DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: MGM: When the Lion Roars

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Ken_McAlinden, Jan 16, 2009.

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  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    MGM: When the Lion Roars

    Directed By: Frank Martin

    Starring: Patrick Stewart


    Studio: Warner Brothers

    Year: 1992

    Rated: NR

    Film Length: 366 minutes

    Aspect Ratio: 4:3

    Subtitles: English SDH, French

    Release Date: January 20, 2009



    The Film

    MGM: When the Lion Roars is a documentary miniseries that first aired on the TNT cable network in 1992. It tracks the history of the classic MGM studio beginning with its origins in the 1920s through its eventual dissolution through the 1970s and 1980s. Along the way, the viewer learns about the vast stables of stars, several behind the scenes production and technical wizards, and a good deal of the backroom machinations that led to the studios meteoric rise, extended glory period, and eventual downfall. The documentary consists of a dazzling array of film clips and behind the scenes footage coupled with both new and archival interviews from MGM personalities from both sides of the camera. This material is all tied together by host segments and voiceover narration from Patrick Stewart.

    The program is broken up into three segments, all running a little over two hours each. They are arranged roughly chronologically with some shifting back and forth in time when they are profiling personalities that span eras. The first segment is entitled "The Lions Roar", and it covers the early history of Louis B. Mayer, the founding of the company in 1924, early successes such as "Ben-Hur" and "The Big Parade", the rise to prominence of Mayer and "boy wonder" production head Irving Thalberg, the dawn of "talking pictures" in the late 1920s, and the first generation of MGM stars such as Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable. It ends with Thalberg's untimely passing in 1936.

    The second segment is entitled "The Lion Reigns Supreme", and it covers the next ten years of the studio's history where, after working through productions Thalberg had left in the pipeline and the departure of David O Selznick to form his own company, Mayer's sensibilities drove almost every aspect of their productions. This period saw the emergence of a second generation of MGM stars, and the documentary includes the expected discussion of the hit productions of the era such as The Wizard of Oz, The Philadelphia Story, Ninotchka, The Women, and Mrs. Miniver and the studio's massively lucrative distribution interest in Gone with the Wind. Topics also include behind the scenes contributions from camera and production design craftsmen such as Cedric Gibbons and the emergence of successful modestly budgeted series films such as "The Thin Man", "Andy Hardy", and "Dr. Kildare". It concludes with the war years during which MGM was successful with both stirring propaganda pieces and escapist entertainments even while some of its biggest stars such as Clark Gable and James Stewart were serving in the military.

    While the closing narration of "The Lion Reigns Supreme" suggest storm clouds on the horizon for Louis B. Mayer, the final segment, entitled "The Lion in Winter" begins by circling back to cover a few cheerier topics including the prolific and successful musical production units headed by Arthur Freed and Joe Pasternak with related discussions of Gene Kelly, Director Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, and Esther Williams. It then picks up in 1948 when two consecutive poor financial years and a perception that Mayer is losing touch with the studio's operations lead Loewe's chief Nicholas Schenck to force Mayer to take on Dory Schary, a former MGM writer recently departed from RKO, as production head. Schary's affinity for liberal-minded message pictures was antithetical to Mayer's taste for classy, wholesome, escapist fare, and the conflicts between them lead to Mayer's ouster in 1951. The documentary covers initial success under Schary's guidance with the always reliable musicals and grittier, more independently minded, fare such as Blackboard Jungle and Somebody up There Likes Me. The filmmakers then track the downward trajectory that sets in by the mid-1950s aggravated by the emergence of television and the forced divestiture of theaters from movie studios, ultimately resulting in the departure of most of the studio's contract stars and culminating in the liquidation of many of the studio's assets through the 1970s after a takeover by casino mogul Kirk Kerkorian. The occasional studio successes over this era are documented including Gigi, a Ben-Hur remake, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    Patrick Stewart makes for an affable host, meeting the essential requirement that his voice be eminently listenable even when saddled with narrative dialog that borders on corny. He is also game enough to appear in his various segments in a series of period costumes with props and backdrops relating to the Hollywood era on which he is elaborating.

