Saturday, June 22, 2013

MGM Studio Backlot, 1970

In its heyday, MGM Studios was one of the most amazing movie backlots in Hollywood (or Culver City, to be precise). But after World War II, the studio's fortunes began to wane. There were occasional successes, such as "Ben-Hur", "How the West Was Won", "Dr. Zhivago", and the James Bond movies. But audiences were staying home to watch TV, and a series of big-budget flops helped to put the studio into financial trouble.

In 1970, new management (Kirk Kerkorian and Jim Aubrey) decided to streamline the MGM's operations. Here's how Wikipedia describes it: 

Aubrey ordered the sale of MGM's historic collection of costumes and props such as the Ruby Slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz and the suit Spencer Tracy wore in Inherit the Wind; The studio's camera department was auctioned. Most of the studio's Culver City backlot and its 2,000 acre ranch in the Conejo Valley were sold to developers.... Aubrey literally threw the company's valuable archives into the trash and brought production to a standstill. Aubrey was criticized for these actions. In 1986, he recalled, "the buck had to stop somewhere, and it was with me. Nostalgia runs strong out here, so we were criticized for selling Judy Garland's red shoes. To us they had no value, and they had no intrinsic value."
The following pictures are from personal Viewmaster reels that I scanned for a friend - these are photos that he took as he toured the backlot during the auction preview. It is sad to see the legendary studio just before its demise, but can't deny the historic value of the images. 
First up is this European street, looking a bit worse for wear.

Maybe this shattered plaster and jute column was used in "Ben-Hur"!

Among a snarl of cables and a jumble of unsightly metal structures was a genuine steam locomotive.  Notice the red sign indicating that this item would be available in the upcoming auction. I wonder where it wound up?

There's that train again, to our left; in the distance we see a steeple from a small town set (or New England town?), as well as sections of other buildings that I can't quite identify.

More structures with a European look to them.

A royal courtyard in Austria? Imagine this place, polished and painted, lit for cameras, bustling with extras and crew members!

This is the same courtyard, panning a bit to our right.

I hope you have enjoyed these... I have more if you are interested!


K. Martinez said...

I absolutely enjoyed these and definitely interested in seeing the rest that you have. All I can say is WOW!!!

Nanook said...

I was very fortunate enough to have a friend, whose dad was shooting at MGM in 1969-70. We essentially had carte blanche all over the studio - including all if its backlots. (We explored every area depicted in these images - and then some-!) Although I've been on many a Hollywood backlot, somehow MGM's held a special place in my heart. And the exploring and discovering we did there was an experience not easily topped.

Yes, the condition of most of the structures was pretty shabby at that time, but that didn't detract from all memories it brought-forth and the great time we had exploring one of Hollywood's greatest movie factories.

And as to the stories about James Aubrey - evidently he brought a new definition to the word 'prick'.

Thanks, Major, for bringing some of those memories back.

D-ticket said...

The MGM backlots were amazing! In the years preceding this sale the standing sets were (ab)used by Combat! one week, and then patched up to be used by Man From Uncle the next.

The first slide looks like Quality Street on Lot 2 dressed for Combat! (The German sign is a clue)

The locomotive looks like the one from The Harvey Girls. It sits on the Small Town Railroad Depot on Lot 2. You can see the steeple which was near Andy Hardy's House.

The last 3 might be The French District on Lot 1, or probably Copperfield Street on Lot 2.

TokyoMagic! said...

I second K. Martinez' "WOW!!!!" I would love to see more pics of MGM's backlot! Too bad they didn't try to turn the property into a tourist attraction like Universal Studios. If they had, I wonder if it would have been successful? I think Debbie Reynolds has said that she pleaded with them to do just that and told them that she would stand out front and sell tickets!

Diane said...

Wow-- very interesting and kinda sad too. Guess nothing lasts forever (?). How can someone in the movie industry not see the value of Dorithy's ruby slippers?

Matt said...

