Chapter One: The Myth of Metro
The pre-eminence of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer among Hollywood studios from the twenties through the forties has been for so long a generally accepted bit of folk wisdom that it is difficult to dispute it. The Leo the Lion trademark, the Lion's Roar, The Lion's Share by Bosley Crowther, The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald, More Stars Than There Are in Heaven, Garbo Talks! Garbo Laughs! Gable's Back and Garson's Got Him!--indeed, the many clever publicity ploys of the genuinely witty Howard Dietz--have all combined to cast an aura of invincibility and infallibility around the studio and its output. With the bravos has come the inevitable backlash. As the quintessential Hollywood studio, MGM has been made to take the blame for most of Hollywood's alleged vices. It was always more a producer's studio than a writer's studio, and more a writer's studio than a director's studio, but, above all, it was the studio of the stars: Garbo, Gable, Gilbert, Shearer, Crawford, Garson, Tracy, Beery, Dressler, the Barrymores, Powell, Loy, Montgomery, Harlow, Rooney, Garland, Kelly, Taylor (both Robert and Elizabeth), et al. Metro was clearly the most popular (box-office grosses) and most prestigious (Oscars) of all the studios, and yet its standing among film scholars, historians, and cultists is quite shaky. Indeed, anti-Metro revisionist sentiment has become so strong that it is necessary to provide some perspective on the standards of comparison. First, MGM's movies were so successfully merchandised and so pervasively publicized and so widely distributed that they have become overly familiar. Consequently, there are few mysteries about MGM, and fewer occasions for archival discovery. Of Garbo's films there, only The Divine Woman seems to have vanished. Most of her other vehicles have been in general circulation for decades. For years the Marx Brothers were famous more for their MGM movies, particularly A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Day at the Races (1937), than for their earlier, more anarchic Paramount productions--The Cocoanuts (1929), Animal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup (1933). Spencer Tracy's MGM period is infinitely more celebrated than his Fox period, perhaps deservedly so, but Jeanette MacDonald's earlier, sexier Paramount reign in the witty, lilting musicals of Lubitsch and Mamoulian is generally overlooked and she's remembered for her later, stodgier stint at MGM in overstuffed operettas.
Of course, it is much harder to measure the claims of MGM's stars against those of their counterparts at other studios. Was Clark Gable more magnetic than Gary Cooper? Was Robert Taylor more the pretty boy than Tyrone Power? And how does one put Greta Garbo up against Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis? That one stellar constellation grossed more money at the box office than another says nothing about the distinction between aging well and dating badly. Most histories of Hollywood seem to accept the commercial verdict of the time as binding for all time, but in the long run no ranking can be definitive. The commercial argument is particularly suspect in view of the hidden advantages of studio resources and block booking. Also, a film may be seen by a great many people without being fondly remembered. The fact remains that certain artistic choices at MGM can be traced to the middle-brow tastes of Louis B. Mayer and Irving J. Thalberg, and these choices had much to do with MGM's status in its heyday. Often it was a matter more of emphasis than of exclusivity. Every studio dabbled in roughly the same mix of genres and trends. Hits were copied and flops filed away and forgotten. Technological advances at one studio were absorbed by all the others. Stars and directors were lent and borrowed from studio to studio.
Nonetheless, MGM can be credited with having made the smoothest transition from silence to sound in the late twenties, even though Warners and Fox had served as technological trail-blazers in this transition. It can be argued that Paramount was more stylish in the twenties than MGM, and that Fox was artistically more ambitious. But with the virtually simultaneous shocks of sound and the Crash on Wall Street only MGM emerged with full solvency and prestige. With tighter organization and a higher level of craftsmanship for its lower-level productions, MGM averaged out better than the other studios. Thalberg's close supervision of writers enabled him to achieve a surface gloss for most of his productions. Through the thirties MGM became particularly adept at play adaptations, most notably with The Guardsman (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), Reunion in Vienna (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933) (1941) (twice), The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934), Night Must Fall (1937), and The Women (1939). Among socially conscious film historians it is almost a reflex to dismiss these elegantly mounted productions as irrelevant to the class struggle. In addition, the purists of film have always been outraged by the many incestuous embraces shared by the cinema and the theater. Few cult classics emerged from adaptations of prominent plays. Thalberg's thirst for refinement and gentility found little favor among later film enthusiasts. With both Thalberg and Mayer notorious for meddling with the rushes in the cutting room, there was little possibility for those happy accidents out of which sleepers are born.
