In the first part of this series I took a capsule look at the Studio System with a nod to the use of drugs in order to produce and package the huge amount of product. It was not a complete look as many smaller operations such as PARAMOUNT PICTURES, RKO and the Poverty Row companies such as PRC, and REPUBLIC were not mentioned. No doubt these studios fell into the same practice; however, having not many stars the public awareness would not have had much effect.
I turn now to METRO GOLDWYN MAYER and its famous studio school. During the thirties, it was California law that every screen actor of school age was to spend four hours a day at their studies. It was not practical to have an actor leave the studio grounds during filming so a school house was built for them to attend. Among those that attended were Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Jackie Cooper, Lana Turner, Freddie Bartholomew, Suzanne Larson, Cosmo Millardi, Ronald Sinclair, Frieda Starr, Elena Quirici, and Betty Jaynes. Lessons were given, recess was granted, and lunch was taken – all in an effort to maintain a regular routine.
Louis B. Mayer had an obsession with what he thought was the correct attitude for the films produced by MGM. This was the studio that gave us the ANDY HARDY series of pictures, along with musicals that made millions making Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland the fresh faces of American Youth. The ANDY HARDY series glorified the family as it was in pre-war and later wartime America with the father figure- Judge Hardy – dispensing words of wisdom to Andy, who would realize the error of his ways and come home or sort out some predicament such as having two dates with different girls on the same night. It was light hearted fare all summed up with smiles and the comfort of home in the final reel. The connection between this and the studio school was that both of these were enclosed worlds. The films were escapist products which is what pictures of this nature did very well. The studio school was part of the life one led on the lot of MGM if you were in pictures. In some cases a very sheltered existence, protected by physical walls and people of the outside world preserving the sense of make believe. This is acceptable in motion pictures as you sell dreams but in actual life being sheltered can have dire consequences.
MGM had what was called the ‘SPECIAL SERVICES’ Department, which took care of matters for stars and studio personnel. It has been written it was this department that was involved in a potential cover up of Jean Harlow’s husband Paul Bern in 1932. Mayer and others from the studio were on the crime scene before the police had arrived to tamper with evidence and plant a ‘suicide’ note. This department of the studio could not have done this on its own – it needed complicity with police forces. It had sweeping powers.
SPECIAL SERVICES provided a cushion from everyday life for those that worked at MGM; including those attending the studio school. Other studios had versions of this department, often with newspaper people and the evolution of the gossip columnist, who were given exclusive stories by meeting, talking to or ferreting out stories for the public’s insatiable appetite for Hollywood stars and the studio that employed them. These people would cover up peccadillos by providing ‘medical leave from exhaustion’ to a female star, extra, or script girl. It wouldn’t look good if the star of your latest picture about homespun American life with Mom and apple pie was seen in a drunk tank or as Johnny Weismuller was found to have lifted a starlet up so high of the ground that her footprints were found next morning on the ceiling of a living room after a night’s frolic.
The studio school took care of you had a pimple – there would be five people to rush it and eliminate it as it was not to be seen. If you were sick or hung over you were given rest. In short, everything that people of the outside world meaning the public did for themselves if they had the resources. It created a sheltered existence that had consequences later in life for several of the people that came into contact with it.
I speak in particular of the much publicized life and addiction troubles of Judy Garland. The relationship troubles of Mickey Rooney and Lana Turner. You cannot protect someone from all that life can visit upon them. The studio school was one part of the finishing school of the MGM system, where the chosen learned to be worthy of the studio’s reputation of having, “More stars than in the heavens.” The MGM way was something without choice; often contracts were terminated or not renewed for non- compliance.
To work at MGM was to be in a controlled environment ruled by an autocratic hand, except those in New York who controlled the purse strings. This was a price these people paid in later life. Some would not argue with results of this control as we have a legacy of brilliant performances from many MGM films. Some choose to ignore the methods used and glamourize the era. No doubt behind the tinsel and champagne is lot of hard work, sleepless nights, pressure and broken hearts. For the few there are the dreams that are fulfilled. I choose to look at the pictures of this era with admiration for the system as a whole that produced them while still understanding that there was and still is a price for entertainment.