    The documentary's goal is comprehensiveness. Given that this is impossible to achieve, even with north of six hours of running time, it is impressive how much ground is covered. Certain aspects of the studio, such as its animation division are ignored (William Hanna and Joseph Barbera talk about animating their mouse Jerry to dance with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, but that is it.). While certain stars such as Robert Taylor and Fred Astaire get short shrift by not having feature segments devoted solely to them, they, and the the majority of the most enduring MGM personalities, do get at least a mention or two.

    Interview participants include (but are not limited to) Lew Ayres, Freddie Bartholomew, Ernest Borgnine, Jackie Cooper, Stanley Donen, William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, Helen Hayes, Charlton Heston, Van Johnson, Producer Samuel Marx, Roddy McDowall, Ricardo Montalban, Luise Rainer, Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, media mogul Ted Turner, Esther Williams, and Richard Brooks. I quite enjoyed hearing so many first hand accounts of the MGM experience and surprisingly frank comments on the larger than life personality of Louis B. Mayer. I was sobered when contemplating how many of these legends have passed on since the documentary was produced (Brooks and Bartholomew before the series even aired on television and Montalban just this past week!).

    In addition, there is plenty of archival footage of interviews and public appearances by a myriad of other MGM luminaries inclusive of Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Norma Shearer, Dore Schary, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Myrna Loy, and "More Stars than there are in the Heavens". Even financier Kirk Kerkorian gets a few words in via archival footage.

    The Video

    However it was shot, the project was finished on video, and the softness of the 4:3 full frame presentation of the documentary reflects its standard definition video master origination. The various film clips from MGM productions have not been updated to the level of the most recent video masters, and look exactly as they were broadcast on TNT in 1992. The compression is more than up to the task of presenting the slightly soft video image, and image quality naturally varies with the quality of the various archival clips. Clips from films from the post 1951 widescreen era are presented in a variety of ways ranging from properly letterboxed to various amounts of squeezing distortion, to panning and scanning in order to fit into the 4:3 frame.

    The Audio

    The sound is presented via an effective Dolby Digital stereo track which mainly benefits the score by Steve Goldstein. Audio quality naturally varies with the many archival clips.

    The Extras

    The documentary itself is more or less a mammoth extra for every classic MGM title I have ever seen, so I was not expecting additional supplements. My lack of expectation was met.

    Packaging

    The program is spread across two double layered DVD-9 discs. The first disc contains all of the "The Lion's Roar" and the first half of "The Lion Reigns Supreme". The second disc contains the second half of "The Lion Reigns Supreme" and the complete "The Lion in Winter". I was initially not crazy about splitting the second episode in two, but it ended up not bothering me too much. DVDs are packaged in a standard Amaray-sized case with a hinged tray allowing for the accommodation of both discs.

    Summary

    MGM: When the Lion Roars is an impressive six hour plus made for television overview of the history of Hollywood's legendary "Dream Factory". It is presented across two discs with a transfer consistent with its video origins and a modest but appropriate Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio track. No supplemental materials are included, and after over six hours of viewing, I was okay with that.

    Reviewer's Note: This review has been posted in the "SD DVD - Film and Documentary" forum since even though the program was initially made for television, it is primarily of interest to fans of classic theatrical films.

    Regards,
     
  2. Dave B Ferris

    Dave B Ferris Supporting Actor

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    Very nice review, but I would have sworn this documentary/film debuted on TNT, back before TNT showed so many sports events, reruns of TV shows, etc. I remember a whole week devoted to this documentary/film, during which a 'chapter' would be aired each night, followed by an airing of some of the full-length MGM movies discussed in that night's chapter.
     
  3. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer
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    You are correct. I meant to type TNT, but my defective brain would not let me for some reason. It was more recently aired on TCM, but it definitely debuted on TNT. The review is now corrected.
    Thanks!
     
  4. Art_AD

    Art_AD Stunt Coordinator

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    Have it on order but disappointed again there are no extras. What is going on with Warner. Other than the Forbidden Hollywood Three I do not see much added extras to their classic releases (Although maybe there is something on their upcoming Gypsy & one or two of the Doris day films collection, I just can't remember at the moment).
     