Still, it is easy to underestimate the virtues of polish and professionalism, particularly when MGM's relative wealth of writing talent enabled its producers to pan for bons mots amid the endless sludge of wisecracks. But much in the polishing of dialogue served only to illuminate the timidity of the content, particularly after 1934 when the censors began cracking down on the ribald and the risque. But even in the early thirties, Thalberg and Mayer seemed to shrink away from the worlds of the gangster and the ghoul, the provinces respectively of Warners and Universal. From The Big House in 1930 to The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, MGM had shown itself periodically capable of venturing into the underworld, but the MGM image has remained one more of sweetness and light than of lurid shadow.
The Panache of Paramount
From its formation in 1912 as the Famous Players Film Company, with Mary Pickford as its most prominent star, the company absorbed in succession Paramount Pictures Corporation, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, and a dozen other production companies, until in 1927 the corporate name became Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation, and in 1930 Paramount Publix Corporation. It can be argued that Paramount was the pre-eminent studio in the silent era, with its star roster including (in addition to Mary Pickford) Wallace Reid, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Mary Miles Minter, Adolphe Menjou, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, John Barrymore, Mae Murray, Marguerite Clark, Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, and Louise Brooks.
Paramount's affiliation with the famous UFA studio in Germany may have made it linguistically vulnerable during the difficult transition to talkies. Emil Jannings and Pola Negri returned to Germany, though Maurice Chevalier and Marlene Dietrich came the other way to restore the box-office balance. Unfortunately, Paramount seemed to lack strong executive producers to ride herd on its minor product with the result that the prestige productions of Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, Cecil B. De Mille, Mitchell Leisen, Leo McCarey, Billy Wilder, and Preston Sturges have put a gloss on the Paramount logo that the bulk of its productions never deserved.
Of the eleven hundred or so Paramount pictures made between 1929 and 1949, fewer than a hundred are the stuff of ten-best lists and Oscar nominations. But on a balance sheet the thousand forgotten Paramount films may or may not explain why Paramount Publix went bankrupt in 1933 to be reorganized as Paramount Pictures in 1935, and why movie pioneer Jesse L. Lasky and production chief B. P. Schulberg were deposed in such humiliating fashion as to become the stuff of Hollywood legend.
The overriding Paramount legend remains, however, a tradition of elegance owing almost as much to the set designs of Hans Dreier as the Europeanized sensibilities of Lubitsch, Sternberg, Wilder, Leisen, and Mamoulian, among other certified auteurs.
What is generally overlooked, however, is that Warners was able to consolidate its position in the early talkies by a remarkable consistency in its gritty street entertainments. Movie for movie, Warners was the most reliable source of entertainment through the thirties and forties, even though it was clearly the most budget-conscious of them all. In the nineties, particularly, the razor-sharp cutting and frantic pacing look inspired to the point of absurdism. Not for Warners were the longueurs of MGM and the polish of Paramount. A Warners B picture seldom ran more than seventy minutes. MGM and Paramount production values padded their Bs to the eighty- and ninety-minute mark without adding anything of substance or originality.
Though the Warners mystique made a virtue of necessity, the tight-fistedness of the studio bosses inspired periodic rebellions by its biggest stars, most notably James Cagney and Bette Davis. Warners specialized at first in the gangster and prison genres, and later in the Great Man cycle. Still, most of the scenarios, especially after 1934, tended to be low-down without being hard-boiled. Underneath all the grime there was as much sentimental piety and conformist cant among the Brothers Warner as there was in L. B. Mayer. What we remember most fondly not only about Warners movies but about Hollywood movies in general are not the endings prescribed by the Hays Office and the mealy-mouthed moguls, but the beginnings and middles, during which all sorts of wickedly subversive mischief could be indulged. Yet from the world-weary showgirl incarnate in Joan Blondell to the delinquents represented by the Dead End Kids, Warners movies more than those from any other studio walked mostly on the shady side of the street.
One might whimsically divide the history of Fox at 1935 into B. Z. (Before Zanuck), and A. Z. (After Zanuck). Darryl F. Zanuck, the former chief of production at Warners, served as vice-president in charge of production under Joseph M. Schenck, the president. Zanuck was one of the few gentiles (or goys) at that level of power in the film industry, and it hardly mattered except for a few marginal preferences such as not displaying an inordinate reverence for the Great Composers as did the Messrs. Mayer, Warner, Cohn, Laemmle, et al., while devoting a whole film to the works of John Philip Sousa. There were no trilling sopranos or tenors in Zanuck's time, only Alice Faye and Betty Grable and Alexander's Ragtime Band.
