July 12th, 2010

carole lombard 01
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This fall, vicariously visit Leo's lair

Zealots about a particular subject not only want to know about what happened, but where. For example, avid baseball fans are fascinated with ballparks, even those that are no longer with us (such as Griffith Stadium, shown above from the left-field bleachers, home of the Washington Senators for half a century).

The same thing applies to classic Hollywood buffs; they have a passionate interest in not only the films, actors and directors of the period, but the studios where they were made. They are hallowed ground -- that a favorite actor or actress performed his or her craft at a particular studio means as much as that Walter Johnson, arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball history, struck out thousands of batters from the mound at Griffith Stadium.

The studio whose site we're about to discuss should probably be compared to Yankee Stadium rather than Griffith Stadium, where the Senators rarely contended. Like the Yankees dominated baseball for decades, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was deemed the premier studio of filmdom, epitomizing excellence in cinema just as the Yankees did on the diamond.

That's what the MGM lot in Culver City looked like in late 1932 (one of the billboards on the corner is promoting "Grand Hotel," its blockbuster of that year). It was a colossal complex, releasing more than 50 features a year at its peak along with shorts and cartoons while employing thousands.

There's a studio on that site these days, but it's Columbia, the one-time upstart later bought by Sony. And much of the acreage there these days now is home to apartments and houses; before MGM vacated the site, its owners sold off not only the land and razed the sets, but sold many of the props and costumes associated with the legendary studio.

Just as the original Yankee Stadium was remodeled in the 1970s and is now being torn down after a successor to the Stadium (one replicating many of its original features) was built a block north, the site once home to "more stars than there are in heaven" is more or less history.

But all is not lost. Thanks to a book coming out this fall, the home of Leo the lion will roar again.

It's called "M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot," and it tells the story of the fabled home of Powell and Loy, Gable and Harlow, Garbo and Gilbert (for a while, anyway). The subtitle is "A Lavish Illustrated History of Hollywood's Greatest Movie Studio" (obviously, "Hollywood" here is used in a figurative, not literal, sense). What will it have?

* More than 350 never before published photos and illustrations of the studio, stages and the backlot sets.

* Never before published maps of Lot 1, Lot 2 and Lot 3 that put the photos in their proper context and take the reader on a “virtual” tour.

* An extensive list of the M-G-M titles that matches the films with the backlot sets utilized during their production. (Wonder if the list includes Carole Lombard's lone film at MGM, "The Gay Bride"?)

Say what you will about the "dark side" of MGM, the "fixers" that protected the stars from public scandal or the often-hypocritical actions of executives like Louis B. Mayer. MGM made scores of classic films from its founding in 1924 until its decline in the 1960s, and this promises to be a delightful document of those many triumphs. To return to baseball terminology, I can't imagine this book being anything other than a home run. (And getting back to the Yankees, let us note the passing of Bob Sheppard, Yankee Stadium's beloved public address announcer for more than 50 years, who died Sunday at age 99.)

To learn more about this book, visit http://www.mgmbacklot.info/ -- it even includes a link to a 1935 James A. FitzPatrick "Traveltalk" on Los Angeles in three-strip Technicolor.
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