Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., or MGM, is an American media company, involved primarily in the production and distribution of films and television programs. MGM was founded in 1924 when the entertainment entrepreneur Marcus Loew gained control of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures Corporation and Louis B. Mayer Pictures. On November 3, 2010, MGM filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. However, on December 20, 2010, MGM emerged from bankruptcy and the executives of Spyglass Entertainment, Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum, became co-Chairs and co-CEOs of the company.
The studio's official motto, "Ars Gratia Artis", is a Latin phrase meaning "Art for art's sake". It was chosen by Howard Dietz, the studio's chief publicist, in 1924. The studio's logo is a roaring lion surrounded by a ring of film inscribed with the studio's motto. The logo, which features "Leo the Lion", was created by Dietz in 1916 for Goldwyn Pictures and updated in 1924 for MGM's use. Dietz based the logo on his alma mater's mascot—the Columbia University lion. Loew regarded its use for the consolidated studio as particularly appropriate, since "Loewe" is German for "lion." Originally silent, the sound of Leo the Lion's roar was added to films for the first time in August 1928. The studio's informal motto is "more stars than there are in heaven", a reference to the large number of A-list movie stars under contract to the company in the 1930s. This second motto was also coined by Deitz, and was probably first used in 1932.
From the end of the silent film era through World War II, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the dominant motion picture studio in Hollywood. It responded slowly to the changing legal, economic, and demographic nature of the motion picture industry during the 1950s and 1960s, and although at times its films did well at the box office the studio lost significant amounts of money throughout the 1960s. Edgar Bronfman, Sr. purchased a controlling interest in MGM in 1966 (and was briefly chairman of the board in 1969), and in 1967 Time Inc. became the company's second-largest shareholder. In 1969, Kirk Kerkorian purchased 40 percent of MGM from Bronfman and Time, Inc., slashed staff and production costs, forced the studio to produce low-budget fare, and then shut down production "permanently" in 1973. The studio continued to distribute films under its name, however, and resumed production of its own motion pictures in 1980.
MGM attempted to rebuild its production capacity in 1981 by purchasing United Artists (along with its lucrative James Bond film franchise). It also incurred significant amounts of debt in order to increase production. The studio took on additional debt as a series of owners took charge in the 1980s and early 1990s. On August 5, 1986, Ted Turner's Turner Broadcasting System purchased MGM in a cash-stock deal for $1.5 billion. Turner immediately sold MGM's United Artists subsidiary back to Kerkorian. But unable to find financing for the rest of the deal, Turner sold MGM's film and distribution business back to Kerkorian just 74 days after the original purchase was made. The MGM lot and lab facilities were sold to Lorimar-Telepictures. Turner kept the pre-1986 library of MGM films, along with pre-1950 Warner Bros. and RKO Pictures films which MGM had previously purchased. The series of deals left MGM even more heavily in debt. In 1989, Australian-based Qintex attempted to buy MGM from Kerkorian, but the deal collapsed. MGM was bought by Pathé Communications (led by Italian publishing magnate Giancarlo Parretti) in 1990, but Parretti lost control of Pathé and defaulted on the loans used to purchase the studio. French banking conglomerate Crédit Lyonnais, the studio's major creditor, then took control of MGM. Even more deeply in debt, MGM was purchased by Australia's Seven Network in 1996.
MGM purchased Metromedia's film subsidiaries (Orion Pictures, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, and the Motion Picture Corporation of America) for $573 million in 1997, and Kerkorian bought out Seven Network the following year. MGM used debt to acquire Polygram Filmed Entertainment's 1,300-title library from Seagram in 1999 for $250 million, and obtained the broadcast rights to more than 800 of its films previously licensed to Turner Broadcasting. MGM then purchased 20 percent of Cablevision Systems for $825 million in 2001. MGM attempted to take over Universal Studios in 2003 but failed, and was forced to sell several of its cable channel investments (taking a $75 million loss on the deal).
The debt load from these business deals negatively affected MGM's ability to survive as an independent motion picture studio. After a three-way bidding war which involved Time Warner (successor to Time, Inc. and current parent of Turner Broadcasting) and General Electric, MGM was acquired on September 23, 2004, by a partnership led by Sony Corporation of America, Comcast, Texas Pacific Group (now TPG Capital, L.P.), Providence Equity Partners, and other investors.
In 1924, movie theater magnate Marcus Loew had a problem. He had bought Metro Pictures Corporation (founded in 1916) and Goldwyn Pictures (founded in 1917) to provide a steady supply of films for his large theater chain, Loew's Theatres. However, these purchases created a need for someone to oversee his new Hollywood operations, since longtime assistant Nicholas Schenck was needed in New York to oversee the theaters. Loew addressed the situation by buying Louis B. Mayer Pictures on April 16, 1924. Because of his decade-long success as a producer, Mayer was made a vice-president of Loew's and head of studio operations in California, with Harry Rapf and Irving Thalberg as heads of production. For decades MGM was listed on movie title cards as "Controlled by Loew's, Inc."
