, in order to demonstrate both artistic stability and change, the course will follow the evolution of MGM, decade by decade. Since a quarter at UCLA consists of 10 weeks, each week will be devoted to another decade, and will examine MGM’s artistic highlights and distinctive features during that decade.
Like other institutions, MGM doesn’t operate in a social or political void. To grasp the nature of MGM in all its complexity, the studio will be placed in the broader contexts of history, politics, culture, and international cinema.