Lion Tamers

It seemed like a good idea while in L.A. last week to visit the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot in Culver City since my new subject, James Stewart, worked on the lot for the first five years of his career and won an Academy Award while there. I have one of those vivid imaginations you hear about now and again and spent my time rubbing shoulders with Gable, Crawford, Turner, Garland, and Munchkins as a group of us roamed the streets of MGM.

Oh, by the way, if you take the MGM tour, be prepared for a couple of shocks. They begin by taking you in a room and showing you a short film about the history of the lot, but after the first five or six three-second clips, it dawns on you: every shot you’re seeing is from a Columbia picture—you know, It Happened One Night, On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity—and Columbia pictures weren’t shot here at all but rather on Gower Street in Hollywood, miles and miles away. It’s sort of…sacrilegious to do what they’re doing on that tour, even though Columbia bought out what was left of MGM in 1989 and then the new studio became Sony Pictures, and the tour begins in the big Sony Entertainment building and ends there as well.

So, you’re in the middle of this short film and feeling pretty enraged about the fact that you’re watching a Columbia reel on the MGM lot, and then the picture veers into an oh-by-the-way explanation of the fact you are actually on the MGM lot, which was bought by Columbia, and so the clips show some Gable and some Munchkins for a minute or so, but it’s pretty short shrift for Leo the Lion, Mr. Mayer, Mr. Thalberg, and Company.

Yeah, yeah, so let me out of this damn little room with these grinning tourists—I want to see the lot! I was skeptical of John, our tour guide, as he led 15 or 18 of us across the street and onto real studio property, and I was on him right away wanting to know if we were going to learn about more than production of the TV series, The Goldbergs, which he was already pushing, and he assured that, oh yes, the two-hour tour would also cover the MGM of olden days.

We stopped at a building, a grand art deco building, and I assailed John again with, “Is this the MGM administration building?” and he said patiently, as if I were, you know, dim, “This hasn’t been MGM for a long time.” I redirected: “Is this the MGM administration building of olden days?” and he said we were going to talk about that right then.

Mary said out the side of her mouth at this point, “He knows you’re trouble and you’re going to get kicked out of here,” as if I get the boot from places frequently when it really only happens once in a while, and always because I’m misunderstood.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The Thalberg Building, which now has the label above the door, Columbia Pictures. Which is a lot like the flag of Spain flying over the U.S. Capitol. L.B. Mayer’s office was on the third floor.

Turns out we were in front of the Irving Thalberg Building, opened in 1938, which of course begged the question, “So, where were the administrative offices before 1938?” and suddenly John realized he had his hands full. He never did whirl around and ask, “Who the hell are you, anyway, and why are you ruining my tour?” Instead, when I apologized for my umpteenth question he said, “No, no, questions are good. Bring ‘em on,” and it turned out he knew a lot about the old studio and where things were, like the star bungalows and the edit suites and where the writers worked and where Judy Garland went to “star school.” I was impressed with John by the end.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

The MGM lion used in trade papers wasn’t the snarling beast in the studio logo but rather a friendly cartoon guy working tirelessly to improve the bottom line.

Of course, you know about the dissolution of MGM in the 1970s, the selling off of all the props and costumes now nearly priceless, like the million-dollar ruby slippers, and the demolition of the entire backlot where everything from Andy Hardy to Mutiny on the Bounty to Singin’ in the Rain were shot. In other words, a lot of MGM is gone with the wind and has been for decades. But some is still there, and as I roamed the streets among the soundstages, I could see in my mind’s eye Clark Gable walk past dressed in his San Francisco tux; I could see Joan Crawford slink by in a glittering gown. Over there, Eleanor Powell showing miles of leg, and yonder, Carole Lombard skulking about, checking up on the set of Honky Tonk and her husband’s new distraction, Lana Turner. They’re all there among the stucco buildings with chrome accents—baby Jean Harlow, boy genius Irving Thalberg, the three Marx Brothers, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and yes, long-legged, loping James Stewart, the guy who had no great looks but loads of natural talent that Metro didn’t know what to do with. Jim was winning an Oscar for Leo on the one hand while, on the other hand, they saddled him with wooden Indians like Hedy Lamarr and Paulette Goddard in pictures he didn’t want to make. Suddenly, military service seemed like a good idea, and he flew off and left behind in his propwash the lot on which I now stood.

We visited three soundstages on the tour. First was the music scoring stage, which interested me not because of its perfect acoustics or because John Williams directed the Star Wars scores there, but rather because in the mid 1930s it was used for process shots like the San Francisco earthquake. Then, inevitably, we looked in on the set of The Goldbergs, which John was required to plug yet again. Finally, we visited the set of Jeopardy, which was dark that day but interesting nonetheless. We stood outside the mighty titan, Studio 15, where Metro craftsmen built Munchkinland and Dorothy started down the Yellow Brick Road.

