Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM, isn't much to look at these days, mainly relegated to a sexy library of old movies and the rare sighting in an actual theater. (You may have noticed its famous roaring lion logo in front of the recent Hobbit movies.) That wasn't always the case. Back in the day, MGM was the unquestioned king of the cinematic cage, and The Wizard of Oz arrived at the height of the studio's power.
MGM started as a branch of the Loews theater chain, whose owner, Marcus Loew, needed a reliable source of actual movies to show in his theaters. He started Metro pictures in 1919, then bought up Louis B. Mayer Pictures in 1924, keeping Louis B. Mayer himself on to run the studio in Hollywood. (Loew lived in New York, and the commute was a bit of a bear.) Throw Goldwyn pictures into the mix, and the newly minted Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures was born, with Mayer and producer Irving Thalberg running the show. ("Loew," btw, is German for "lion," which explains how Leo the Lion became their official mascot.)
All the Stars in the Sky
From the beginning, MGM adopted a "go big or go home" approach to filmmaking. They cultivated movie stars and pushed them as big selling points. "More stars than there are in heaven" was their tag line, and they meant it. Cinema icons like Clark Gable, James Stewart, Joan Crawford, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Greta Garbo all came from their stable.
They also specialized in elaborate and expensive productions, starting with 1925's Ben-Hur and continuing with a series of high-end musicals throughout the 1930s. Technicolor, an early colorization process that they invested heavily in, paid dividends with all those expensive sets and flashy costumes which seemed to pop off the screen, wowing audiences used to black-and-white movies.
The Biggest Movie Company in the World
And boy did the formula work.
There was a Depression on and people needed an escape from their problems: preferably as pretty as possible and featuring gorgeous people with no apparent problems. Nothing like a film featuring expertly choreographed dancing girls in beautiful color to lift people's spirits. Mayer cultivated a strong management philosophy that could crank those movies out like clockwork. Even when they ran into trouble, like they did with The Wizard of Oz, they had the structure in place to send someone to the rescue. When one director didn't work out, they could just plug in another, and keep merrily rolling along. (More on that in our "Directors" section.)
Until the end of the 1950s, the formula made them the undisputed kings of Hollywood. How big? Well if you adjust the numbers for inflation, their biggest movie, Gone With the Wind, is still the all-time box office champ: ahead of Avatar, Star Wars, Titanic and any superhero movie you can name. Their string of classics includes the likes of Singin' in the Rain, The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Guys and Dolls, Forbidden Planet, The Time Machine and North by Northwest. Oh yeah, and The Wizard of Oz was its baby too. Clearly Mayer and the boys were doing something right.
The Slow Decline
Sadly for them, their business model featured a fairly serious design flaw: their revenue for any given year was completely dependent on one gigantic break-out hit to handle the ups and downs of the box office. When that hit didn't hit, the whole circus tent just kind of collapsed on them. And as the '50s turned into the '60s, they found themselves unable to adapt to the changing times. One flop turned into two, then three, and suddenly the untouchable lion started to look like a bit of a mouse.
As the '60s turned to the '70s, output slowed even more. MGM sold off parts of its business and even partnered with United Artists for a while to try and capture the old magic. It didn't happen. By the mid-'80s, the studio was basically just a library of great old films, which business magnate Ted Turner purchased in 1986. He used it to bolster scheduling on his TBS Superstation, and eventually launched the Turner Classic Pictures station, which is probably on your cable box today.
It's an ignominious end to what was once a 600-pound gorilla of a movie studio. The Wizard of Oz showed us its formula at work when it was firing on all cylinders. It was filmed entirely on sound stages at the MGM studios (there isn't a single outdoor shot in the whole movie) and its stars were largely contract players working under deals for Mayer. That makes the movie a slice of history in more ways than one. The cliché is true: they don't make 'em like this anymore.
And we're very glad for that: Wizard 2: Dorothy's Revenge just doesn't have the same ring to it.