Monday, February 28, 2011

M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot - Interview With Author Steve Bingen

M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot

Watching magicians can be quite exciting. Trying to figure out how magicians pull off their magical tricks is sometimes just as intriguing. I feel the same way about classic films. As much as I like watching classic films, I equally enjoy seeing how and where those films were made. And if studios were magicians, M-G-M would have once been the most magical of them all. Thanks to the authors Steve Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, there new book M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot (available in stores and online now), reveals all those glorious M-G-M locations.

I recently purchased this book at my local Barnes & Noble and it has already made it to the top of my list of favorite books. The hardcover book is filled with numerous stunning photographs of the M-G-M studio, many of which have never been seen before. Every nook and cranny of the studio is documented in images and in writing. One of my favorite parts of the book is a section that details all the different studio lots with lists of hundreds of films that used each location. There are even notations explaining how the location appears in each film. I don't think I will watch another M-G-M film without referencing back to this book!

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask author Steve Bingen a few questions about his latest book. His answers were all quite interesting. You can read our exchange below:

Thanks Steve for taking the time to answer some questions about your fascinating new book. Let’s get straight to the subject of this book. What is it about? What will readers find inside the pages?

I’m sure you have noticed that there been hundreds of books allegedly written about Hollywood.  Any Barns and Noble has a big shelf budging with them. But almost all of these books aren’t really about Hollywood at all.  Most “movie” books are about the product, the films, and about the stars or makers of these films…

It seemed so odd and mysterious to us.  There have been books written about MGM before, and I recommend them all.  But there was always a major part of the equation, maybe the major part of that equation missing on each and every one of them. All of these books would inevitably contain one aerial shot of the lot – usually the same one – and a single paragraph, maybe, about soundstages and backlots at the studio. And that would be it! 

This struck all three of us as mysterious.  It always seemed to us that if you were writing about a place, and MGM was indeed an actual physical place, than why would an author choose to tell us what amounted to virtually nothing about that place?  People always describe Hollywood’s studios as “dream factories.”   Well that phrase isn’t bad for what it is, and anyone who was there will tell you that life in those dream factories was if anything, even more interesting than the product the factory was producing.  Yet no one had ever talked about that factory.  Ever.

Think of all the movies you grew up with where Jerry Lewis (or Pee Wee Herman) would break into a Hollywood studio and a have all of these Oz-like adventures.  That’s what we wanted to do with our book, to zoom in on that single aerial photo in everyone else’s book, to climb the fences of one of those dream factories and look around a bit.  

Where did the idea come from to write this book? Why the MGM lot?

In a way, MGM was a microcosm for the whole Hollywood studio experience.  Thomas Ince, and later Thalberg and Mayer were the first filmmakers to base their business model on the factories in Detroit -- where an entire car could be finished on a predetermined schedule within the walls of the factory.   No one had ever tried that with movies before and it happened first on the property which would become MGM.  So the whole idea of a Hollywood studio began right there.  

I originally wanted to tell the stories of all 7 of the major studios, but my partners, Steven X. Sylvester and Michal Troyan convinced me that the story we wanted to tell was really within the 4 walls of MGM.  

There was one more reason for choosing MGM as well. The other 6 Studios in town are somewhat intact, even today.  If you can arrange a tour or hop the fence you can still see them.  But MGM, as a physical place, is gone forever.  It’s like Camelot…

It’s my understanding that MGM once had the largest backlot. Can you tell us about the different lots?

It’s surprisingly hard to determine size based on actual acreage.  The lands the studios controlled were always fluid and included annex studios, entire lots in other countries, and leased properties.  Warners, Fox, RKO, and Paramount all had enormous ranches in the San Fernando Valley or Malibu which each totaled thousands of acres.  But like Universal’s 400 acre main studio, much of the property was never developed.  Universal, of course, eventually used all of those acres for their theme park.   MGM’s  nearly 200 acre backlot was considered by the industry to have the largest and most jaw-dropping variety of standing sets, rivaled perhaps only  by Fox’s  old lot  in what would become Century City.

Today most stars use Star Waggons or some type of trailer as a dressing room. Can you tell us about the buildings used as dressing rooms during the MGM glory days?

You’ve probably noticed that the company “Star Waggons” is actually a pun based on the name of its founder, actor Lyle Waggoner.  Before he came up with the idea of trailer/dressing rooms, the studios had wooden boxes on wheels with basic amenities inside, which were towed out to the soundstages or backlots, presumably with the performer rattling around inside.  I have a photo of Myrna Loy in 1938 emerging from such a contraption.  But MGM had 3 lavish complexes of permanent dressing rooms on their main lot and seemed to prefer to limo their talent back and forth to where they were working from these suites instead.  I’ve seen the insides of some of theses surviving boxes, and suspect the talent preferred this as well.

Didn’t Marion Davies have a bungalow on the lot built by William Randolph Hearst?