Our final minutes were spent at the gift store where you could buy any number of Columbia souvenirs. It was the final offense, but by then it really didn’t matter because I was outside in the warm California sun, distracted by the ghosts of all those great people surrounding me. People I’ve gotten to know over the years, some of whom have become friends. Now, I stood there catching glimpses of each at home in the mightiest studio of all.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

This is main street on the lot, which runs from the Thalberg Building to the soundstages. The buildings are vintage and once housed offices and the commissary, but the facades are of Sony vintage so the lot can also serve as a working backlot for features and TV shows.

20 comments

  1. According to Stewart O’Nan in West of Sunset, the Thalberg Building is also where F Scott Fitzgerald had an office during his years in Hollywood. Thanks for another fun post 🙂

    1. It’s one of those buildings that make you wish walls could talk, Betsy. It would make sense that F. Scott would be away from, you know, the workaday writers. Our tour got to go inside the lobby, which still features many art deco touches. There are etched glass appointments, and etched elevator doors. I stood there imagining the power players with their offices above, L.B., Mannix, Benny Thau, Stickling. I found it funny how different the moguls were in that J.L. had his second-story Warner Bros. office face all 12 edit booths so he knew exactly who was cutting what at which hour of the day and night, but L.B. was removed from all that in the Thalberg Building. He probably paid people to spy on the editors for him. J.L. was too cheap and did it himself.

  2. Oh, Robert, you are such a delight! I always enjoy your posts and never come away without learning something. This latest post of your tour of “MGM” (sorry, Sony…it will always be MGM) brought back lots of personal memories. In my early teens (’60’s) I couldn’t get enough of the old “black and whites.” Alas, in those days you had to wait at the mercy of the TV stations for hit and miss movies. No rentals, no DVDs or VCRs…just whatever happened to be on, and hope you caught it. My dad, God rest him, saw my obsession with movies and rewarded me by taking me for a tour of the MGM lot for my birthday. In those days, it was still MGM, and you dressed up for the tour. You went on a tram, and there was a tour guide, but I honestly remember very little about what he/she said. I was absorbing every nook and granny, every nuance of that lot. We saw Dan O’Herlihy filming a TV show, and he stopped by the tram and said hello. We had full access to the old lots, and most of them were still there in the sixties. Remember “Show Boat,” with Ava Gardner? The old boat was still sitting in a lake in the back lot. Western streets, old New York, old Europe…all the old sets and streets still there. Andy Hardy’s house. A little worse for wear, but being used again and again, mostly for TV. At one point, we passed a soundstage with the flashing red light which indicated they were shooting. Can’t go in there…said the tour guide…Elvis is filming. His black limo was parked along side. We topped off the tour with lunch at the old commissary. It was decorated art deco style, and I’m sure it hadn’t been touched or redone since the “golden years.” Even my pops got a kick out of it. In the seventies, my friend was part of the group that worked for Debbie Reynolds sorting out the old MGM wardrobe and salvaging the great pieces for posterity. Everyone laughed at her….whose laughing now! You want a top hat marked “Tyrone Power?” Got one right here. How about Gary Cooper’s pants from “Dallas?” No problem. Ruby slippers…flowing gowns. We took it all for granted then. Little did we know…little do we learn from history to treasure the memories…they are gone so soon. Thanks, Robert. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who still values those memories.

    Oh…one more thing…that same friend who sorted the costumes and I took a drive up to Pickfair in 1976. We had heard that Mary Pickford had been ill and we decided to pay our respects. We had just come from a wedding and were dressed very nicely. The gate to the driveway was open and a black Labrador was sunning himself on the lawn. We walked up the drive and knocked on the door. A lady answered in a maid’s uniform. We told her we were big fans and were merely inquiring as to Ms Pickford’s health. The maid was incredibly kind, and assured us she was much better. We asked her to give Ms Pickford our regards, thanked her and left….walking about 2 feet off the ground. Later we learned Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was having dinner with her that very same night. You can’t substitute those memories…they are just simply “grand.”

    1. Oh my, Carol! Here are the keys to my blog–you earned them by visiting vintage MGM and Pickfair. You are absolutely right that the memories are everything. Thanks you for sharing yours. The backlot…Andy Hardy’s house…the Howard Keel/Ava Gardner Show Boat…a meeting with suave Dan O’Herlihy…Elvis on the other side of the wall! And for icing on the cake, you walked Pickfair to the front door, and on the other side of the wall, Mary. Priceless.

  3. Thank you for your impressions at Metro. Regarding the precious ruby slippers, according to an article I read in a national magazine, I believe it was Rolling Stone but could have been Esquire or Fortune or other, a total of six pairs of slippers were made – for back up obviously, and for different tasks. Garland wore a differently fitted pair for the actual dancing on that plywood brick road, etc. If this interests you one bit, I’ll go digging. I visited the studios with an unknown actor, Gus Fisher, in 1966 as a kid and now cherish the memories since so much is gone.

    1. I knew there were multiple pairs, Christopher; I didn’t know there were as many as six. I saw one set up close and personal at the Smithsonian maybe five years back. I couldn’t believe how small her feet were, to fit in those shoes. I couldn’t believe that the sequins I saw, which when you look up close appear kind of ordinary, could light up the screen like they did. But of course MGM lighting men were responsible for that as much as the costumers. You are another very, very lucky one to have memories of the studios in the ’60s. I’m loving these stories, which are like mine but BETTER.

      I’m up to learn more about the slippers if the article happens to turn up.

    1. Jim D’Arc was telling me about the Stewart weekend in 1985 and all those events. It must have been something. I envy you the experience of working at that facility and in the midst of such great historical material.

      1. Oh, I worked with Jim!! Please tell him Gail Richards says Hi! Yes, it was a fantastic weekend. And quite a thrill to meet Mr. Stewart. I am envious of your job, Robert!

      2. What a small world it is, Gail. I spent this past Monday and Tuesday down there at the bottom of the Lee Library with the Stewart papers and I also got to do a little digging in the Greatest Show on Earth production files in the DeMille papers. I owe Jim a big thank you for his help and hospitality during my stay, so I will be sure to pass along your message.

    2. We used to play with the artifacts from DeMille collection down in the basement. Don’t tell Jim, but we would put on a pair of Viking horns and sing “Kill the Wabbit.” 😉 Republic Pictures, Deborah Karr, DeMille, Stewart — it was heady times. Of course, I didn’t work for Jim, I worked for the University Archivist and edited oral histories. Boring stuff compared to Jim. Somewhere I have a photo of my college apartment with the official Jimmy Stewart poster. Unfortunately, I gave it away when I moved back east on a Greyhound bus.

      1. I wondered if you worked for Jim or with Jim, Gail. He tells great stories about how he approached stars or their families to bring the collections to BYU, like sitting with James Stewart on the floor of his house on Roxbury Drive. Jim described the 12-year process to acquire the DeMille papers, while with Stewart after one hour, the actor said, “I think I’ll do it.” That simple, and now, thanks to James V. D’Arc and Stewart’s speedy decision, these materials are available to researchers like me.

        BOY is it tempting to tell Jim about the Viking horns.

  4. Thanks for your earlier reply…..one thing to consider for your ongoing research, Robert, is the history of Chasen’s restaurant in Beverly Hills. To my knowledge, the place is still there but has been shuttered for at least 15 or 20 years, only to be opened when producer rents the place and films there. The last time I was there was with a date in ’85 and I had no jacket, so I had to borrow one from the house, as some would go there without that attire. Standing behind me in a short line at the front door was James Stewart, I mean I just looked over my left shoulder and there’s this tall, slightly stooped old gentleman. I stood aside and encouraged him with a nod to go forward, he did and the door man let him in I’mmediately, to be seated in one of the booths near the front, where royalty dined, usually on or near Maude or Dave Chasen’s table. FYI try to reach the heirs of Chasens, or those in Beverly Hills who can help you find out more about this place. Of course, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard called this place home for social purposes. I could go on but there’s limited space.

    1. It was gentlemanly of you to step aside for Stewart, and funny that the general in him took you up on the offer. You make a great point about the importance of the restaurants and watering holes to the stars–who ate at which, who sat where. The Brown Derby was critical to the Lombard-Gable storyline in Fireball and so it’s possible Chasen’s will turn out to be similarly important to the new one. Thanks for the tip, Christopher.

  5. I love hearing about how annoying you were with the guide. When I took the Universal tour back in ’86, I asked to see the edit rooms. The guide said: “They aren’t part of the tour. Nobody wants to see THAT.”

    (But I did get to put on the spacesuit and re-enact the rescue scene from “2010: The Year We Made Contact.”)

    1. As a matter of fact, after he announced that we were in the post-production area of MGM and walked us toward the recording studio, I ranted, “Where are the edit booths?! WHERE ARE THE EDIT BOOTHS?!” I told him about how J.L. pointed his office at all 12 WB edit booths, six in one bank on the left, and six in the other bank on the right. I said I wanted to compare the MGM setup. He got all evasive and said the edit rooms were spread out all over the lot and motioned this way and that, and by that subterfuge got out of letting me see even one edit booth.

  6. What a great story on the MGM tour…I worked there through the 1980s…and met some older ladies…one who worked for F Scott Fitzgerald and another, her husband was the head of the “Drapery Department”…we all know how big MGM was..it was a city within a city..their own doctor, dentist, fire department…My husband worked there from the early 70s through mid 90s…and worked and toured with Gene Kelly on the South American leg of That’s Entertainment…he had Jimmy Stewart on top of the Thalberg building for that scene in TE due to union issues…I could go on and on but don’t want to bore you….I am sure you are working with the historical society in Culver City…if you need any contact information I will be glad to forward that to youl…I have always been a Gable/Lombard fan and alsoa big fan of Fireball and re read it every six months or so..

    1. Bore us? Bore us?? The response to this post shows me what a pale imitation of MGM I toured last week. Carla, your details are terrific. I remember wondering why Stewart was on top of a building for his bit in That’s Entertainment. All the other MGM veterans were, like, on the earth except he was 100 feet up and with an ugly background, all because of some union situation. I’ve been there on video productions, having to improvise. You’ve got talent standing by and a schedule and a shot list, but some roadblock or other. How are we gonna solve this problem? Next thing you know, James Stewart is on a rooftop in a major motion picture.

      Please bore us some more, Carla.

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