I approached this tour rather apprehensively. Metro Goldwyn Mayer is, sadly, no more. The largest studio, the most prestigious studio, the studio that had “more stars than there are in the heavens”, Clark’s home studio for over 20 years, is gone. By the 1970’s, its glory days were nothing but a memory. The MGM name is nothing but really a name anymore, not a place. The former studio is now Sony Pictures and Sony owns Columbia and is much more proud of that than of MGM history.
I won’t get into the long, sad story of MGM’s decline here but I highly recommend this book that came out last year, MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot. I made a point of buying it and reading it before my trip and I am so glad I did. It shows you, building by building, what the lot used to look like and how lavish and extensive the studio’s 185 acre backlot was. A must read for any classic movie fan.
Knowing the history as I did, I didn’t expect much for this tour. I was warned beforehand that Sony now is most proud of its television efforts, such as Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, rather than history. If any history will be touched upon, it will be Columbia, not MGM.
This was mostly true. But MGM did sneak in here and there.
Here are the original MGM entrance gates, no longer used, but still standing as a monument to what used to be.
Any star who appeared in any MGM film crossed this threshold, driving down this familiar path. I couldn’t help but think as I looked at it about that lonely day for Clark when he drove off the lot for the final time, after 20 years of employment, and nobody said good-bye to him. He must have had a lump in his throat as he crossed under this and onto Washington Blvd.
Another shot of the gate, and you can see a poster of It Happened One Night nearby. Funny, after over 20 years of service to MGM, none of Clark’s MGM pictures is displayed or mentioned throughout the lot—only It Happened One Night, his lone Columbia feature.
View from the gate:
One of the first things you see on the tour is the unmistakable Irving Thalberg building. Louis B. Mayer had this massive administration building built in 1938 in memory of Thalberg. It was top of the line in every way back then, with producers having their own wings and the entire building having–gasp–air conditioning! Today it looks very much the same except, I was a bit sad to note, over the door it says “Columbia Pictures.” Imagine Louis B. Mayer’s reaction to that if he knew!
Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland on these very stairs, back when it said Metro Goldwyn Mayer:
We did go inside the lobby, where they house the Best Picture Oscars they have won. They were all, of course, for Columbia features. The only one of interest to me, naturally, was the one for It Happened One Night.
Our tour guide mentioned that the Thalberg building has appeared in many TV shows and movies, standing in for schools, courthouses and various office buildings. Its beautifully manicured lawn has stood in for New York City’s Central Park numerous times.
We went inside the scoring stage, now named The Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage, which was amazing in size. We were awestruck thinking of the big names whose voices had once filled it: Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Kathryn Grayson, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole…
Nearby is the screening room, where directors and producers would view daily rushes. In 1981 it was re-named The Cary Grant Theatre. (Cary Grant being another Columbia alum). Looking from the inside out:
One of the outside facades used for exterior shooting is known as the Frank Capra Building, Capra being a renowned Columbia director (and, of course, director of It Happened One Night.)
But there are some MGM names that received the honor of their name on a building as well.
Like here is The Robert Young Building, which now contains offices, used to house the studio’s camera equiptment.
The Spencer Tracy building was once MGM’s on-site hospital.
The unique Joan Crawford building was once the famed MGM schoolhouse, where legends like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were taught.
Not too far from there is the old sound department building which has been christened The Myrna Loy Building.
And just beyond that lies what was the makeup department back in the MGM days and now houses production offices. It’s name? The Clark Gable Building.
Walking around the lot…
Stage 9. Interiors for Saratoga was filmed in this studio.
Stage 15 was home to interior shots of Strange Cargo. Stage 12 was used for Love on the Run.
Clark zipping around the soundstages while filming "Love on the Run" in 1935
Joan Blondell eating an ice cream cone on the side of the studio yogurt shop
One of the things I had really wanted to see was the original commissary. I don’t think I’ve read a bio on an MGM star yet who didn’t talk about the famed MGM commissary. I inquired to our tour guide when he was wrapping up the tour about the whereabouts of the commissary, which I knew was still standing. (Yes, I was that person on the tour who wanted to see an old commissary while everyone else was happily snapping photos of the set of Jeopardy.) He pointed to a very large, uninteresting concrete building. I said, “No…the original commissary.” He just said, “Oh, we passed it earlier…near the front.” I thought that was going to be all I got so I just said, “Ok. Thanks.” Well when we walked by it again on the way out he took us right in, since I asked!
It is now called the Rita Hayworth Dining Room (again, Rita was a Columbia-ite) and can be rented out for parties.
At the time of our visit, it was being set up for a sweet sixteen birthday party for the low, low price of $125,000. Yikes.
Clark Gable chowing down in the commissary
Our guide stated that although the commissary remodeled and it has been downsized (the original commissary was 8,730 feet, could seat 225 and even had its own bakery in the basement), some of the original room separators and the booths still stood. And they still serve Mayer’s wife’s famous matzo ball soup. Which has gone slightly up in price from $0.10 to $13!
The commissary in the 1940's
Above the commissary used to be the famed Art Department, run by Cedric Gibbons.
I couldn’t help but be saddened by this tour, when I thought of the incredible number of Hollywood legends that had walked these grounds and the amazing films that were filmed right here, and so little of it is left.
Our tour guide pointed out that the only remnants that bear the MGM name are three original manhole covers on the streets. They had an appraiser come in and he valued them at $64,000 apiece and soon there will be little plaques over them stating this.
Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Franchot Tone, Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Jeannette MacDonald, Nelson Eddy, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Hedy Lamarr, Greer Garson, Lana Turner, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra…and all that’s left is manhole covers.
Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and costars stroll on the MGM lot to the set of San Francisco in 1936