Monday, September 14, 2009

Facing the Lion

It was like visiting holy ground.

For a classic movie lover like myself, a visit to the former MGM studios was like a cinematic pilgrimage. I wanted to walk the same grounds that were once covered by Thalberg, Mayer, Garbo, Gable, Crawford, Shearer and Dressler.

So on our recent trip to California, we took a tour of Sony Pictures Studios. Sony purchased Columbia Pictures in 1989 and the old MGM lot. So, a tour of Sony includes a history of Columbia Pictures, which did not get its start on this site, and of MGM, which did.

You have to wonder if Louis B. Mayer is rolling in his grave over the fact that Harry Cohn's Columbia now occupies his studio.

Regardless, I must thank Sony. Online reviews (some a few years old) had unfairly indicated that the Sony tours ignored the lot's past. But Sony should be expected to promote its interests, and the fact that the tour mentioned MGM as much as it did is a credit to the company. Besides, it's doubtful that most people taking Sony tours love the classics as much as I do and crave to know everything about MGM.

If you read my blog regularly, you know I've been writing about a number of MGM films this summer and discussing the great producer Irving Thalberg. Check out my posts on "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," "The Merry Widow" and my account of visiting Ten Chimney, home of the Lunts who made one film together -- and it was at MGM.

But first a little history. This was the first studio built in Culver City. The colonnade I showed in my last post was erected in 1915 as an entrance to the Ince/Triangle studio. Samuel Goldwyn bought the fledgling studio in 1918 but was later ousted from his own company. In 1924, Marcus Loew bought Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures to create a studio that would make product for his theater chain. Metro-Goldwyn was formed, with Louis B. Mayer brought in as head of studio production. Within a year, his name was added to the title to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM. One of his heads of production was Thalberg, who became known as the "Boy Wonder." Only in his 20s, he would go on to become, in my opinion, the greatest producer of the studio era.

As a side note, Goldwyn was never part of MGM, even though his name stayed in the title. He formed his own independent studio, Samuel Goldwyn Productions. But more on that in another post.

So, the lot in Culver City grew to be the Cadillac of studios. It was considered the biggest and best, boasting that it had more stars than in the heavens. Leo the Lion became its classic symbol. Unfortunately, when the studio system died in the 1960s, MGM was hit hardest. Quite a bit of land and a few stages were sold off, and it changed hands a few times before Sony bought it. Thankfully, Sony does honor its history.

Our tour started off with a short film before we proceeded to the Irving Thalberg Building, built and dedicated to Thalberg after his sudden death in the mid-1930s. Inside the building, we walked through a lobby that contained the best picture Oscars for Columbia Pictures, including those for "It Happened One Night," "From Here to Eternity," "On the Waterfront" and "Lawrence of Arabia." The building is still used for offices and where Mayer's was once located.

Walking around the grounds, I felt like I could feel all of the ghosts, particularly with buildings named after the legends who once worked in these sound stages -- Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney Judy Garland (although I find it ironic that Adam Sandler's production company is located in the Garland building). It was interesting that the studio where Esther Williams shot her water-filled musicals still contains the tank used for her swimming numbers and is put to use for various films.

Our terrific tour guide, Kelly, was gracious enough to answer my questions about MGM's history during a break. He identified a building that currently contains offices but was built to handle some of MGM's large-scale musicals, including those directed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. Without records in front of us, I'm guessing these included "Girl Crazy," "Ziegfeld Girl" and "Strike Up the Band." I also wonder if this is where "The Great Ziegfeld" was filmed, particularly the enormous set piece "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."

Being there ended too soon. Perhaps others got a thrill out of visiting the new "Jeopardy" set or the TV set for "Rules of Engagement," which was fun. But the spirit of MGM is what I felt, and it was two hours of bliss. I heartily thank Sony for allowing MGM to live on as it continues to run Columbia Pictures, which has its own storied history.

Note to Kelly: Invite me back so I can explore some more. Ask more questions. Go through archives. Take an old map and really walk the grounds. I promise not to disturb anyone. Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye ... oh, you get the point.

May the lion roar forever.


  1. I didn't know the old M-G-M lot was available for tours. Very cool. That's a definite stop next time I'm in L.A. Kudos to new owners Sony for not neglecting its past.

  2. I highly recommend it. I want to go back, perhaps dig into the history more and be prepared to ask better questions and/or explore the neighborhood.

  3. I feel exactly the way you do,we recently took the tour just to be on the same sacred ground.Unfortunatly we couldn't take any pictures past main street.I look forward to your upcoming blogs now that I have found your site.

    Cindy Mispilkin

  4. Hi Cindy, Glad you liked the tour. Yeah, I know you couldn't take photos past a certain point. But I loved being there. I wish I lived closer so I could go back again.