  5. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    Great review!
    My copy shipped today and I have set an entire day aside
    early next week to plop my ass on the couch and watch this
    in its entirety.
    Can't wait!
     
  6. didi-5

    didi-5 Auditioning

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    Still have this taped from TV at the time it aired - but how nice that it finally gets a DVD release. About time!
     
  7. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist
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    Joni Levin's When the Lion Roars is a beautifully crafted documentary, with an Emmy to its credit as Best Informational Documentary - 1992.
    It exists only as created, which I believe is as standard def D2. It was made for the purpose of being viewed on monitors generally not larger than 35".
    If one stays within practical tech parameters for playback, WtLR will still shine.
    RAH
     
  8. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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    I am 3/4 of the way through this documentary and loving it. The
    most enjoyable part of watching this is the fact that it contains
    interviews with many legends who have now passed, who were
    originally associated with the studio in its heyday.
    Was wondering why the picture quality was not very good. Robert
    Harris explanation is all I needed.
    I am up to Ben Hur right now and will watch the rest of this over
    the next few days. Just wanted to chime in that I am loving this!
     
  9. Simon Howson

    Simon Howson Screenwriter

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    My copy arrived today after a month in the post. It only reached Sydney last week! Have half the U.S postal service been sacked?
     
  10. Ronald Epstein

    Ronald Epstein Administrator
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  11. Billy Batson

    Billy Batson Cinematographer

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    There's something about that in the Amazon customer reviews. I think his widow asked for the scenes to be cut out.
    I like the Patrick Stewart stuff, it's cheesy, but Hollywood cheesy.
     
  12. Garysb

    Garysb Screenwriter

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    Since his death Fred Astaire's widow has required that a license fee be paid to use his image. The first I had heard about this was when the Kennedy Center
    honored Ginger Rogers shortly after Fred died. The Kennedy Center had never paid a license fee before so refused to do so. When the Kennedy Center Honors aired that year Fred Astaire clips were removed . They edited the Astaire Rogers clips to remove Fred. It is odd that Fred Astaire clips were removed from the DVD as I believe the clips are included in the VHS set that I have of When The Lion Roars. I have to confirm that the VHS includes Fred Astaire but I had never heard that it was missing. Over at TCM.com it is mentioned that the Astaire clips were not on the laser disc.
     
  13. Michael Elliott

    Michael Elliott Lead Actor

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    I loved the documentary but I'm sure another six-hour documentary could have been made about the darker side of the studio. This documentary rightfully paints how great the studio was but they were also known for blacklisting stars, ruining reputations, cutting films to shreds, started what was known as saving money by destroying silents and they certainly killed the careers of many greats like Keaton.
     
  14. CineKarine

    CineKarine Supporting Actor

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    Yes, I've known about this for years - a rather greedy decision on the part of said person.... Anyway, if the documentary is missing the Astaire parts - I will not get rid of my TV-taped copy from the original TV broadcast in 92. I pre-ordered the DVD of course (it shipped Monday), so I am looking forward to it, but will immediately notice what is missing. I have watched this documentary quite a few times. I love it and I like the "Hollywood cheesy" parts too - somehow it works for me.
     
  15. bgart13

    bgart13 Screenwriter

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    Sorry to dredge this up, but the strangest thing just happened to me today. This dvd -- or rather the disc itself for pt 1 with pt 2 on the flip side -- was on my desk at home. But the thing is I've never bought this! Did it come with something else I'm not even aware it was included with? I'm the only one here that even buys dvds, really, so for it to be around baffles me! I am so confused... :huh:
     
  16. Jay*W

    Jay*W Second Unit
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    It came in some of the Warner big box Ultimate Collector's Sets, like "Gone With The Wind" and "The Wizard Of Oz", as a flipper disc. The separate release was a 2-disc set.
     
  17. bgart13

    bgart13 Screenwriter

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    Huh. Don't have either of those. Thanks for responding though!
     
  18. ahollis

    ahollis Lead Actor

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    Well don't look a gift lion in the mouth :)
     

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