Wednesday, March 16, 2011

MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot by teven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan

One of the most pleasant benefits of running a book review blog is getting free books, mostly pre-pub review copies but a few published editions as well. Authors, publicists, and publishers offer me titles almost every week. I say "no thanks" more often than not because the titles do not interest me. I suspect many of these book advocates do not bother to check the blog to see what kinds of books I read, for I am declining steamy romances, conspiracy thrillers, and miracle diet books with regularity. When I do accept a book, such as a biography or a history, I caution the giver that I will only review it if I enjoy it. The latest such book is MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, a big photo book celebrating the history of movie making.

As the title suggests, Bingen and company's book is more about the MGM maze of sets and soundstages than actors, directors, producers, and studio executives, though they all come into the story as well. Through maps and historic photos, the authors take readers on an extensive tour of MGM lots One (44 acres), Two (37 acres), and Three (65 acres), where they estimate twenty percent of America's 20th century feature films were made, including the Andy Hardy and Tarzan series, the beloved MGM musicals Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain, and the aquatic films of Esther Williams, as well as TV series, such as The Twilight Zone and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The authors show how the flat lots of Culver City, California were made into the streets of New York, Western frontier towns, African jungles, and ancient Rome.

The authors also identify and describe all of the administrative and support staff buildings. There were luxurious dressing rooms for the stars, a cafeteria with Mrs. Mayer's own chicken noodle soup, and endless prop departments. I particularly liked learning about the research department, which was a library with 20,000 books and a 250,000 item clipping file. The irony here is that a team of researchers would report the facts, and then the producers would play fast with history for the sake of story anyhow. I also liked learning about the combined newsstand/barbershop where the barbers sang four-part harmony. In some ways, it really was a magical place.

What happened to it all? In the final twenty-four pages, the authors recount the slow dismantling of the MGM empire, highlighting executive errors in judgment in script selection, bad contracts with outside firms, and money-losing real estate deals. No one seemed to have a clear vision after Louis B. Mayer was dethroned. The MBAs who held more sway than career filmmakers essentially gave the assets away. Even when Universal Studios discovered that tourists would line up to take historic studio tours, MGM executives remained determined to bulldoze over fifty years of set building. Sadly, housing developments cover most of the land today.

I know several movie buffs who will enjoy MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot and am putting this copy into our library collection. Other public libraries should consider it, too.

Bingen, Steven. MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot. Santa Monica Press, 2011. ISBN 9781595800558.

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