That “bungalow” was actually a 14 room mansion!  Interestingly enough, when Marion left the studio for presumably greener pastures at Warners she took the entire complex along.  We have a photo in the book of the move to Burbank, which has never been published before and which I’m very proud of.  Interestingly, a section of that dressing room, actually an annex structure, still exists today at Warner Bros. as office space for producer Joel Silver.  Maybe it’s significant that one of the most successful producers in modern Hollywood is operating out of what was originally an outbuilding for a mere actress…

Were there any other divas on the lot or any executives that had extravagant offices?

Marion was an anomaly.  Because of Hearst she was untouchable and the regular rules didn’t apply.  Make no mistake, the stars and upper management were well treated, but with the exception of Garbo, there was probably more coddling of talent at other studios.  Everyone at these other studios wanted to be at MGM, so they were perhaps better treated than had they in fact actually been there.  Actor Richard Anderson, who did 24 films at the studio, told us that MGM instead put all the money on screen.  Studio talent realized that even if their dressing rooms might have been bigger at Paramount or elsewhere, this was compensated for by the prestige of appearing in an MGM picture.

Did you visit the MGM lot in person and try to match areas of the studio that still exist with historic photos?

I really taxed some friendships on the current Sony lot, and everyone there was very gracious in letting us snoop about and ask questions and take photos.  There are some “then and now” comparisons in the book, but if given a choice, if it was a tossup between a contemporary photo and a vintage one, we’d always choose the earlier photo.  Although the architecture over there changes so fast, some photos we took before publications are probably already dated.

Was it difficult based on the changes the lot has taken over the years?

We always had problems deciding if a building on the site of, say the property building -- which is offices now, by the way, should still be considered the original structure, repurposed, or a new creation in the same location.  At what point does a building loose its original identity and become something else?  Marc Wannamaker, Hollywood’s premiere historian, was helpful in this regard, but at the end of the day, we just had to follow our gut, and our story, and see where it took us.

I read in your bio that you were once a Warner Bros. tour guide. I was once a Paramount page/tour guide and I remember how exciting it was to explore the studio lot each day. Did your inner tour guide enthusiasm come out while researching this book?

I originally wanted the format of the book to literally be a tour of MGM on a predetermined day in 1960.  The entire text would have consisted of what a visitor would have seen and heard and gawked at as he or she traveled the lot form corner to corner on that single day.  Fortunately my partners talked me out of that! But there is still a lot of that “tour” in the text. That’s why I insisted on including detailed maps of the property pegged with numbers corresponding to the different “stops” as described in the text.  

When I was a guide at Warner’s I kept meeting hundreds of guests from all over the world.  Most of them had never been to Hollywood before.  But they all felt like they had a connection with the studio.  And of course they did.  They had all been to the lot before, hundreds of times, through the movies made there.  It took us the better part of a decade to sell our idea of a book, but that whole time I’d think of all those people visiting from all over the world, and I never lost hope that a “studio tour book” was a viable idea. 

I’m not sure why, but I always am interested in studio commissaries. How was the commissary designed at MGM? Were there different areas for stars, executives and crew?

Studio management, Mayer in particular I suspect, prided itself in being extremely democratic, at least outwardly.  Mayer liked seeing and photographing stars eating with set painters.  But in actuality stars had more in common with other stars, so little communities quickly developed.  The writer’s table, interestingly enough, seemed to be the most desired little club to be invited to sit at, particularly if you weren’t a writer.  Although, most of the people who later wrote about the social life in the commissary happened to be writers, so I’ve sometimes wondered if they didn’t overstate their own importance in the social structure just a bit for posterity.

The MGM lot really sounds like a city by itself. Can you tell us about some of the other facilities on the lot that made the studio self sufficient?

Roger Mayer, a very insightful later-day executive who was kind enough to talk to us used to say that “You could get everything done on the lot except be born or buried -- and there was a mortuary down the block.”  

This never made it into the book, but someone also mentioned that there was even a person on hand whose title was “assistant bosom inspector.”  Apparently his job was to know exactly how much cleavage the Breen code would allow and to make sure that particular line wasn’t trampled. I’d love to have sat in on this gentlemen’s job interview.

What were some of the most interesting things you discovered about the MGM lot? Was there anything that surprised you?

I think all three of us were somewhat surprised about how much non-MGM production used to happen on the lot during the classic era.  It’s known that MGM very actively rented their facilities in the 1960’s and 70’s to outside productions, but I don’t think even most historians realize how often studios used each others factories during earlier decades.  And it’s almost impossible to track down records because the practice was apparently somewhat informal.  It’s important to realize that there were only 7 companies and some smaller outfits that could have taken advantage of all the services MGM would have offered.  So there was no price list or advertising to the fact that MGM’s sets and technical departments were available.   Just the other day I was watching a WB picture Santiago – and out of nowhere I recognized the paddle wheel built for MGM’ Show Boat.  I’d had no idea!  I guess this will be happening to me for the rest of my life.
Let’s talk about what it took to get this book made. Where did your research start? Where or who did you go to in order to find the information you were looking for?

