MGM: When the Lion Roars

Let’s just cut right to the chase here:  if you have any interest at all in the history of MGM studios, MGM: When the Lion Roars is essential viewing.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s a six-hour, three-part documentary from 1992 that chronicles the rise and fall of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.  Part one covers the earliest days of MGM and some of their silent epics like Ben Hur and Greed.  We learn about their first wave of top stars like John Gilbert, Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, the studio’s rise to the top, and the episode culminates with the death of Irving Thalberg.  Part two picks up with the aftermath of Thalberg’s death and takes a look at how even in the wake of that loss, the studio maintains its image of being the premiere dream factory.  The studio thrives throughout the mid-to-late 1930s, but by the end of the decade, a lot of MGM’s original stars were on the way out and stars like Mickey Rooney, Lana Turner, and Judy Garland took their places.  Episode three begins in the early 1940s with Meet Me in St. Louis and covers some of their golden era musicals starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Leslie Caron.  But it also focuses a lot on the business end of things including the departure of Louis B. Mayer, the rise of television, and the numerous other difficulties that brought down the greatest movie studio in the world.

The documentary is hosted by Patrick Stewart, whose narration can be a little LOL-tastic at times, and features tons of interviews with people like Mickey Rooney, Esther Williams, Debbie Reynolds and Stanley Donen.  Just having so many first hand accounts of what MGM was like makes this a truly valuable resource, especially because it also features interviews from several key players who are no longer living, such as Lillian Gish, June Allyson, Jackie Cooper, and Van Johnson.  It’s a far better representation of MGM than all of the That’s Entertainment! movies put together.  I love re-watching it every now and then because it’s so great to hear to all those stories and being able to watch clips of so many spectacular movies.  All three parts are excellent, but I admit to rarely watching part three.  Part three gets pretty depressing near the end when it gets into all the props and costumes being auctioned off and seeing footage of all those famous backlots being demolished.  It’s not just because of how many classic movies were filmed there, but of what it represents — the true end of an era.  MGM really was a dream factory, we’re never going to see a movie studio like that ever again and nothing drives that point home quite like seeing that legendary Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios sign being dismantled and replaced with a very 1980s-looking Lorimar Telepictures sign.  It’s such a well produced documentary, I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough to classic film fans.  It may be long, but the fact that it’s broken down into two-hour episodes makes it very easy to handle.