We at Classic Movie Chat repeatedly make references to “the studio” as in “so-and-so studio head did this or that” or “so and so was under a studio contract” or “the studio system.”

Well, what exactly was “the studio,” and how did it operate? And what did a studio look like?

Hello, everybody.  Joe Morella and Frank Segers back again to try (with some help) and offer a glimpse of what a sprawling studio in Hollywood’s golden age looked like, and how it operated.  Take a look at the early studio photo (above) and let your imagination roam.

Better yet, go to your bookstore or library and pick out a marvelous new, lavishly-illustrated coffee table volume titled, “M-G-M — Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester and Michael Troyan.

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.” 

In her introduction to the book, Debbie Reynolds recalls 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, of 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.”

Thus the picture book is chocked full of strikingly reproduced photos of various constructed sets: church alleys, a French quarter, waterfront streets, small town replicas, the ‘Ben Hur set,’ Potemkin villages and full formal gardens (used in 1952’s “Scaramouche.”) We get a peak at the lavishly appointed office of studio chief Louis B. Mayer as well as legendary production head Irving Thalberg’s digs.

We get to see all of the places Debbie Reynolds’ hung out in the early Fifties.  There’s a nifty spread covering the ‘Esther Williams swimming pool.’ The Bastille set used in 1935’s “Tale of Two Cities” is shown as is the prison set belonging to 1930’s “The Big House.”

We also get to see the payroll department, the property rooms, and the extensive studio costume collections and much more. Then there is a look at the schoolhouse where youthful MGM performers were tutored in between set visits.

Margaret O’Brien, MGM’s answer to Fox’s Shirley Temple in the Forties, recalls growing up on the lot, and being schooled in the famous white stucco bungalow with a red-tiled roof called the “Little Red Schoolhouse.” Among the school’s graduates were Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Roddy McDowell, Jane Powell and Elizabeth Taylor.

“Under the regulations of the State Board of Education and the Producers Association, Metro’s young stars worked an eight-hour day at the studio: four hours each for schooling and performing,” according “Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot.” (There’s a shot of the schoolhouse on page 77.)

Although “Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot” emphasizes the studio’s work routines and its physical assets, there is a fair sprinkling of stars to gaze at especially on page 267, which boasts a 1948 group shot of studio contractees — one of those “more stars than there are in heaven” ensembles.

Shown are nearly 60 grade-A stars including Fred Astaire, Clark Gable, June Allyson, Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Red Skelton, Frank Sinatra and Esther Williams.  So, get your hands on this enlightening book and take an up-close and personal tour of what the MGM studio was back then.

Here’s a shot of the Metro lot in 1922 before it became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.


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