MGM's domination of the movie industry in the 1930s was simply staggering, fueled by both the consistent quality of its films and the economic travails of its rivals. Three of the five integrated majors, Fox, Paramount, and RKO, declared bankruptcy, and Warners forestalled that same fate only by siphoning off a sizable portion of its assets. Loew's/MGM, meanwhile, turned a profit every year during the 1930s while its assets actually increased. From 1931 to 1940, the combined profits of Hollywood's Big Eight studios totaled $128.2 million; MGM's profits were $93.2 million, nearly three-quarters of the total. Equally impressive was the consistent quality and critical recognition of MGM's films. During the 1930s, MGM accounted for nearly one-third of the Academy nominees for Best Picture (27 of 87 pictures), winning four times; its actors drew roughly one-third of the best actor and best actress nominations as well, with six male and five female winners. During the first ten years of the Motion Picture Herald's Exhibitors Poll of top box-office stars (1932–1941), just under one-half (47 percent) of those listed were under contract to MGM—including Clark Gable (1901–1960), the only actor listed all ten years.
The first and most important of MGM's remarkable pool of female stars during the classical era, Greta Garbo personified the studio's notion of glamour and style. A beautiful but large and ungainly woman, she was most often photographed either from a distance or in closeup—the better to display the elegance of her surroundings (she often appeared in costume dramas or in exotic locales) or, more importantly, to capture her exquisite face and ethereal personality. She appeared in only two dozen Hollywood films, all of them at MGM, before her sudden retirement in 1942. By then she was already a living legend whose myth had transcended her stardom—a myth that only intensified after her retirement.
Born and raised in poverty in Stockholm, Garbo stumbled into film acting, enjoyed early success (as Greta Gustafsson) in Sweden and Germany, and in 1925 was recruited by Mayer while he was scouting talent in Europe. She became Greta Garbo at MGM and was an immediate success in The Torrent (1926), and then broke through to top stardom teamed with John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926). The two reteamed in several huge hits, although Gilbert's star faded while Garbo's rose even higher in the sound era—beginning with Anna Christie (1930), in which MGM announced "Garbo Talks!"—as her husky Swedish intonations added to her exotic, aloof mystique.
Garbo was MGM's most valuable (and highest paid) star in the 1930s, and her films were virtually assured of box-office success not only in the United States but overseas as well, particularly in Europe. Her forte was lavish dramas of ill-fated romance that emphasized her remote, enigmatic beauty. Indeed, Garbo herself was a larger-than-life figure who excelled playing legendary historical and literary heroines in films like Mata Hari (1931), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), and Conquest (1937). She worked with a wide range of leading directors, including Clarence Brown in a half-dozen films, but her key MGM collaborators were those responsible for the "look" of her films, notably cinematographer William Daniels, costume designer Adrian, and art director Cedric Gibbons, all of whom worked on nearly every one of them.
Garbo's career took two significant, unexpected turns during the prewar era: first in her successful shift to romantic comedy ("Garbo Laughs!") in Ninotchka (1939), and then her sudden retirement after another comedy, Two-Faced Woman (1941). The latter was a rare box-office disappointment, due largely to cuts demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Garbo spurned repeated efforts to coax her out of retirement in later years, living out her signature entreaty, "I want to be alone."
The Torrent (1926), Flesh and the Devil (1926), A Woman of Affairs (1928), Anna Christie (1931), Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931), Mata Hari (1931), Queen Christina (1933), Anna Karenina (1935), Camille (1936), Conquest (1937), Ninotchka (1939), Two-Faced Woman (1941)
Paris, Barry. Garbo . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
Vieira, Mark A. Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy . New York: Abrams, 2005.
A prime example of MGM's house style in the 1930s was Grand Hotel , an all-star ensemble drama featuring Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore; it was a solid commercial hit and won the Oscar ® for Best Picture of 1932. The film emphasized glamour, grace, and beauty in its polished settings as well as its civilized characters—all of whom are doomed or desperate, but suffer life's misfortunes with style. Indeed, Grand Hotel in many ways was about the triumph of style, expressed not only by its characters but also by cinematographer William Daniels (1901–1970), editor Blanche Sewell (1898–1949), recording engineer Douglas Shearer (1899–1971), art director Cedric Gibbons (1893–1960), and costume designer Adrian (1903–1959). Each was singled out, along with director Edmund Goulding (1891–1959) and playwright William Drake (1899–1965), in the opening credits of the film, aptly enough, because they were in fact the key artisans of the distinctive MGM style, vintage 1932.