Originally, the new studio's films were presented in the following manner: "Louis B. Mayer presents a Metro-Goldwyn picture", but Mayer soon added his name to the studio with Loew's blessing. Though Loew's Metro was the dominant partner, the new studio inherited Goldwyn's studios in Culver City, California, the former Goldwyn mascot Leo the Lion (which replaced Metro's parrot symbol), and the Goldwyn corporate motto Ars Gratia Artis ("Art for Art's Sake").
Also inherited from Goldwyn was a runaway production, Ben–Hur, which had been filming in Rome for months at great cost. Mayer scrapped most of what had been shot and relocated production to Culver City. Though Ben–Hur was the most costly film made up to its time, it became MGM's first great public-relations triumph, establishing an image for the company that persisted for years. Also in 1925, with the success of both The Big Parade and Ben–Hur, MGM surpassed Universal Studios as the largest studio in Hollywood, a distinction it would maintain for over 30 years.
Marcus Loew died in 1927, and control of Loew's passed to Nicholas Schenck. In 1929, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation bought the Loew family's holdings with Schenck's assent. Mayer and Thalberg disagreed with the decision. Mayer used political connections to persuade the Justice Department to delay final approval of the deal on antitrust grounds. During this time, in the summer of 1929, Fox was badly hurt in an automobile accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 had nearly wiped Fox out and ended any chance of the Loew's merger going through. Schenck and Mayer had never gotten along (Mayer reportedly referred to his boss as "Mr. Skunk") , and the abortive Fox merger increased the animosity between the two men.
From the outset, MGM tapped into the audience's need for glamour and sophistication. Having inherited few big names from their predecessor companies, Mayer and Thalberg began at once to create and publicize a host of new stars, among them Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, William Haines, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford. Established names like Lon Chaney, William Powell, Buster Keaton, and Wallace Beery were hired from other studios. They also hired top directors such as King Vidor, Clarence Brown, Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning, and Victor Seastrom. The arrival of talking pictures in 1928–29 gave opportunities to other new stars, many of whom would carry MGM through the 1930s: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald, and Nelson Eddy among them.
MGM was one of the first studios to experiment with filming in Technicolor. Using the two-color Technicolor process then available, MGM filmed portions of The Uninvited Guest (1923), The Big Parade (1925), and Ben–Hur (1925), among others, in the process. In 1928, MGM released The Viking, the first complete Technicolor feature with sound (including a synchronized score and sound effects but no spoken dialogue). MGM's first all-color, "all-talking" sound feature with dialogue was the 1930 musical The Rogue Song. In 1934 MGM included a sequence made in Technicolor's superior new three-color process, a musical number in the otherwise black-and-white The Cat and the Fiddle. The studio then produced a number of three-color short subjects including 1935's musical La Fiesta de Santa Barbara, however MGM waited until 1938 to film a complete feature in the process, Sweethearts with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, the earlier of the popular singing team's two films in color.
From then on, MGM regularly produced several films a year in Technicolor, The Wizard of Oz and Northwest Passage being two of the most notable. MGM also released the enormously successful Technicolor film Gone with the Wind, starring Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler. (Although Gone With the Wind was produced by Selznick International Pictures, it was released by MGM as part of a deal for producer David O. Selznick to obtain the services of Clark Gable. However, the film, being a Selznick International production, begins with that company's logo, rather than the usual MGM roaring lion.)
In addition to a large short subjects program of its own, MGM also released the shorts and features produced by Hal Roach Studios, including comedy shorts starring Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, and Charley Chase. MGM's distribution deal with Roach lasted from 1927 to 1938, and MGM benefited in particular from the success of the popular Laurel and Hardy films. In 1938, MGM purchased the rights to Our Gang and moved the production in-house, continuing production of the successful series of children's comedies until 1944. From 1929 to 1931, MGM produced a series of comedy shorts called All Barkie Dogville Comedies, in which trained dogs were dressed up to parody contemporary films and were voiced by actors. One of the shorts, The Dogway Melody (1930), spoofed MGM's hit 1929 musical Broadway Melody.
MGM produced fifty pictures a year. Loew's theaters were mostly located in New York and the Northeastern United States (although Gone With the Wind had its world premiere at the Loew's Grand in Atlanta, Georgia), so MGM made films that were sophisticated and polished to cater to an urban audience. As the Great Depression deepened, MGM could make a claim its rivals could not: it never lost money, although it did have an occasional disaster like Parnell (1937), Clark Gable's biggest flop. It was the only Hollywood studio that continued to pay dividends during the 1930s.