These are so great! Thank you for sharing them!

Chuck said...

I remember seeing an article in the LA Times in '93 or '94 about the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the MGM backlot. If I'm remembering right, it included pictures of Tara from "Gone With the Wind" and the HMS Bounty from the 1935 Clark Gable/Charles Laughton version of "Mutiny on the Bounty" being clobbered by wrecking balls. Sad photos indeed.

I get that movie studios (and, frankly, our favorite theme parks, too) are businesses rather than museums, but I tend to agree that there was some incredible short-sightedness on the part of MGM management at the time, unable to see beyond their core business (filmmaking) and envision the possibilities and potential profits of diversification (theme park operation). The fact that Universal had been successfully running the backlot tram tour since I think 1964 and was expanding tourist facilities at the time makes their decision all that much more difficult to understand.

At least there are pictures like these, the framing sequences in "That's Entertainment!", and, of course, the films and TV shows that were shot here to remind us of what was once the fabled home of "more stars then there are in heaven."

Chuck said...

The locomotive in the third and fourth photos was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1872 and sold to the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, which operated in the mining communities working the Comstock Lode in NW Nevada.

After leased service in several films beginning in 1937 (including Cecil B. DeMille's "Union Pacific"), it was sold to MGM in 1945 and used in a series of films including "Annie Get Your Gun" with Betty Hutton and "The Horse Soldiers" with John Wayne and William Holden. It also played the part of Union Pacific locomotive "119" at the centennial commemoration of the Transcontinental Railroad (the "Golden Spike") at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1969.

Fortunately, it appears the locomotive wasn't sold for scrap at the 1970 MGM auction and instead ended up at Old Tuscon Studios, where it remains today. Since 1970, it has appeared in several TV shows and films, including "Gunsmoke," "Little House on the Prairie," and "Wild Wild West" (both the TV movies and the Will Smith/Kevin Kline film).

Here is a link to an abbreviated history of the locomotive:

And here's a picture of how she looks today:

Chuck said...

And for those of you who just can't get enough of V&T #11, here's a home video of the locomotive in its current state with a voice-over of the locomotive's history:

Irene said...

I am constantly amazed at the knowledge of the people who read your site and comment on the pictures. We have someone who actually was able to explore the lots and then someone who knows everything about that train, knows where it is and gives us links to photos and video! I lived for one year (1966-67) just to the West of this lot. I always wanted to visit it but didn't know how and didn't have the gumption to figure out how. Sorry now that I didn't.

Nanook said...

And... for those who want to see pictures, and more pictures - albeit, all in B&W - get yourself a copy of the 2011 book entitled: M-G-M Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, written by Steven Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester & Michael Troyan. It's the most thorough look at ALL of the MGM backlots you'll find. Complete with a plethora of images and maps and exclusive interviews with former staff and actors.

K. Martinez said...

@Nanook -

Great recommendation. I purchased that book when it first came out and it has become one of my favorites now. It's a must have for any golden era of Hollywood collection IMO.

Major Pepperidge said...

Hey Gorilloids, thanks for all your great comments! I have been busy busy busy today, but want to address all of you individually when I get home tonight. I'm glad you all liked today's MGM pics.

DKoren said...

Those are great! I'm a huge fan of Combat! (mentioned by another commenter), and I recognize most of those buildings from the episodes. Neat to see them like this. Sure wish that backlot still existed.

Anonymous said...

amazing photos, brilliant commentary.

That studio exec is the very definition of short sighted. May he come to a lonely end.

@chuck, epic train knowledge. V&T is running again, but not sure with what stock. We rode it some years back.

This post & comments are Testimony to the Internet and blog community. Thank you Major & friends. I love this place.


Major Pepperidge said...

K. Martinez, these were a real treat for me too, I was thrilled to see them when they were first scanned.

Nanook, wow, you are very lucky! Movie backlots are (were?) magical places in their own way… maybe it was just the sheer amount of cinema history that was so palpable. Jim Aubrey did sound like a jerk, but I'm sure that if he hadn't done it, they would have found somebody else who would have.

