America's Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures

By Jerome Christensen | Go to book overview

1 The Rackets
Entertainment Inc. and the Warners Gang (1928-1939)

There is a very general tendency to over-emphasize the moral and
educational influence of the motion pictures…. The sole purpose of the
commercial motion picture is to entertain.
Irving Thai berg1

[The executives at MGM] all point to the harm they could do me by putting
me out in bad pictures, which is only too true. They also tell me that it
would do them no harm, as they are so organized that they would go on
just the same, but that I would suffer irreparable loss.
Lillian Gish to her lawyer2


i. Be a Camera

“Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, largest of 124 subsidiaries owned by Loew’s Inc. is a corporation devoted exclusively to the business and the art of producing moving pictures.” So states Fortune as it begins its 1932 corporate profile of MetroGoldywn-Mayer—its first devoted to a Hollywood studio.3 An inventory of MGM’s fifty-three acre plant, its army of employees, the names and salaries of its stars, and its box office receipts fills the page. And then the author pauses to explain why those facts and figures are worthy of attention: “For the past five years, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has made the best and most successful moving pictures in the United States.” Why was this the case?

It may be luck. It may be the list of MGM stars, vastly the most imposing in …
“the industry.” It may be MGM’s sixty-two writers and eighteen directors. It may
be MGM’s technicians, who are more numerous and more highly paid than those
of MGM’s competitors. It may be Irving Thalberg—Norma Shearer’s husband. If
no one in Hollywood knows the reason for MGM’s producing success, everyone in
Hollywood believes the last. Irving Thalberg, a small and fragile young man with a
suggestion of anemia, is MGM’s vice-president in charge of production. The kinds
of pictures MGM makes and the ways it makes them are Irving Thalberg’s prob-
lems. He is what Hollywood means by MGM.4

To think of MGM is to think of Thalberg, the man who, to his peers, personifies the studio. Fortune will affirm that sentiment. From the outset of the business magazine, in February 1930, hard upon the crash of the stock market,

-24-

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