MGM 90th Anniversary…without MGM

I received an interesting press release today. Here’s how it started:

Los Angeles, CA (January 22, 2014) – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) announced today a yearlong global campaign to honor the studio’s storied 90-year legacy. Founded in 1924 when theater magnate Marcus Loew bought and merged Metro Pictures Corp. with Goldwyn Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions, MGM and its legendary roaring lion logo signify the golden era of Hollywood to film lovers around the world. Since its inception, the company has led the industry in creating some of Hollywood’s greatest stars and is home to over 175 Academy Award®-winning films, including 14 Best Pictures.

The release goes on to list ten wonderful MGM films that will be featured as part of this celebration. These include Fargo, Rain Man, The Pink Panther, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

MGM films you won’t find here include Singin’ in the Rain, The Thin Man, Ben-Hur (either version), The Big Parade, and North by Northwest. In fact, only one film mentioned here, Thelma and Louise, was an MGM movie when originally released. The others came from United Artists, Orion, or Polygram–studios whose libraries were acquired by MGM.

A bit of history:

Up until 1980, MGM owned all of its films and only its films. Hollywood’s leading studio in the 1930s and ’40s, by the ’70s it was a ghost of its former glory. Nevertheless, in 1981, it bought out another relic of old Hollywood, United Artists. UA came with three studio libraries: the complete RKO library (Citizen Kane, King Kong, Top Hat, etc.), the pre-1950 Warner library (Casablanca, The Jazz Singer, The Public Enemy, and so on), and the post-1950 United Artist catalog (West Side Story, Some Like it Hot, the James Bond franchise, and more). Just as home video became a major market, MGM held the biggest chunk of the American classic cinema pie.

Also with that purchase, MGM became MGM/UA. Whether a single movie opened with the MGM lion or the UA sparkle logo was a matter of marketing. Of the ten films listed in the press release, two came from the MGM/UA era; the aforementioned Thelma and Louise, and The Birdcage, officially a UA release.

In 1986, as part of a complicated deal in which MGM/UA changed hands multiple times, Ted Turner acquired the MGM, Warner and RKO libraries, but MGM/UA held onto the United Artists titles. The company has also acquired other, smaller libraries along the way, including Polygram and Orion.

And thus, MGM celebrates its 90th anniversary without access to the titles it should be celebrating. But then, many of the films they should celebrate are already part of the Best of Warner Brothers 50 Film Colleciton.