Battle of the Backlots

(Cue Rocky theme music.)

Welcome, film fans!

We have come to a big face-off between two movie heavyweights. Both are scrappy and determined, but only one will win the title of Best Backlot.

Culver-City-0781
Source: Culver City Historical Society

In this corner, we have M-G-M, which roared onto the scene in 1924. Called by industry professionals “the Tiffany of the business,” M-G-M was known for films of all kinds. Ars Gratia Artis may have been its official company motto, but its real one was “Do it big, do it right, give it class.” During its heyday, M-G-M won more Oscars than any other studio and was said by some to have the biggest and best backlot in Hollywood.

Or does it?

warnerbrosstudios
Source: Pinterest

In the other corner we have Warner Bros, which came out swingin’ in 1923. Known for gritty realism, Warner has always been out in front when it comes to tackling tough issues head-on. They were the first to throw punches at Nazi Germany and fascism while the other studios tiptoed. Warners has also led in pioneering film technology, most notably sound and film restoration.

Two contenders. One title. Who will come out on top? You, me, and Steven Bingen will decide.

Who is Steven Bingen, you ask? He is the co-author of M-G-M: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot and Warner Bros.: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot, both of which will be our primary, but not only, source materials. With adjectives like “ultimate” and “greatest” being bandied about, a match-up is inevitable.

The fight will be divided into five rounds:

  1. Size and Quality of Backlot.
  2. Variety of Films Produced.
  3. Output.
  4. Star Power.
  5. Last Backlot Standing.

The rounds are now set. Challengers to your corners, and…

(Yes, I’m trying to work in as many boxing clichés as possible. Seeing as my knowledge of the sport could barely fill one of Manny Pacquaio’s gloves, this could be quite a feat.)

Round One: Size and Quality of Backlot

warner-bros-studio-tour
Source: TripAdvisor

Before location shooting became a thing, backlots were the place to be for exterior work. All studios had their New York Street, Midwest Street, European Street, and so on. They may have gone by slightly different names, but the intent was the same–these sets stood ready to be dressed up as whatever locale or time period the production teams required. As far as acreage goes, Warner Bros.’ backlot boasted thirty acres to M-G-M’s eighty-one, which is very impressive. M-G-M’s backlot was also widely considered to be the most beautiful in Hollywood, whereas Warner Bros. looks great while getting the job done. Both studios gave their outdoor sets plenty of TLC. Unfortunately, however, M-G-M’s backlot was allowed to deteriorate after the sixties, while Warner Bros. has consistently maintained theirs.

Point: M-G-M

Round Two: Variety of Films Produced

mgmstlouis
Source: Beliefnet

As mentioned before, both M-G-M and Warner Bros had their strong suits, but each studio produced musicals, family films, war films, westerns, dramas, comedies, and television shows. M-G-M seemed to move between genres with more consistent quality than Warner Bros., though. If Warner made a musical or a family movie, for instance, it usually came out well, but it would always have a little harder edge than something similar made at M-G-M. Gold Diggers of 1933 did this literally in the Ginger Rogers number, “We’re In the Money,” with women waving giant coins around. Unless we’re talking about Slumdog Millionaire or This Is Spinal Tap, musicals lend themselves to beauty in at least some capacity. Warner’s musicals had beauty, but with an attitude, while M-G-M’s were full of women in floaty fabrics, touches of sentiment, and in the case of the “Beauty” number in Ziegfeld Follies, copious amounts of bubbles. On the other hand, if M-G-M made a war movie or a heavy drama, it would have as much edge as necessary. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a great example. Van Johnson still got the star treatment, but the film didn’t gloss over the hardships he faced as Captain Ted Lawson.

Point: M-G-M

Round Three: Output

warnerbrosgazebo
Source: Dear Old Hollywood

The studio systems operated like factories. Films were made simultaneously–some could be in pre-production while others were being shot and reshot, edited and re-edited, or scored. Studios aimed for releasing a film a week, but this seldom occurred. At its height, M-G-M released forty-nine movies a year, while Warner Bros. has been a wee bit more aggressive. In 1934, Warner Bros. had a major fire which leveled fourteen acres, at a loss between a quarter and a half-million dollars. In spite of this, Warner still managed to release fifty-four features the year the lot was being rebuilt. Until the Hollywood Anti-Trust Case of 1948, both studios maintained a steady output, but had to seriously curtail production beginning in the fifties. In all, it is thought that during the studio era M-G-M’s backlot was the location of an estimated fifth of all films and television shows made in the United States, while Warner’s filmography is many thousands and still growing.

Point: Warner Bros.

