Advertisement
Share

Frankly, My Dear, It’s All Gone : Most of MGM’s Fabled Heritage Has Been Sold Off or Can’t Be Found

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is an irony not lost on employees at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

In Las Vegas last month, Kirk Kerkorian opened the MGM Grand, a $1-billion, lion-headed resort hotel featuring fantasy casino settings like “The Wizard of Oz” and a 33-acre theme park with attractions that sound like names from a Hollywood back lot: Casablanca Plaza, New York Street, French Street, Salem Waterfront, Olde England Street, Rio Grande Cantina.

The theme park even sells studio souvenirs and has a back-lot river tour along a simulated movie set.

But there are those who believe that the old MGM itself--arguably the grandest of all studios--once could have been developed into one of Southern California’s biggest tourist attractions.

Advertisement

With three huge lots in Culver City--all interconnected by trams--an MGM studio theme park, some believe, could have easily overshadowed the Universal Studios Tour. In fact, such a plan was once presented to management, former officials say, but it was rejected.

“The irony of it is, Mr. Kerkorian has spent $1 billion building a hotel and ersatz theme park using some MGM images,” said George Feltenstein, senior vice president and general manager for MGM/United Artists Home Video Inc.

“Can you imagine what an MGM theme park would have been?” Feltenstein added. “To see ‘Mutiny on the Bounty,’ ‘Show Boat,’ the Tarzan lake, the David Copperfield street for England, the New York street where a million movies were made, the Waterloo Bridge set. There was a full circus set. A studio zoo. This was the greatest studio in Hollywood, far and above all the others.

“What has happened in the intervening years,” he added, “no one would have believed it 50 years ago.”

Today, what remains of the fabled studio is in an office park in Santa Monica. The complex has executive balconies, richly paneled screening rooms, tennis courts and even a lap pool for employees. Large murals depicting scenes from famous MGM movies decorate the walls of the underground garage.

Kerkorian is gone. So is Giancarlo Parretti, the mysterious Italian financier who took control of the studio in 1990 with $1.3 billion in backing from Credit Lyonnais, the French bank. When Parretti failed to repay his debt, the bank seized the studio.

To run MGM and its newly revived United Artists unit, Credit Lyonnais has hired former Paramount Pictures chief Frank G. Mancuso, who has plans to eventually boost distribution to 25 pictures a year so the studio can attract a buyer.

*

Later this year, MGM plans to release “That’s Entertainment, Part 3,” a sequel to the 1974 and 1976 films that paid tribute to the studio’s famous musicals. To assemble the newest version, producers scoured film archives, finding never-before-seen outtakes from “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Harvey Girls” and “Easter Parade,” just to name a few. They also found outtakes of Ava Gardner singing in her own voice to Clark Gable in the 1951 Western “Lone Star.” Her voice was dubbed when the film was released theatrically.

“She’s terrific,” Feltenstein said of Gardner’s singing.

Feltenstein said the studio also has recently conducted a “corporate archeological expedition” at a Kansas salt mine, looking for stills, publicity materials and other corporate records stored underground after MGM purchased United Artists in 1981 from Transamerica Corp. and formed MGM/UA Entertainment.

“We’ve found a lot of the original proofs of stills, (including) over 1,200 pictures for ‘New York, New York,’ ” he said. “We are creating a definitive laser-disc version now.”

But despite such finds, so much of MGM’s legacy is now either in other hands or simply gone.

“Basically, the outtakes and screen tests were ordered destroyed,” recalled one studio source. “There was a corporate decision made at the time to get rid of the ‘old.’ ”

Over the years, stories have often circulated that what Kerkorian didn’t bulldoze or auction off in the 1970s was simply tossed into Santa Monica Bay or buried under a freeway in Compton.

*

But Roger Mayer, who ran the MGM lot for 25 years until 1986, said such stories simply aren’t true.

“It’s inaccurate to say a lot of stuff was thrown away,” said Mayer, who is now president of Turner Entertainment Co., which owns MGM’s pre-1986 films.

To find MGM’s heritage, he said, one simply must know where to look.

To begin with, Ted Turner purchased pre-1986 films from MGM’s vast library for his cable TV empire. The movies--along with everything Warner Bros. released prior to 1950 and RKO released between 1930 and 1957--are now stored at various sites around the country, including a 600-foot-deep salt mine in Hutchinson, Kan., (accessed with oxygen masks and hard hats), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and a high-tech warehouse in Los Angeles.

The original Technicolor negatives of “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Show Boat,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” are among hundreds of MGM movies stored at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

Yet, Jan-Christopher Horak, senior curator of the film collection at the photography museum, said that saving those rare negatives was a close call.

“They were going to dump them in the ocean,” Horak said. “They thought what they had was protected. They didn’t think they’d have to go back to the originals.”

What Turner found when it bought the MGM films, Horak said, was that some of the color movies had faded. “Thank goodness the original nitrate negatives survived,” Horak said.

“Studios have changed their ways now,” Horak added, “but up until about 1980 and the advent of videotapes, there wasn’t a whole lot of need to keep old material. It was not an asset, it was a liability, because it cost money to store it. . . . Universal (Pictures) used to burn its vaults periodically.”

Numerous outtakes and screen tests also are gone.

“The reason the screen tests were destroyed is we were not (legally) allowed to use them again,” Mayer explained. “Screen Actors Guild rules and contracts provided that you couldn’t show them commercially. . . . If you can’t use them, why hang onto them anymore?”

One major exception, he noted, was “Gone With the Wind.” Vivien Leigh’s screen test survived because the family of producer David O. Selznick gave them to the University of Texas.

Mayer said MGM was once actually made up of six lots, but there were three key ones in Culver City.

Lot 1, Mayer said, the current site of Sony Pictures Entertainment, featured a lake used in Tarzan movies and the paddlewheeler in “Show Boat.” Lot 2, located at the corner of Culver and Overland, included the Andy Hardy street, an international street where Gene Kelly danced in “Singin’ in the Rain” and the rustic train station seen in the Civil War drama “Raintree County,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Lot 3, at Overland and Jefferson, had Western streets that were used for, among other things, the filming of “How the West Was Won.”

*

Bulldozers did what Gen. Sherman and the Yankees didn’t do to Twelve Oaks, one of the Southern mansions in “Gone With the Wind.” The HMS Bounty, built for the first filming of “Mutiny on the Bounty” starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, was smashed to smithereens to make way for residential developments.

Mayer concedes that MGM executives once had a chance to create a magnificent theme park with the studio.

“That decision was made with the full knowledge of the fact that it could have turned into a Universal Studios-type tour with plans for such a tour available to that management,” Mayer said. “Yet, that management felt that No. 1, it wasn’t too good an idea; No. 2, they wanted cash for other purposes and, No. 3, (the back lots) were not really being used because everybody was going on location in those days.”

As for MGM’s scripts, Turner recently donated some 50,000 items to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herick Library. Among the authors and playwrights whose works are included are F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, Dalton Trumbo and Paddy Chayefsky.

But controversy still swirls around the loss of orchestral arrangements from the studio’s music library. “The only thing I distinctly remember that was thrown away were parts and pieces of music scores,” Mayer said. “Not the overall scores that the conductor conducted with an orchestra, but parts and pieces.”

One studio source, however, said the missing scores--which numbered upward of 150,000 pages--were likely “wrapped in plastic bags and used as landfill in Ventura County.”


Advertisement