MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

New York City Streets Backlot as seen in Singin' in the Rain

New York City Streets Backlot as seen in Singin' in the Rain

by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan. California: Santa Monica Press, 2011. 312 pp., illus. Hardcover: $34.95.

“From the Studio That Brought You Iron Man,” declares the poster for Thor. Hmm, what studio? Marvel? Except that’s not a studio. Disney owns it, so, Disney? No, actually, Paramount, due to deals that preceded the Marvel/Disney merger for those superhero franchises.

But, really—who cares? Studios generate balance sheets, not movie magic; little differentiates one from another. There’s nothing “Paramount” about either of these films. The tag line resonates with Viacom shareholders, not the general public.

M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot returns us to an era when audiences could tell the distributors apart, by the stars they had under their employ and the sorts of movies they specialized in. Dwarfing the other dream factories was Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s, and this handsome, plus-sized volume is unique—not another paean to its Golden Era glories but an exhaustive, and revealing, anatomy of its architecture and inner workings, with each of its buildings given a look-see. At its height MGM was as much a city-state as it was a production company. Told by Prince Rainier, husband of Grace Kelly, that Monaco was five square miles, producer Dore Schary exclaimed, “Jesus, that’s not even as big as our backlot.”

“Do it right…make it big…give it class!,” was the studio’s slogan, and where better to practice this philosophy than a multitude of controllable environments, which proved remarkably durable against the elements and the occasional earthquake. Art director Cedric Gibbons was tasked with turning the large land purchases made by the front office into something, and it was he “who would find a look and physicality and for the MGM backlot—for backlots in general—and for the physical look of the 20th century.”

Needless to say much ground is (literally) covered by this book, a good deal of it in pictures that are a triumph of archival research. Especially delightful are photographs organized as progressions, where we see, for example, the Girl’s School on Lot Two age from a pristine, snow-covered campus for Elizabeth Taylor in Cynthia (1947) to a relic of a forgotten America in Logan’s Run (1976), by which time the MGM of Taylor’s day was also history. Until location shooting became more the norm (a factor that rang down the curtain on the backlot), we’re shown how the ten acres of New York streets were synonymous with the city itself in movies like Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), complete with a three-sided house of worship that did triple duty for productions with Catholic, Jewish, or Protestant themes. The essential nature of the backlot was always transformation, so with redressing these streets also did shifts as Nazi Germany, India, and Red Square. In their ill-attended dotage, plagued with peeling brick, potholes, and other signs of neglect, dystopian fantasies returned them to a crumbling New York for the likes of Soylent Green (1973).

Though the authors are scholarly, unsentimental, and unfailingly entertaining in their analyses—this is a coffee-table book that merits reading as well as gazing—a strain of melancholy runs throughout, as the properties are amassed, developed, and discarded. They’re very good at going behind the facades, showcasing the ingenuity and beauty behind, say, Andy Hardy’s neighborhood (a cozy hamlet of false fronts, with no interiors) or the elaborate French sets for 1938’s Marie Antoinette, for which studio researchers spent a year in the country, sending back 12,000 photographs that Gibbons’ staff then “improved on” for film and recycled for numerous other movies. “Gibbons’s sets generally tended to be overlit, so as to show off their craftsmanship; whites, rather than shadow, tend to predominate…his 1930s Deco and later streamlined-Moderne stylings created, if not the actual look of an era itself, then certainly our later perceptions of what that era looked like.”

But the idealized world that Louis B. Mayer revered and Gibbons authored, its tasteful and conservative values embedded in the very walls of the sets—Gibbons, Elia Kazan said, was the most influential person on the lot after the owners—clashed with the realism and harder edges that audiences began to expect from the movies. In the last theatrical film shot in full on the backlot, the detective picture They Only Kill Their Masters (1972), one could argue that the masters being killed are Mayer and Gibbons—on its weather-beaten streets lot stalwarts like Peter Lawford and June Allyson are cast way against MGM type as crooks, drug dealers, and predatory lesbians. They’d toe the company line once more in the teary-eyed That’s Entertainment! movies, the last time audiences got a look at what was left of the once-mighty backlots.

Nostalgia, however, is only one facet of M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, which, thanks to the wealth of photos and keen writing, is an excellent map to this vanished terrain, with a helpful index to what was shot where. (Andy Hardy/New England Street was also home to Jailhouse RockSome Came Running, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) At a time when studios have to advertise their identities on the backs of superheroes, it’s also a potent reminder that it wasn’t just the stars who had faces then.—Robert Cashill

Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Associate and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.

To purchase M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, click here

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.