We were very lucky in that I’m a staff historian at Warner Bros. Acres and acres of materials from MGM ended up over there due to the Turner purchase of MGM.  Hundreds and hundreds of photographs of the backlot that would surely have been destroyed otherwise were very lucky to have found a safe haven at Warner Bros.   Very little of this material had been seen in decades and most of it had never been published before.  I felt like Indiana Jones opening the doors to a lost temple when I came across this treasure trove.  I still do.  And I’m eternally grateful to WB for allowing me to make this material available.

Tell us a little about your collaborators on this book. How did you all come together on this project?

Stephen X Sylvester is, like me, a lifelong movie buff.  Unlike me he is also a collector.  He had materials on the studio which even the Warner Bros. Archives couldn’t provide.  In fact we met when he arranged for Warners to access part of his collection.   Steve actually visited the backlot before it was destroyed, twice.  And I felt like that was immeasurably important.  Michael Troyan is the author of “A Rose for Mrs. Miniver: The Life of Greer Garson” – which is the best book about an MGM star ever. So it just seemed like a natural fit for us to collaborate. 

Did you start with one idea in mind for what the book would be when finished or did that idea evolve over the course of your research?

As I said, it was originally to be a book of tours of studio backlot(s).  Mike and Steve had to force me to even include the front lot.  I’m glad, in that one instance anyway, that I listened to them!

How long did it take to complete the book, starting with your initial research and ending with having the book published?

I don’t even want to think about it!  Maybe, well, 10 years…  Someone once had the nerve to ask us if we were doing it for the money!  Well, If I were to calculate all the hours and years burned away, we all would have made a lot more money picking potatoes...

Did you come across any roadblocks or face any challenges along the way?

Contrary to what you might expect, the biggest problem wasn’t the research, or the writing, or collaboration between 3 people with 3 opinions.  The biggest roadblock was convincing a publisher that this was a book at all!  Editors and agents kept saying; “there have been lots of books about MGM!”  And we kept telling them, “No, there has never been a book about MGM, or any other studio.”  They just didn’t get it.

What was the most fun part about doing this book?

Oh, the friends we made along the way.  We all loved interviewing survivors of the studio who used to tell us how they always thought MGM would outlast the pyramids – and they all seemed so grateful and appreciative that someone was trying to recreate the place in book form.  

What was the least fun part?

The sad part is that many of these wonderful studio employees have since passed away and will never get to see the book completed.  I think all three of us feel like we let these people down to a certain degree.  We were really looking forward to showing them the book and what we, and they, had accomplished.

Do you have a favorite MGM film or films? Were you able to have a different appreciation for those films after seeing where they were filmed?

I can’t speak for Mike and Steve, but my perspective has been perhaps permanently skewered.  I’ve spent a not insubstantial chunk of my life looking behind actors trying to identify the sets they were standing on!  Hardly the way to watch a movie.  Therefore I’ve learned to love films which utilized the backlots in interesting or unexpected ways.

I’ll give you an example.  For a 1935 film called I Love My Wife “Spanish Street” was redressed to play Greece.  Then they immediately flooded the same street with water so it could play Venice for Anna Karenina. 1935 audiences would have seen both these films, yet never realized they were looking at the same spot – which of course was in neither Spain, nor Greece, nor Italy, but Culver City.  You know anyone could go to Europe and take beautiful pictures of these places.  But I hope people will finally appreciate the wonder of getting the same effect, with more artistry, on a studio backlot.  And the experience of watching these movies is actually enhanced, not detracted from, as people sometimes say, by the knowledge of this.  What could be more mysterious and more wonderful than Venice reconstructed in California, and With Greta Garbo thrown in for good measure?

Any cool quick facts or trivia you want to share about the MGM lot?

Any time you read any trivia about the studio, don’t believe it.  The studio used to lie about everything!  We quickly learned to disregard anything Metro Goldwyn Mayer ever said about itself.  From how many stars they had under contract to how many stages they had on their lot - they uniformly and without the slightest degree of guilt got all the facts consistently and constantly wrong.  The most amusing thing about this practice is that they wouldn’t have had to do any of this.  The lot was so outrageous and astonishing and bizarre that in this case they really didn’t need the ballyhoo.  I guess it was just a habit.

Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope that your readers will, wherever they are from, and whatever they do in life, put the book down and feel like they have actually been to the studio and seen its marvels.  And I hope they will have enjoyed having us as their guides!

To learn more about the book M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, visit the official site here. Also, the authors will be doing a book signing at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, March 13, 2011 at 4pm. Following the book signing will be a double-feature screening of the MGM films The Band Wagon (1953) and That's Entertainment (1974).


Philip Mershon said...

Oh Robby, what a fantastic interview. And expensive too, 'cause now I have to have this book! Better get out and start hawking my own tour!

As always, thank you, thank you, thank you!

John Cox said...

Fantastic interview. Thank you. This book is a must buy.

Anonymous said...

Amazing interview, Robbie! I'm excited about checking out the book!

VP81955 said...

Wonderful interview on what appears to be a wonderful book.


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