07 January 2020

MGM: More Stars Than There Are in Heaven


On New Year’s Turner Classic Movies ran all the That’s Entertainment movies. Amy and I caught a few minutes of them. The host appearances were largely filmed on the MGM backlot, or what was left of it at the time. And that got me thinking about some of my own experiences there and an interview I did with Steve Bingen, one of the authors of the highly acclaimed book: MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. The interview is from a while back but hopefully still of interest. This is part one of two.

Only one studio in the golden days of Hollywood could claim as its motto "more stars than there are in heaven" and actually mean it: MGM – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Not only did MGM have more stars than in heaven it also had more backlots—the place where dreams were made.  In Culver City, CA, besides the main studio lot, were eight backlots, depending on how one counts them.  I have the distinction of being one of the last people to have shot a film on MGM Backlot #2, one of the two main backlots, which is an interesting story in itself, but for another time.

Because of that, I was contacted by Steven Bingen, an archivist at Warner Brothers, who, along with Mike Troyan and Steve Sylvester have authored a book called MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT—with a foreword by Debbie Reynolds.

Unfortunately MGM ain't what it used to be and, in fact, the main lot, the only lot left, is now owned by Sony.  All the backlots met with the wrecker's ball and made way for condos or houses.  "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," as Joanie Mitchell once sang.  Luckily the photos, memories and stories of people who remember the backlots have been collected in this book.

What follows is Part I of my interview with Steve Bingen about the book and the backlots.  Please note that the interview was done before the book was finalized and released so that is reflected in the interview's wording.

Paul: Thank you for dropping by, Steve. What gave you the idea for this book—what was your inspiration?

Steve: 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, then 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.

What we wanted to do with our book was 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.

More stars than there are in heaven.

Tell us about the book and what makes it unique.

Let me just say that the book is formatted as a "virtual tour" of MGM Studios.  The text mostly consists of a walk around the lot, circa 1960, with every major set and department described and illustrated.  We've included hundreds of unseen photos of the place as well, many of which were saved from catacombs and basements and archives which no living person has accessed in decades.  I'm not sure about the "not living" people.

MGM Backlot #2

What did you learn about MGM and/or the various backlots that was new or really interesting?

I thought it was fascinating and haunting how many famous movies and television shows shot on that lot for which no one ever suspected that what they were watching was a backlot at all.  Even if audiences were watching a set they had already seen in hundreds, thousands of other films, people seemed to accept that a curved European street was Paris one week and Transylvania the next just because a visual cue, a street sign or an establishing shot told them it was. Something like a fifth of all the movies made in the United States, historically were made somewhere on the MGM backlot!  Sadly, and decades after the fact, this only proves how successfully these facades were at doing what they were designed to do.

Even today in an era of wide-spread location shooting and so-called digital backlots, Hollywood's few surviving actual backlots manage to succeed in constantly fooling today's "sophisticated" audiences time after time.  I recall watching the Super Bowl on TV recently, and counting at least 4 commercials during the broadcast which replicated real locations using current LA backlot sets which every single person in that game's vast worldwide audience had seen hundreds of times before. I can't help but wonder how many of those people, besides me, have ever suspected that was the case?

What were some of the movies shot on them?

In the book we came up with a list of every major backlot set with the titles of films shot on that set listed underneath.  I'm not sure how much of that list is going to be published, and in what form, but as  it stands now those lists alone, in reduced print, equal over 40 pages of text, and frankly are not even close to being comprehensive!  It amuses me that people write books about, and make pilgrimages to, locations where their favorite scenes from their favorite films were shot.  You know, Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills where a single scene in "Rebel Without a Cause" was recorded for example. Well, that location pales in significance to any single inch of any single movie studio—which has probably hosted hundreds, thousands, of films across the decades.  I sometimes drive though those vast anonymous subdivisions which were built where MGM's Lot Two once stood, and I can't help but wonder if the people in those tract homes on that land, know, or care, how historic their property really is. Movie-wise that real estate is more important than any single block of Hollywood Boulevard ever was!

Anyway, I think it's kind of fun to hopscotch through these lists and realize how versatile these sets were, and how much of our shared movie memories were created on them.


How and why did you hook up with me?

Now that's an interesting story.  I don't know if readers of this blog are aware of this but Paul directed one of the last movies ever made on the MGM backlot.  That 40 page chronological list I mentioned of films shot at the studio ends with his name on it.