The one individual whose name did not appear was Irving Thalberg, who disdained screen credit but was, without question, the chief architect of the MGM house style. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the studio exemplified the "central producer system" that dominated Hollywood at the time. While Louis Mayer handled studio operations and contract negotiations, Thalberg and his half-dozen supervisors (chief among them Harry Rapf [1882–1949], Hunt Stromberg [1894–1968], and Bernie Hyman [1897–1942]) oversaw the actual filmmaking. And although Thalberg eschewed screen credit, his importance to the studio was widely recognized. A 1932 Fortune magazine profile of MGM flatly stated: "For the past five years, M-G-M has made the best and most successful motion pictures in the United States," and that success was directly attributed to Thalberg. "He is what Hollywood means by M-G-M, … he is now called a genius more often than anyone else in Hollywood." The studio's success was due in part to "Mr. Thalberg's heavy but sagacious spending," noted Fortune , which ensured "the glamour of M-G-M personalities" and the "general finish and glossiness which characterizes M-G-M pictures."
There were other subtler components as well. Thalberg was obsessed with "story values," taking an active role in story and script conferences, and assigning up to a dozen staff writers to a film. He also relied heavily on preview screenings to decide whether a picture required rewrites, retakes, and reediting, and thought nothing of assigning different writers and even a different director to the task. This evinced an ethos of "teamwork" at MGM and generated remarkably few complaints, since the contract talent was so well compensated and so deftly handled by Thalberg and Mayer. Thalberg also had a penchant for "romance" in the form of love stories or male-oriented adventure—or preferably both, as in costarring ventures like Red Dust (1932) and China Seas (1935) with Gable and Jean Harlow (1911–1937). Another important factor was Thalberg's impeccable and oft-noted "taste," which was evident not only in his inclination for the occasional highbrow prestige picture but also in his ability to render frankly erotic stories and situations (as in the Gable–Harlow pictures just mentioned) palatable to Hollywood's Production Code and to mainstream audiences.
While many of these qualities remained essential to MGM's house style well into the 1940s, Thalberg's overall control of production diminished by the mid-1930s. His ill health and an internal power struggle at Loew's/MGM, spurred by both Mayer's and Schenck's growing resentment of Thalberg's authority, led to a shake-up in studio management in 1933 and a steady shift to a unit-producer system, whereby a few top executive producers—principally Thalberg, David Selznick (1902–1965) (Mayer's son-in-law), and Hunt Stromberg—supervised high-end features, while Harry Rapf and a few others handled the studio's second-rank films. Thalberg went along with the change, and both he and Selznick thrived under the new setup, particularly in the realm of prestige-level costume dramas and literary adaptations—Thalberg's productions of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Romeo and Juliet , and Camille (both 1936), for instance, and Selznick's David Copperfield (1934), Anna Karenina , and A Tale of Two Cities (both 1935). Stromberg proved especially adept at launching and maintaining successful star-genre cycles, as with the Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy operettas (for example, Naughty Marietta , 1935, and Rose Marie , 1936) and the Thin Man series with William Powell (1892–1984) and Myrna Loy (1905–1993). Many of Stromberg's productions were directed by the prolific W. S. (Woody) Van Dyke (1889–1943), including the first four Thin Man films and six MacDonald–Eddy musicals; Van Dyke's thirty Depression-era credits also included Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), San Francisco (1935), and Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939).
MGM's success continued under this new production regimen, and in fact its profits in 1936–1937 returned to the record levels enjoyed before the
Depression. But the studio was severely shaken by Selznick's departure for independent production and, far more importantly, by Thalberg's sudden, untimely death (at age 37) in September 1936, which marked the end of an era for MGM and a far more radical change in both the production operations and the studio's distinctive style.