The Hollywood Studios
By Ethan Mordden – 1988
Ethan Mordden has revealed to us not only the studios, but a whole time and place. Full of anecdote and incident, The Hollywood Studios is both an authoritative exploration and a great celebration of Hollywood during its matchless Golden Age. Ethan Mordden was born in Heavensville, Pennsylvania, and educated at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of eighteen much-praised books, among them works on film, opera, and theatre, including The Hollywood Musical, A Guide to Opera Recordings, Broadway Babies, and the novel One Last Waltz. He Lives in New York City.
What Is a Studio?
In the summer of 1908, the unsuccessful actor and playwright D. W. Griffith paid a call on the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company: Biograph made movies, and Griffith was looking for work. The company kept its studio in New York, at 11 East Fourteenth Street, near Union Square, and what Griffith found at that address was a typical Northeast urban stone-and-stoop affair of five floors, narrow at the face and deep at the sides, the basement peeping half a story over the street.
This was a movie studio in the early days of the industry. Erected to house a tony family, the building had been sold and hired out commercially when Society pushed north along the swank avenues, Fifth and Madison. Stores now squatted in the lower street front. Biograph’s officers, film cutters, PR people, and shippers occupied the upper stories. Wardrobe, prop storage, and the dressing rooms shared quarters at’the back of the cellar. The former ballroom, at the rear of the piano nohile, was cluttered with rolls of canvas and pots of paint, lumber and tools, the overhead mercury lamps and the movable arc lights, and the ungainly Biograph camera itself. Here was where movies were made. This was not the entire Biograph caboodle. Developing and printing were handled extramurally by a private concern, and outdoor scenes, weather permitting, were shot in exotic, madcap Fort Lee, New Jersey, just down Fourteenth Street and across the Hudson by ferry. Studio shooting and location work were very different experiences, for the cramped and dingy insides of American Biograph, now dark as a cavern, now burning with light, meant hard labor. The field trips to New Jersey were something of a romp.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer
We watch those sons-of-directors and arrogant ham stars every step of the way. The rage of Mayer. The conservative zealotry, the dire ooze of his blackmail, the unctuous sentimentality masking the tyranny. His themes were God, country, and mom’s chicken soup; his equals were such as William Randolph Hearst and Franklin Roosevelt; and the man he hated to love was Irving Thalberg, a fellow producer and, unlike Mayer, a genius at moviemaking. Thalberg was the ideas behind MGM; Thalberg produced. Mayer supervised.
Like Paramount, MGM must be regarded in its historical context. Paramount was Old Hollywood, out of the days when Griffith, Little Mary, Marshall Neilan, and Lillian Gish ran the business. Why shouldn’t they run it? They were the movies. MGM came along twelve years and—counting Paramount’s output alone—about fifteen hundred films after Zukor. Hollywood had changed vastly. The pioneer stuff was over; the industry was wising up. In fact, MGM was formed by a combine in search of (i) picture material to fill theatres, and (2) a Savonarola to run the factory. Or no: a Tiberius to run the factory, for cinema was beauty and love and presumption. But this Tiberius was a Savonarola who thought the human comedy containable.
To enforce discipline, Mayer made deterrent examples of a few resisters. Mae Murray, an impossible silly poodle of a star, became so impossible that she wasn’t worth her grosses; Mayer not only dumped her but more or less ran her out of Hollywood on an industry-wide ban. John Gilbert was another of Mayer’s victims, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and thus a prize cautionary tale for the whole town to hear, as a series of utterly terrible pictures blasted Gilbert’s hold on the box office. Because sound killed so many silent careers and because Gilbert was the ultimate silent star, romantically demonstrative rather than naturalistic, legend holds that Gilbert was undone by his unmanly tenor. No. Gilbert was undone by Mayer for personal reasons—and because Gilbert’s million-dollar contract had been negotiated by Nicholas Schenck, of MGM’s New York office.
This Eastern interloping grated on Mayer, who was determined to consolidate power on the supervisor level, starring himself as absolute supervisor. His grandstand coup—earlier than the Gilbert episode, back in the late 1920s, when MGM was but a few years old —involved another star with a New York contract, Lillian Gish. If Murray was a tempestuous diva and Gilbert arrogant, Gish was something far more threatening, a wise and self-willed talent, the compleat moviemaker. She was part of The History, not only the essential D. W. Griffith star but a founder of Old Hollywood. Virtually her own producer, a collaborator with her directors and writers, an expert in design and photography, she was bigger than Mayer. She must be contained.
Granted, Gish not only made films to please herself, she made fine films, commercially successful ones. But in her gently reasonable way she insisted on artistic control, and had that control written into her fancy Eastern contract—and all Hollywood knew it. More than once, as Gish recalls in her autobiography, Mayer literally threatened to ruin her if she didn’t learn how to take orders. But where Mae Murray was banned from the screen and John Gilbert was encouraged to destroy himself with alcohol and despair, Gish simply departed Hollywood for the more liberal atmosphere of the New York theatre world. She had had enough. In fact, we begin to notice that, despite Thalberg’s theatre culture, MGM works best with actors who are not strongly theatre trained.
MGM – La Boheme (Starring Lillian Gish and John Gilbert)