D-ticket, I don't even know what Combat! was… presumably it was a TV show? Neat info about the locomotive… I actually had done a bit of research and one avenue pointed me toward The Harvey Girls, but I just wasn't sure enough to say.

TokyoMagic!, it sounds like the MGM management was much more concerned with making a quick buck, and I'm sure they had no interest in running a "movie park", even though that would have been COOL! I toured Warner Bros. studio a year or two ago, and it was pretty neat.

Diane, at least in the case of the ruby slippers, they were auctioned off and not thrown in the garbage.

Matt, glad you liked these!

Chuck, I have some pictures of some very large ship miniatures, I wonder if one of them is the HMS Bounty? The 70's were rough years for the studios, it makes me cringe to think of how much history was thrown into trash heaps and covered with dirt. Thanks for the detailed info about the locomotive, it adds so much to the photos. Thanks also for the links!

Irene, you are right, GDB readers ROCK! Seeing these pictures makes me wish SO MUCH that I could have seen the place in person.

Nanook, I think I may have to get a copy of that book, I'll bet a used copy on Amazon would be cheap. In fact I wish I had it for the upcoming posts so that I could provide more relevant info.

K. Martinez, your recommendation has fortified my resolve!

DKoren, I guess it is time for me to Google "Combat!"….

JG, it's comments like these that make blogging worthwhile! Thanks to you too.

outsidetheberm said...

Fantastic images! Thanks for the look, David!

Unknown said...

To anyone interested in seeing the MGM backlot right before it was demolished, I'd recommend the 1974 TV-movie "The Phantom of Hollywood"! Of course it's a modern play on "Phantom of the Opera"; in this case a long-forgotten silent movie star has been living secretly in the old backlot for decades. He starts murdering people when the old lot is slated for destruction. Not a particularly good film, and with some hammy performances by Broderick Crawford and Jack Cassidy, but lots of views of the backlot. In fact, they actually film some bulldozers tearing down structures, and incorporate it into the plot. Rather bittersweet, but definitely "must see" for anyone who loves the old Hollywood backlots!

Major Pepperidge said...

Unknown, I think that movie is mentioned in the book about the MGM backlot. Broderick Crawford and Jack Cassidy! Wow. It would be worth it to see just for the glimpses of that historic lot though. Thanks!

Unknown said...

I don't remember seeing it in 1974, but I noticed it had been released on DVD recently, so I got an inexpensive one thru Amazon. I'd heard that it wasn't a particularly good movie, so didn't want to spend a whole lot. It turned out to be worth the modest "investment"!
-- Mike Douglas

backlotdonny said...

I grew up a stones throw away from lot2. From my avocado tree i could see the sets towering above the fence line. I could hear gun fire all day.First Combat, then in the years that followed Garrisons Gorillas and Rat Patrol kept the tradition. i began sneaking in in 1969 until its demise in 1980. The last official production was ( Being There), It starred Peter Sellers in his final role.i met Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in 1974 on the set of Thats Entertainment. They gave me autographs and spent time answering my questions. Now understand i was trespassing. i had to run and climb fences at the drop of a dime.i made friends with some officers who opened some amazing doors including Louie B Mayer's office in the Thalberg building.I earned a masters in trespassing. In fact, i snuck out a MGM trespasser caught list . If you were caught between 74 & 76 i have your contact info! I have a book full of stories to share with those who care

stonewallheir said...

I also could climb my Avocado tree and see in MGM Lot 2. Snuck in there several times. Our house was closest to MGM fire in 1967, my family has film of the event. I still have a MGM No Trespassing sign off the old metal fence around the lot. I read in that Back Lot book that guard Dobermans were trained to chase intruders out of lot, but not attack. That solved the mystery of how we always were able to outrun them when they were coming after us!

Unknown said...

Stonewallheir would you be interested in selling the sign?