MGM stars dominated the box office in the '30s, and the studio was credited for inventing the Hollywood star system as well. MGM contracted with The American Musical Academy of Arts Association (now the International Academy of Music Arts and Sciences) to handle all of their press and artist development. The AMAAA's main function was to develop the budding stars and to make them appealing to the public. Stars like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo all reigned as not only the top three figures at the studio, but in Hollywood itself. Garbo started losing her American audience after Queen Christina (1933), as a contract dispute kept her out of Hollywood for two years, and other MGM sex symbol actress Jean Harlow now had a big break and became one of MGM's most admired stars as well; despite Jean Harlow's gain, Garbo still was a big star for MGM after she returned from her absence. Shearer was still a top money maker despite screen appearances becoming scarce, and Joan Crawford continued her box office power up until 1937. MGM would also receive a boost through the man who would become the "King of Hollywood", Clark Gable; Gable's career took off to new heights after he won an Oscar for the 1934 Columbia film It Happened One Night. By 1943, all three had left the studio. Joan Crawford moved to Warner Bros. where her career took a dramatic upturn for the better; Shearer and Garbo never made another film after leaving MGM.
Mayer and Irving Thalberg's relationship began warmly but became estranged; Thalberg preferred literary works to the crowd-pleasers Mayer wanted. Thalberg, always physically frail, was removed as head of production in 1932. Mayer encouraged other staff producers, among them his son-in-law David O. Selznick, but no one seemed to have the sure touch of Thalberg. As Thalberg fell increasingly ill in 1936, Louis Mayer could now serve as his temporary replacement. Rumors flew that Thalberg was leaving to set up his own independent company; his early death in 1936, at age thirty-seven, cost MGM dearly.
As a result of Thalberg's death, Mayer became head of production as well as studio chief, becoming the first million-dollar executive in American history. The company remained profitable, although a change toward "series" pictures (Andy Hardy, Maisie, the Thin Man pictures, et al.) is seen by some as evidence of Mayer's restored influence. Also playing a huge role was Ida Koverman, Mayer's "right hand woman".
Increasingly, before and during World War II, Mayer came to rely on his "College of Cardinals"—senior producers who controlled the studio's output. This management-by-committee may explain why MGM seemed to lose its momentum, developing few new stars and relying on the safety of sequels and bland material. (Dorothy Parker memorably referred to it as "Metro-Goldwyn-Merde.") Production values remained high, and even "B" pictures carried a polish and gloss that made them expensive to mount, and artificial in tone. [neutrality is disputed]After 1940, production was cut from fifty pictures a year to a more manageable twenty-five features per year. It was during this time that MGM released very successful musicals with players such as Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Frank Sinatra, to name just a few.
As audiences drifted away after the war, MGM found it difficult to attract them. While other studios backed away from the popular musicals of the war years, MGM increased its output to as many as five or six each year, roughly one-quarter of its annual output. Such pictures were expensive to produce, requiring a full staff of songwriters, arrangers, musicians, dancers, and technical support, and releasing so many each year affected the company's finances. By the late forties, as MGM's profit margins decreased, word came from Schenck in New York: find "a new Thalberg" who could improve quality while paring costs. Mayer thought he had found this savior in Dore Schary, a writer and producer who had had a couple of successful years running RKO.
Mayer's taste for wholesomeness and "beautiful" movies conflicted with Schary's preference for gritty message pictures. In August 1951, after a period of friendly antagonism with Schary, Mayer was fired. One report says that Mayer called Schenck and New York with an ultimatum—"It's him or me". Mayer tried to stage a boardroom coup to oust his old nemesis, but failed.
Perhaps because of Mayer's leaving (although this has never been confirmed), the credit Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents does not appear on any MGM film made between 1950 and 1957, the year of Louis B. Mayer's death. In films made during those years, the credits segue straight from the roaring lion logo to the title of the film (as in MGM's 1951 film of Show Boat) or, in the case of above-the-title billing, the names of the stars and then the film's title. Beginning in 1957, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents credit was reinstated.
Gradually cutting loose expensive contract actors (perhaps most famously, Judy Garland in 1950), Schary managed to keep the studio running much as it had through the early 1950s though his sensibilities for hard-edged, message movies would never bear much fruit. He would be gone by 1956. The only bright spot was the MGM musicals. Under the aegis of producer Arthur Freed, who was operating what amounted to an independent unit within the studio, MGM produced some well-regarded musicals that would be later acknowledged as classics, among them An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain and The Band Wagon. However, it was a losing fight, as the mass audience preferred to stay home and watch television. An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, as well as the 1951 Technicolor Show Boat (all begun while Mayer was still in power), were large box office successes; The Band Wagon was a modest success. But the 1954 Brigadoon, and 1955's Kismet, both filmed in Cinemascope, were flops. On the other hand, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, also made in Cinemascope, and released in 1954, became not only a huge critical success but a box office hit.
In 1954, as a settlement of the government's restraint-of-trade action, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. 334 US 131 (1948), Loews, Inc. gave up control of MGM. It would take another five years before the interlocking arrangements were completely undone, by which time both Loews and MGM were sinking.