Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Time-Travel Studio Tour

Hollywood backlots are endlessly fascinating, aren't they? When I moved to Long Beach in 1977 I drove up to Burbank one day to check out the Walt Disney Studios on Buena Vista Street. I parked on residential South Lincoln Street behind the studio. Peeking through a knothole in the studio fence, I could just catch a glimpse of what I'm sure were the old sets for the Zorro TV series. I was never able to prove it, though, and I guess I never will now: the Disney backlot is gone -- and for all I know, the fence, that section of Lincoln St., and the houses that faced it -- subsumed into the Walt Disney Feature Animation building that went up in the 1990s.

In 1986 I attended a screening of Wisdom (in which I had a bit role) at the 20th Century Fox studios, and afterwards took a stroll around the grounds (that's when I learned that once you manage to get inside a studio's gates, people let you go more or less where you please, on the assumption that you must belong there). I saw the picturesque little Swiss-looking bungalow that had been built for Shirley Temple (later the writers' building), and walked the stunted remains of the Fox backlot, all that was left after they sold off the 180 acres that became Century City.

I never got even a glimpse of the colossal MGM backlot, but now I can, and so can you, thanks to MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan. This book manages to be both satisfying in its thorough documenting of the physical nuts and bolts of MGM, and tantalizing in its constant reminder that most of this is (if you'll pardon the expression) gone with the wind. Much as we might wish to step into one of this book's hundreds of pictures and look around, we will never walk the streets we know so well from Andy Hardy movies, Tarzan pictures, Gene Kelly musicals and The Twilight Zone -- and neither, now, will anybody else. (This picture, by the way, shows only the 81 acres of MGM Lots 1 [the complex of buildings off in the distance] and 2 [closer up]. At the studio's peak there were five other lots sprinkled around that part of Culver City on another hundred acres; they're out of the picture off to the right.)

The book does have its nits, and I might as well pick them. The authors garble somewhat the prehistory of the three studios -- Metro, Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures -- before they merged to form MGM. As I've recounted elsewhere, director Rex Ingram worked for Metro, not Goldwyn, and his production of Mare Nostrum was not among the financial headaches MGM inherited with the merger. Neither was "Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur" shooting in Rome (also discussed here); that would be June Mathis and Charles Brabin's Ben-Hur. Niblo was the director Mayer and Irving Thalberg picked later to clean up Brabin's mess -- back in Hollywood where they could keep an eye on things.

Also, the book could have used a more thorough job of copy editing. There are far more than the usual number of misspellings ("Donald O'Conner," "legers [ledgers]") typographical errors ("The Barrett's of Wimpole Street," elsewhere called "Wimple Street"), malapropisms ("initialized" for "initiated," "cache" for "cachet," "skewered" for "skewed"), grammatical missteps ("...the sets fell in to disrepair...") and other hard-to-classify errors that could be one or more of the above ("...the seeds of destruction...were sewn..."). You can hardly go five pages without one gaffe or another. (And by the way, was there really a "Red Square" set in Yolanda and the Thief [1945]? I don't remember one in that picture, which took place in a mythical South American country, but the authors say there was one, and that Lot 2's New York Street played the role.)

All quibbles notwithstanding, this book is a swell read, a step-by-step tour that takes us through each lot one by one, ushering us in the front gate and taking in every building (on Lot 1) and outdoor set (on the others) in turn. There are plenty of maps, starting with this one showing all MGM's holdings at its peak. (The two lots on the left are the ones you can see in the picture above.) If you live in the L.A. area and have a passing familiarity with Culver City, it's easy to get the lay of MGM's land.

Here's another one of the book's maps, this one of Lot 2 -- home to Andy Hardy's hometown of Carvel, Tarzan's jungle, Romeo and Juliet's (1936) Verona Square, the Lord family mansion in The Philadelphia Story, the complex of New York Streets, etc. I don't have room to reproduce it full-size, but if you Ctrl-click it to open it in a new tab, then "+" it up, you can see it more clearly. The numbers in the columns on the left correspond to shaded areas on the map, and each gets its own mini-chapter with accompanying pictures and a rundown of how each area was used over the years. You'll spend a lot of time thumbing back and forth between text and maps, but by the time you're through you'd be able to roam freely around all seven lots without getting lost.

