The death of Debbie Reynolds on Dec. 28 generated an outpouring of press references to how her prime in Hollywood — often referred to as the days of the ‘studio system’ — is long gone.
That’s true, but the observation somewhat overlooks the remarkable manner that the often derided studios took raw young talent, and molded them — formally or informally — into the kind of classic movie star that Reynolds became.
She was a teenage naif from Burbank, California who in the late Forties parlayed a beauty contest win into a studio contract. She arrived at MGM wide-eyed, emerging over a fairly short period as an accomplished screen presence — thanks to the studio.
How did the studios manage to do this? What exactly was “the studio,” and how did it operate? And what did a studio look like?
A marvelous, lavishly-illustrated coffee table volume titled, M-G-M — Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan answers some of these questions.
There were at least six big studios operating in Hollywood’s peak years roughly from 1930 to 1950, including RKO, Paramount, Universal, Fox, Columbia and, the biggest of them all, MGM. Our three authors estimate that a fifth of all movies shot in the U.S. were “partially shot somewhere at MGM studios.” (The studio also sent a very young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland to school; see photo above.)
As it happens it is Debbie Reynolds who wrote the book’s introduction, recalling her first viewing as “a normally innocent teenager” the huge Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sign atop Stage 6 in 1950.
“I used to spend days walking around the big, busy lot while they tried to figure out what to do with me. I’d hang out in the Makeup Department or the Music and Property Departments, or the Scoring Stages, or Rehearsal Halls, or out on the back lots.
“I never dreamt or cared that the composers and writers and performers I was mingling with, and not taking particularly seriously, were the finest and most famous in the world.”
The truly interesting point of departure of “Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” is its emphasis on process rather than final outcome. The book’s focus is not in the product at all, but rather the factory responsible for that product. Our goal to to preserve in print and memory…the actual physical place that was once Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.”
And part of that memory and that place was a bug-eyed Debbie Reynolds going to ‘school.’