Round Four: Star Power

bettegreer
Bette Davis with Greer Garson, date unknown. (Source: Pinterest)

This one depends on what type of actor or actress you’re after. M-G-M touted that it had more stars than there are in the heavens. Warner Bros. wasn’t too shabby, though. The difference is that the studios looked for different things in their stars. For the most part, M-G-M wanted their big stars to be the total package: beautiful people with acting chops; otherwise, an actor was relegated to character parts. Warner’s had plenty of beautiful people as well, but looking unconventional wasn’t a detriment to one’s career–it was more important to bring it in the acting department. Bette Davis and Greer Garson are terrific examples: Greer, an M-G-M star, was a typical kind of gorgeous; Bette, a Warner’s star, was not, but each were able to make it. Both studios also had their completely unique, break-the-mold players. For instance, M-G-M had Esther Williams, while one of Warner’s was James Dean.

Point: Tie

Round Five: Last Backlot Standing

tarzanpond
A view of the (possible) Showboat lake today. (Source: Yelp)

When the Hollywood Anti-Trust Case of 1948 passed, some studios were hit harder than others. The Supreme Court decreed that the movie-makers could no longer own theaters, and block-booking, or forcing independent theaters to rent pre-selected double features and extras, was now illegal. Both of these measures cut studios off from guaranteed income. Worse, the advent of television hobbled the studios even further. While Warner Bros. was able to ride out the transition, M-G-M wasn’t so fortunate. Loew’s, M-G-M’s parent company, took the longest to let go of its theater chains, and paid the price by slowly diminishing profits and fewer stars under contract. After limping along for roughly a decade, M-G-M was acquired by millionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who turned the old lion into a hotel company with filmmaking on the side. Props and costumes were auctioned off, and beginning in 1972, the backlot was gradually taken down. It’s since been replaced by a senior center and condos. According to Yelp, the only remaining parts of the backlot are the lake and river used in Showboat, but who knows if that’s really true (Note: the lake and river are in an active condominium complex. If you visit, please don’t disturb the residents.). M-G-M, while still producing and distributing films, now has its facilities in Beverly Hills, with Sony Pictures occupying its former lot.

In sharpest contrast, Warner Bros. changed very little from the nineteen-sixties through the nineteen-eighties, which may look like a bad business move, but it was one of the key factors in their preservation. Warner’s also had relatively consistent executive leadership throughout the rough spots, unlike M-G-M, which changed heads frequently after L.B. Mayer was fired. Since the nineteen-nineties, the backlot and other facilities at Warner Bros. have been refurbished and shuffled around a little, leaving the studio basically intact and on its original site.

And we all know what that means–M-G-M is down for the count, and…

WINNER: Warner Bros.!

Of course, this is entirely subjective (and pretty tongue-in-cheek), so what did you think? Was it a fair fight? Here’s how our two contenders stacked up with our poll responders:

Yep. Survey says it’s a draw. Thanks to everyone who voted! 🙂

mgmhollywoodsgreatestbacklot
Source: Amazon

For those whose interest is now piqued, Steven Bingen’s books are wonderful resources. He takes a lot-by-lot, building-by-building approach in each one, with more particulars than you can shake a stick at. I read his M-G-M book one day while sitting in one of the museums I volunteer at, and the entire time I was grinning like a fool because it’s so fascinating. There are some really obvious errors in it, such as when Bingen says Mickey Rooney was younger than Lana Turner (he was a year older), but it’s an invaluable record of the studio over the years. There are tons of photos–more photos than text, actually–with plenty of facts and figures about the size and function of each M-G-M lot. Bingen even pays tribute to the long-gone Lot One backlot, which was the site of the early, early films at the studio, like 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man and the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. This backlot was bulldozed in the mid-thirties, and a parking garage now sits on the site. Most of the locations Bingen mentions in the book have since been changed completely, and this may make the reader feel a bit like a time-traveler, which is always good fun.

wbhollywoodsultimatebacklot
Source: Amazon

Bingen’s Warner Bros. book is more text-heavy and less of a photo essay than the M-G-M book, but the time-travel aspect is the same. The book is extra personal to Bingen, as he was the archivist at Warner’s for many years and has spent a lot of time there. It’s full to the brim with biographical info about the Warners, as well as tons of behind-the-scenes tidbits. For instance, did you know that paintings used in films are sprayed with a special matte coating to prevent the painting from reflecting light? Or that there were several copies of the Maltese Falcon statue used in various other films as set dressing? Bingen also writes extensively about his very early days of puttering around Warner Bros. in the early nineteen-nineties, and seeing such famous sets as the spaceship from the TV series, V, still impeccably dressed and seemingly frozen in time. I wish this book had more photos, but the information contained in it is gripping. Once again, I was grinning like a fool.

Okay, I hope you enjoyed reading, and see you all next week for the…

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There’s still time to throw your hat in the door, so if anyone’s interested, please stop by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies or Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Till then, all…

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4 thoughts on “Battle of the Backlots

    1. Thanks, Maddy! Yeah, I like both M-G-M and WB, too–if it hadn’t been for that last-man-standing thing, I think we would have had a tie.

      And I agree! Unfortunately it was such a common tale in Hollywood, and it all came down to money. It’s too bad the M-G-M execs didn’t take Debbie Reynolds’ advice and open the backlot to the public. Meanwhile, over at Universal…oops. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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