Fox movies both before and after the merger with Joseph M. Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck's 20th Century are less well-known than those of other studios because of a court decision barring the block sale of pre-1948 Fox movies to television. Hence, the impression was created that most of these movies were of negligible interest despite such famous directors as John Ford, Frank Borzage, Frank Lloyd, Henry King, Otto Preminger, and Elia Kazan on the Fox roster.
20th Century-Fox was to be hailed by the cognoscenti as a directors' studio in the forties, but even as early as 1938, MGM contract director Clarence Brown on "loan out" to Fox for The Rains Came (along with MGM star Myrna Loy in exchange for Tyrone Power as Norma Shearer's leading man in Marie Antoinette) averred that the studio facilities at Fox were technically superior to MGM's.
In addition to the court decision affecting pre-1948 Fox films, there were also various studio fires, making it even more difficult to evaluate the Fox output. The image of Fox through the thirties remained one of rusticity and Americana. The Variety headline of the mid-thirties: HIX NIX STIX PIX applied with particular force to Fox, whose biggest star had been Will Rogers before his death in an air crash in 1935. After 1935, Fox was saved not only by Miss Temple and her nemesis Jane Withers, but also by movies on such popular subjects as the Chicago Fire and the Dionne Quintuplets. The influence on Fox production schedules of American history-oriented producer Kenneth MacGowan should not go unmentioned.
Deanna Durbin was Universal's brightest star and economic salvation through the Depression, though I must add very parenthetically that my own painful passage to puberty was aided in no small measure by Miss Durbin's projected successor, Gloria Jean, in the heartwarmingly egalitarian The Under-Pup (1939). Jascha Heifetz attempted in vain to repeat Leopold Stokowski's spectacular success in Miss Durbin's Depression era vehicle, 100 Men and a Girl (1937), with his own debut in They Shall Have Music (1939), but even Joel McCrea and Andrea Leeds casting reverent glances couldn't transform Heifetz into a Jose Iturbi-like movie celebrity.
Columbia Pictures was never considered one of the major Hollywood studios, and most of its releases remain mysterious even to hard-core movie buffs. John Baxter dismisses Columbia in less than a sentence in Hollywood in the Thirties: "Columbia seldom managed to struggle out from under the control of `King Cohn,' its inflexible, tasteless boss...." The operative word in the preceding quotation is "seldom," inasmuch as it could have been said of each and every Hollywood studio that it "seldom" rose above routine.
Harry Cohn, the subject of at least one film a clef, The Big Knife (1955), always provided an easy target and scapegoat. Yet, his notoriety as a vulgarian, a womanizer, and a tantrum-throwing tyrant managed to obscure the fact that Columbia, very much like RKO, often offered talented performers an escape from the stereotyped personae imposed upon them by the larger studios. Clark Gable (MGM) and Claudette Colbert (Paramount) had their biggest success (and only Oscars) at Columbia in Frank Capra's It Hapened One Night (1934). Capra enjoyed more freedom under Cohn than did any MGM director under Mayer and Thalberg, and it was Capra who made James Stewart a star in a period when MGM had relegated him to second leads. MGM's Rosalind Russell and Robert Montgomery are remembered today largely for their "loan-out" appearances to Columbia for His Girl Friday (1940) and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) respectively. Among the directors finding refuge at Columbia for pet projects were Howard Hawks, John Ford, Leo McCarey, Gregory La Cava, George Cukor, Orson Welles, George Stevens, Zoltan Korda, Dorothy Arzner, and the offbeat team of Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Lee Garmes.
Beyond the gleaming light held aloft by the torch-bearing Columbia Lady was a light-hearted, too often light-headed vision of life, which is to say that Columbia made many more mirthless comedies than it should have. The Columbia look tended to be sunny, the spirit frothy. Yet, any studio that allowed Leo McCarey to make The Awful Truth (1937), Howard Hawks Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Gregory La Cava She Married Her Boss (1935), Orson Welles Lady from Shanghai (1948), George Stevens Talk of the Town (1942), and John Ford The Whole Town's Talking (1935) was certainly doing something right.
© Copyright 1998 Andrew Sarris
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