Today (according to some sources) is the birthday of Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer (1884-1957). While MGM was the child of Marcus Loew’s vision, leverage and capital, Mayer had founded two of the studio’s crucial pieces, Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures, and was studio boss from its founding in 1924 through 1951.
MGM is often held up as the gem of all the Hollywood studios during the 1930 and 1940s, but there is one major genre the studio never ruled, and that’s comedy. Paramount, RKO, Columbia and Universal all at one time or another, in one way or another, all can lay claim to having distinguished themselves in the comedy-producing field during the sound era. By contrast, MGM’s record was downright hostile. All of the studios followed a factory system and adhered to formula, but there are degrees to which they did so. The movies reflected the tastes of the producers and studio chiefs. The MGM product under Mayer favored musicals especially, and stories with morals, homilies, and propagandistic messages in support of the status quo. Comedians fare best with a good deal of freedom to invent, create and, yes, irreverently critique the prevailing social order. That was not the MGM way.
The first and one of the more famous of MGM’s comedy casualties was Buster Keaton. He’d come into the fold in 1928 through his brother-in-law Joseph Schenck. Unfortunately in so doing he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. MGM gave Keaton a lot more money but at the loss of his creative freedom. Though his first film for MGM The Cameraman was excellent, the studio’s factory methods rapidly robbed him of directorial control, busting him down to just an actor in their vast “constellation of stars”. The studio chose his vehicles and assigned him parts, tampered with his well-established character, and eventually made him co-star with Jimmy Durante in what has to be one of the most ill-conceived “comedy teams” in history. Keaton was depressed about the situation, and drank. Mayer fired him in 1933, later rehiring him as a gag writer at a much reduced salary.
Another major comedy act that did not fare well at MGM was the Marx Brothers. While the first two pictures they made at the studio (under production chief Irving Thalberg) A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races are considered by many (arguably) the top of their form, their position is thought to have changed when Groucho insulted Mayer, who didn’t appreciate flippancy. When Thalberg passed away in 1937 the team was without a protector at the the studio, and their last three MGM films At the Circus (1939), Go West (1940) and The Big Store (1941) were increasingly dreadful. All five of the team’s MGM’s films suffer from the studio’s philosophy that the music, the “story” (often absolute dreck) and the attractive romantic leads were the most important part in any movie. The writing and the direction of the films tried to shoehorn the previously anarchistic Marx Brothers into this formula, with deleterious results. The team was so disgusted by their experience at MGM, they retired.
Now let me backtrack and qualify. In a certain sense from 1927 through 1938 MGM could lay claim to being a very good comedy studio. This was because they were the distributors of the comedy films of independent producer Hal Roach, who created the comedies of Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang (Little Rascals), Charley Chase and others. These comedies are of course the top of the line — the gold standard, in fact. But when that arrangement ceased and MGM’s production department worked directly with some of these artists, the results were predictably unfortunate. From 1938 to 1944, MGM took over direct production of Our Gang and ran the series into the ground by applying the Mickey-and-Judy formula, transforming the formerly rambunctious, troublemaking urchins into a bunch of saccharine cutie pies who learned lessons about citizenship.
Laurel and Hardy suffered mightily when they left Hal Roach for 20th Century Fox in 1941. Their films at Fox were among the worst comedies ever made. They could perhaps be forgiven for being optimistic when they had the chance to go back to their old distributor MGM on a two picture deal. Unfortunately the two films they made for MGM, Air Raid Wardens (1944) and Nothing But Trouble (1944) are even worse than their Fox comedies. Laurel in particular suffered. While an admirer of his old Karno cohort Charlie Chaplin, Laurel was adamant and vocal about the fact that pathos was not his thing. Watch the Laurel and Hardy movies from the Roach period. They pave the way for The Three Stooges and others: we laugh AT these guys more than we laugh WITH them. Unfortunately, MGM forces Laurel into having these humiliating, blatant pleas for sympathy in both movies that are heart-rending in all the wrong ways. The boys retired from films shortly thereafter.
Note that MGM inherited all of these comedy stars. In the early 40s they finally found a comedian who lived harmoniously within the MGM universe, by creating him. The Red Skelton comedies of the 40s and 50s strike a balance of comic artistry (often with the behind-the-scenes help of the now-reduced Buster Keaton) and MGM formula. They are invariably duller than the great comedies of the 30s, and the laughs sparser, but at least we are spared the painful indignity of watching great artists forced to jump through hoops way outside their comfort zone.
And let us not forget the MGM animation unit, responsible for Tom and Jerry and Droopy, which it must be admitted can’t compare with the output of Disney, Warner Bros, or Fleischer’s for Paramount in the hilarity department, but deserve honorable mention, now that I’m playing devil’s advocate.
For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc