MGM: When the Lion Roars
Directed By: Frank Martin
Starring: Patrick Stewart
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.