I didn't know any of this.  I had noticed that there were a few very tantalizing stills floating around on the internet of the studio in its very decrepit very last days.  I couldn't figure out what film these stills were from or what movie was seen in production in them.  I started asking around on the sites where these "holy grail" shots had been posted and that finally led Paul and I to a meeting where he was good enough to loan me some of these same stills and describe the strange production history of his picture.  I'm not going to tell that story here because I can't do so as well as he can, but needless to say it is in my book, and hopefully some of those pictures will appear there as well.  (The photo selection is still being assembled [at the time of the interview]). Let me just say that the history of Paul's movie quite a tale.  Ask him to tell it to you…

MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT is available in bookstores and at Amazon.  Click here.

In Part II find out about more about MGM. Stay tuned.

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And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


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I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.

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16 comments:

John Floyd said...

Great column, Paul. As you know, I love this kind of thing. I've seen the Universal Studios lot, like about a zillion other people, but never anything at MGM--I must get that book.

I attended a month-long IBM class once in L.A., and when a bunch of us drove out to Griffith Park one day and were strolling around and everyone was talking about the pretty grounds, I was thinking mostly about REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. I think I was born on the wrong side of the country.

Looking forward to the second part of this interview!

Eve Fisher said...

Love this, and very much looking forward to Part 2.
I had a friend, a gaffer, who lived close to and worked at The Lot - Samuel L. Goldwyn's studios. If you had nothing else to do, you could hang out around the gates and watch the people come and go - sometimes you could even get in and watch things happening. But things were much, much looser in the 70s.

GBPool said...

There is nothing like the tales of Old Hollywood. It's too bad they got rid of the streets. They could have continued to film there and what about the tours they could have had. At least the history of that time is still available in books and those movies.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Always interested in stories about old Hollywood. This looks good. Good column.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, John. Glad you enjoyed it. The only thing left of MGM though is the main lot and that’s Sony now. All the backlots were sold off a long time ago and turned into housing (or mostly housing). Most of the studios have sold off their backlots. All of Century City used to be 20th Century-Fox’s backlot. They still have their main lot left, of course, but the backlot is gone. And Universal seems to be more of theme park these days, though they still do have their backlot. There used to be studios and backlots everywhere. There was even a huge one at Sunset and Pacific Coast Highway.

And I always think of Rebel Without a Cause when I’m near Griffith Park or at the Observatory.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Eve. That really does surprise me that they’d let you in to the studio without business. I once had a meeting at Warner Brothers, though at the time it was probably The Burbank Studios (long story as now it’s WB again) and whoever the meeting was with, I forget who, forgot to leave me a drive-on pass. But the gate guard liked the logo my T shirt and let me on…

Paul D. Marks said...

Gayle, I think when Kirkorian took over MGM he wante to be in the hotel business more than the movie biz. But I hated to see it go, along with all the other things from Old Hollywood that are gone.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, O’Neil.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Great article Paul! As an editor I’ve got to work on just about all the lots. Honestly, I’m stuck in the cutting room most of the time, but when I can I’ll borrow a golf cart and tool around the back lots. MGM is one that I never got to work on. Like many great places in Hollywood, it was gone too soon.

Leigh Lundin said...

I enjoyed the 'backlot tour'.

Disney World Studio (formerly Disney/MGM Studios) features 'backlot sets'. Whereas movie sets are manufactured, the 'sets' at WDW are replicas, purpose built for tourists. In other words, they weren't used to make movies, but pretend to have made movies while revealing film secrets like forced perspective and building façades.

It's just not the same.

Congratulations on the book!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Larry. Well, you get to see the “great views” inside of the editing room. Like you, I’ve been on all the lots. But what I find funny is when I was living in West L.A., literally about a half block from 20th Century-Fox that, of course, was the studio I had the least business with. The most was at Warner Brothers/The Burbank Studios, which was about the farthest away. But you know if I moved to the valley, then most of my business would have been with Fox…

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Leigh. So, what you’re saying about Disney World Studio is that it’s a façade of a façade. I love that!

Eve Fisher said...

Paul, it all depended on who you were with.

Paul D. Marks said...

That makes sense, Eve. But I had thought that you were just hanging around without knowing anyone.

Abdullah said...
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lisa ciarfella said...

Hey Paul,
Fascinating interview. Especially dig the pics of you on the backlot!
And they sure did "pave paradise and put up a parking lot."

lucky for us you're here to tell the tales!