If they still existed -- which, except for Lot 1 (now Sony Studios), they don't. The last section of the book, "Backlot Babylon," is the hardest to read, and it just gets more and more heartbreaking by the paragraph. 

This is where the authors take us through the long sorry story of the disintegration of Louis B. Mayer's mighty empire. The authors quote a retired publicist, speaking in 1974, as saying that the studio's last really great year was 1948. The irony in that, which the book makes clear, is that even in '74 things hadn't hit bottom, although "the writing was now clearly on the false walls."

These pages are dominated by pictures like the two here: On the top, the decrepit hulk from 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty cowers beyond the rubble that was once Lot 3's Dutch Street and Rawhide Street; on the bottom, a bulldozer polishes off the last of Lot 2's complex of New York Streets in 1980.

Changing the subject slightly, I just got a DVD on eBay comprised of Kodachrome home movies taken at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Seeing the place in color is a much more immediate experience than all those old black-and-white newsreels and photos, and what comes through most clearly to me in these 70-year-old home movies is that everything -- from the Trylon and Perisphere all the way down to the Amusement Zone rides -- looks so absolutely and completely permanent.

It's like that too in the movies shot on the MGM backlot. I mean, I've lived on streets that I don't remember as vividly as Kensington Avenue from Meet Me in St. Louis or Andy Hardy's street -- which was also Maple St. in the "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" episode of The Twilight Zone, and the street Bobby Van hopped down in Small Town Girl.

That's just from seeing them in the movies. How much more solid and permanent they must have looked to the people who actually worked on them. Not that they would have looked or felt real, of course. An actor always knows when he's on a set, and Mickey Rooney and Lewis Stone surely never had any illusions that the Hardys' front door actually led anyplace -- the company would have to adjourn to a set on one of Lot 1's sound stages to continue that illusion.

But even so, there must have been a feeling that these sets would always be there, and it's easy to imagine the wistful bewilderment people like Rooney and Debbie Reynolds and Ann Rutherford felt walking the backlot toward the end -- after the carpenters and maintenance crews and greensmen had all been laid off, and there were weeds growing around the doorsteps and torn canvas walls flapping in the Santa Ana Winds. In fact, we don't have to imagine it; we can see it in pictures like That's Entertainment! and the documentary-cum-obituaries that date from the 1960s and '70s. It's there, too, in dozens of quotes in MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, from stars and "backstage" workers alike, and always the subtext is the same: Jeez, what happened?? With the studio humming along on all cylinders, thousands of employees keeping everything fresh and ready to use on a moment's notice, and packing the commissary every day at lunch, the MGM lots surely seemed as permanent as the pyramids.

In the end they weren't, and in fact they never had been. For me, one of the saddest pictures in MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot isn't of great sets reduced to garbage or props and costumes auctioned off or used for landfill, it's one of the simplest. And oddly enough, it's not from the long miserable decline and fall; it's from 1937, when the MGM lion was in full roar and the vigorous prime of life. And here it is, a sign on the outside wall of the star dressing room building -- which, for the major stars, weren't just rooms but full homes-away-from-home with bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and fireplaces. You can see here that Suite A is presently vacant, but that it once belonged to the recently deceased Jean Harlow. Her name has been removed, and her suite no doubt cleared out for its next occupant (in time it would go to Lana Turner),
but the letters of Jean's name have left their shadow behind,
like the impression of a pen-press on the
second page of a note pad.

In the end, and for that matter all along, the entire
studio complex of mighty MGM turned out to be
no more permanent than that.


VP81955 said...

Excellent site, excellent entry on a book I hope to acquire soon. Interesting to see that women's dressing room list, though I wish I could figure out who had previously occupied that other vacant women's dressing room. (Also fascinating to see that reclusive Greta Garbo's next-door neighbor was her emotional opposite -- the down-to-earth but equally enchanting Myrna Loy.)

