How far the mighty have fallen. These days, MGM seems to get traded around like a hot potato, despite owning the most magnificient film library in the world. But at one time, it was a powerhouse. Here’s a small glimpse at MGM circa 1927.
Prior to the 1950s, studios had a stronger sense of branding. We don’t notice what studios make movies today, but at one time each studio had its own marketing identity. A large part of that was because the actors and writers and directors and so forth tended to work as salaried employees of the studios. Today, just about everybody works freelance. Then, movie studios functioned more like local community theaters with stock players.
And, as we see here, one of the ramifications of that was that studios were advertised as a brand. You didn’t just get individual titles advertised as individual titles. You also got ads pushing a studio’s entire line of product. In The Film Daily Yearbook, each of the major studios, plus a few second-tier studios, had their own block of advertising pages. These are the first three of MGM’s block. These are the summary pages; later pages go into more detail about specific players or titles. I love the sensibilities that advertising had back in the day. Advertising wasn’t afraid to use words, to say something, to hype something, to be unabashedly over-the-top. Today, if you notice, advertising is very terse. It shows you an image it hopes will provoke your interest. It delivers a catch phrase. It fades out. We’re too lazy to read, and we’re too cynical to accept a lot of superlatives. Perhaps that’s for the better. But it makes looking back at the old days kind of fun.
There is a lot to say about this line-up of contract stars. John Gilbert was a huge star at the time, only to endure one of the most notorious falls from grace during the transition to sound film, which was right around the corner. Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, on the other hand, survived the transition just fine and did their best work in sound. Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces, was more or less at the end of his career, but his son, Lon Chaney Jr., would make a name of his own, as The Wolf Man. Marion Davies had some pretty intriguing connections that we’ll talk about a bit in Episode 27.
The real shame is that Buster Keaton is listed here. Keaton was more or less independent during the bulk of the silent era, and the creative freedom he enjoyed allowed him to make some of the best and most popular silent films of all time. To this day, Keaton’s filmography makes up an astonishing percentage of the silent films people still care about to this day, and for good reason: they are comedic gold, irreplaceable, and inimitable.
But the industry was changing, and it became harder and harder to work independently of the studios. So Buster Keaton famously made the biggest mistake of his career and signed a contract with MGM. MGM cast him as wacky sidekicks in other people’s movies, and basically Keaton was never again allowed to make the films he was so good at making. It got to him not just professionally but personally. The next, and basically last, great film he made was Limelight, in 1952, as a co-star to none other than Charlie Chaplin, in Chaplin’s own last great film.
See, here’s what I was talking about earlier about unabashed hype. That headline is bold.
The scan of Leo the Lion didn’t come out too well, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I’m not sure where the “flying” part of his title came from. Usually it’s just “Leo the Lion,” and that name refers to a number of different lions used in the MGM logo. Click that link for an interesting rundown of the history of that incredibly recognizable symbol. I suspect the caption for the photograph in this scan is not exaggerated.
The other snapshot worth commenting on is the lower-left, for the film Love (1927). The original title was Anna Karenina, for indeed that’s the story it tells. Then the title was changed to Heat, until somebody realized the marketing tagline “GILBERT AND GARBO IN HEAT” didn’t sound quite right. But that observation pointed the way to the obvious alternative. “GILBERT AND GARBO IN LOVE” is a marketer’s dream.