Review by C.J. Bunce
The 50 MGM Films that Transformed Hollywood: Triumphs, Blockbusters, and Fiascos is the latest deep dive into one of Hollywood’s most beloved movie studios. A good companion to last year’s 20th Century-Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio (reviewed here at borg), it’s cinema historian Steven Bingen’s chronology of the rise and fall (and rise and fall again) of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer through the productions the studio churned out across nearly a century. Unlike most books on film, the fifty movies he chooses aren’t the usual picks. Bingen writes more like a fan of movies than a slicer and dicer of what is bad and what is good–he’s not re-hashing the boring repeat of the thousands of Rotten Tomato movie critic drones. He’s willing to include those MGM movies that changed Hollywood but weren’t all that great to watch in the theater. He acknowledges his entry Song of Russia is a “timid, mediocre movie.” But its role in cinema history wasn’t. That isn’t to say he ignores some of the obvious hits, like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind from the greatest year of cinema–1939.
Bingen includes in his top 50 influential films productions that aren’t feature-length movies, like the first Tom and Jerry show, Puss Gets the Boot. This is not a retrodden list of Oscar winners, and that is refreshing. You can’t deny the impact of the assortment of iconic characters and creators he uses, which include Tarzan, Laurel and Hardy, Andy Hardy, Tom and Jerry, Mrs. Miniver, Alfred Hitchcock, James Bond, Doctor Zhivago, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, and Michael Crichton, along with science fiction benchmark films Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
One section compares Battleground to Red Badge of Courage with a nod to An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, posing some interesting analysis. The section on Blackboard Jungle has insight into its unique mash-up of American music culture, a section on North by Northwest addresses business culture inside MGM studios, one section gives examples of the re-uses of the MGM lot, and elsewhere he tries to identify what really was the last true MGM production, and the last show to be filmed on the old MGM lot.
Surprises to find lauded in the book include genre favorites How the Grinch Stole Christmas (a cartoon), The Dirty Dozen (a war movie), three 1970s classics: Shaft (action movie), Rocky (a sports drama), and Coma (a thriller/horror movie), and Hero at Large–the only superhero genre film included in the list. One curious question came to mind while I read the section on MGM not being a leader in film noir: Where are all the Westerns? Why didn’t MGM make Westerns–the backbone of the first 50 years of Hollywood–and why isn’t that discussed? Yes, the bloated How the West as Won made the cut, and a few unmemorable films, but apparently not a single Western classic made it out of the studio. Musicals, yes, and something of everything else, but no great Westerns. Bingen includes a brilliant succinct summary of MGM’s relationship with the James Bond franchise.
Did Lon Chaney ever hear any of his monster movies referred to as “horror movies”? Did MGM ever intend to make a “film noir” movie (or were they just making their next movie?), and does The Postman Always Rings Twice qualify in the genre or not? Bingen asks interesting questions, while revisiting the role MGM played in bringing Chinese and Black Americans to the screen. I’ve yet to read a perfect modern discussion of Gone with the Wind–you can’t overstate its impact on audiences when it premiered. But the legacy and impact of the content of the story the film was based upon and the way the studio adapted the novel is always something reviewers and audiences should continue to wrestle with as society’s standards improve.
Unlike most modern books on the movies, The 50 MGM Films that Transformed Hollywood: Triumphs, Blockbusters, and Fiascos does two things differently. First, each chapter is about a specific film but is really a chapter in the history of both MGM and Hollywood. So this could be a text for a college history of film course, broken down with a film to exemplify or serve as merely an example of each major step through time. In devoting each chapter to a single picture, Bingen keeps his focus on the film for the most part. Second, don’t look for any book design elements with sidebar features, also-ran productions, or alternate recommendations in each section. Instead Bingen leaves a place at the end of the book for two alternate top 50 lists. Here’s what’s fun: The first alternate list of 50 films could have been swapped into what made the cut for this book, and it probably would have produced a book that was just as good, just as valid. How could you push The Thin Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Lassie Come Home, Gaslight, National Velvet, Show Boat, Gigi, The Time Machine, or The Pink Panther to the second list? But the second alternate list is more of an also-ran list, confirming that the Bingen’s top 100 are a solid representation of the studio.
The 50 MGM Films that Transformed Hollywood: Triumphs, Blockbusters, and Fiascos also has the most photographs–both in black and white and color–of any film studio retrospective I’ve reviewed. Movie buffs will enjoy old movie posters, lobby cards, stills, behind the scenes images and marketing material from the beginning to the end of MGM.
Highly recommended for fans of classic movies, of TCM’s library of movies, and film production in general The 50 MGM Films that Transformed Hollywood: Triumphs, Blockbusters, and Fiascos is available here at Amazon, published by Lyons Press.