I plan to visit this more often, and cordially invite you to visit my classic Hollywood site, dedicated to my all-time favorite actress (Myrna is second, Barbara Stanwyck third):

Jim Lane said...

Welcome, VP81955! I too have stared till my eyes ache trying to identify the (former) occupant of Suite C, to no avail. It may be nobody you'd recognize. The book also has a pic of the corresponding men's sign, and right there on the same floor with Clark Gable, Nelson Eddy and William Powell is the ever-popular Donald Loomis. (Donald Loomis???)

And I'm happy to recommend your super-cool Carol Lombard site to my readers.

Kevin Deany said...

Boy that book sounds marvelous, and I'll definitely have to check it out, typos and all.

Curious about Suite C too. Did stars on loan-out get the prime suites, or were those only reserved for the stars under contract? I wondered if they kept a suite available for loan-out performers, such as when Tyrone Power went to M-G-M for "Marie Antoinette"?

Jim Lane said...

Good question, Kevin; the book doesn't mention what arrangements were made for borrowed players. My guess is they were put up in the featured players' building or the old barracks-like General Dressing Room building, which dated to 1916. Apparently the Star Suites were pretty much reserved for MGM's top contract stars; another pic in the book shows them looking like a 1930s-vintage Art Deco apartment building.

As for the mystery of Suite C, staring harder at the pic in the book (which is a little clearer than the scan I posted), I seem to detect a "BR" as the first two letters of the last name. It's just possible that this suite was occupied by Fanny Brice while she was there making The Great Ziegfeld. But who knows for sure?

A special case, also covered in the book, is Marion Davies' 14-room bungalow, which left with her for Warner Bros. in 1934.

Kelli Marshall said...

Many thanks for introducing me to this book!

Jim Lane said...

You're most welcome, Kelli. And thank you for the link and plug over at your MediaAcademia site!

Anonymous said...

Bought this book as soon as it came out via Amazon & read it cover to cover indiscriminately as soon as I got it. I'm so glad this book has come out. My Mum said her favorite studio was MGM & as a young teenager in the 70's at the end of year school breakup we watched a reel to real doco called 'The Dream Factory' about the sad demise of the MGM backlot by wrecking ball. This fueled a lifelong fascination with MGM & its famous Culver City lot. I remember getting 'The MGM Story' in my early 20s & pouring over the cover pages of the fragmented arial pics of the front & backlots & maps; the rest of the book was about the movies made from '24 - '81 but my interest was always in the MGM physical plant - lot. In '87 I visited LA & took a cab to Washington Bvd only to find that the famous lot had been sold to Lorimar, was still fascinating tho. This book is amazing in its detail, thanks so much guys. The MGM Studio lot fascinates me like no other LA studio. Along with the Culver Studios I think its the most handsome lot anywhere

Channing Thomson said...

Do you know the other name removed (other than Jean Harlow) from the MGM Women's Dressing Room sign? (Suite C). Thanks, Channing Thomson

Jim Lane said...

Thanks for stopping by, Channing. Afraid I can't help you on that missing name for Suite C of the "Womens Apts." I've stared myself cross-eyed but can't make any headway. A while back, in response to Kevin Deany's comment, I said I thought I detected a "BR" in the mystery occupant's last name, but I can't even see that now.

Then again, the book also shows the name board for the men's dressing rooms, with somebody named Donald Loomis (who appears nowhere on the IMDb) sharing a floor with Clark Gable, Nelson Eddy and William Powell. So it's always possible that the lady in Suite C might have been nobody we've ever heard of.

Thanks again for visiting!

rafael storm said...

It could be that "Donald Loomis" was a fictional alias for a dressing room used by loan-out stars. The same can be said for the mysterious Suite C in the women's building. I doubt very much that Fanny Brice's name would have been added to the directory for her brief tenure at Metro, for what was just a cameo appearance in "Ziegfeld". I'm sure she had a room in the contact players' building.

Jim Lane said...

Welcome, Rafael, and thanks for dropping by. Your remarks make sense to me.

Copyright Notice

All textual content Copyright (c) date of posting by Jim Lane. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express written permission from this blog's author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jim Lane and Jim Lane's Cinedrome with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.