Not only did MGM have more stars than in heaven it also had more backlots – the place where dreams were made. In Culver City, CA, besides the main studio lot, were eight backlots, depending on how one counts them. I have the distinction of being one of the last people to have shot a film on MGM Backlot #2, one of the two main backlots and the last one standing, which is an interesting story in itself, but for another time.
Because of that, I was contacted by Steven Bingen, an archivist at Warner Brothers, who, along with Mike Troyan and Steve Sylvester have authored a book for Santa Monica Press called MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT – with a foreword by Debbie Reynolds.
Unfortunately MGM ain't what it used to be and, in fact, the main lot, the only lot left, is now owned by Sony. All the backlots met with the wrecker's ball and made way for condos or other developments. "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," as Joanie Mitchell once sang. Luckily the photos, memories and stories of people who remember the backlots have been collected in this book.
What follows is Part I of my interview with Steve Bingen about the book and the backlots. Please note that the interview was done before the book was finalized and released so that is reflected in the interview's wording.
Thank you, Steve, for coming to Cafe Noir. What gave you the idea for this book – what was your inspiration?
There have been books written about MGM before, and I recommend them all. But there was always a major part of the equation, maybe the major part of that equation missing on each and every one of them. All of these books would inevitably contain one aerial shot of the lot – usually the same one – and a single paragraph, maybe, about soundstages and backlots at the studio. And that would be it!
This struck all three of us as mysterious. It always seemed to us that if you were writing about a place, and MGM was indeed an actual physical place, then why would an author choose to tell us what amounted to virtually nothing about that place? People always describe Hollywood's studios as "dream factories." Well that phrase isn't bad for what it is, and anyone who was there will tell you that life in those dream factories was if anything, even more interesting than the product the factory was producing. Yet no one had ever talked about that factory. Ever.
What we wanted to do with our book, was to zoom in on that single aerial photo in everyone else's book, to climb the fences of one of those dream factories and look around a bit.
Tell us about the book and what makes it unique.
Let me just say that the book is formatted as a "virtual tour" of MGM Studios. The text mostly consists of a walk around the lot, circa 1960, with every major set and department described and illustrated. We've included hundreds of unseen photos of the place as well, many of which were saved from catacombs and basements and archives which no living person has accessed in decades. I'm not sure about the "not living" people.
What did you learn about MGM and/or the various backlots that was new or really interesting?
I thought it was fascinating and haunting how many famous movies and television shows shot on that lot for which no one ever suspected that what they were watching was a backlot at all. Even if audiences were watching a set they had already seen in hundreds, thousands of other films, people seemed to accept that a curved European street was Paris one week and Transylvania the next just because a visual cue, a street sign or an establishing shot told them it was. Something like a fifth of all the movies made in the United States, historically were made somewhere on the MGM backlot! Sadly, and decades after the fact, this only proves how successfully these facades were at doing what they were designed to do. Even today in an era of wide-spread location shooting and so-called digital backlots, Hollywood's few surviving actual backlots manage to succeed in constantly fooling today's "sophisticated" audiences time after time. I recall watching the Super Bowl on TV recently, and counting at least 4 commercials during the broadcast which replicated real locations using current LA backlot sets which every single person in that game's vast worldwide audience had seen hundreds of times before. I can't help but wonder how many of those people, besides me, have ever suspected that was the case?
What were some of the movies shot on them?
In the book we came up with a list of every major backlot set with the titles of films shot on that set listed underneath. I'm not sure how much of that list is going to be published, and in what form, but as it stands now those lists alone, in reduced print, equal over 40 pages of text, and frankly are not even close to being comprehensive! It amuses me that people write books about, and make pilgrimages to, locations where their favorite scenes from their favorite films were shot. You know, Griffith Observatory in the Hollywood hills where a single scene in "Rebel Without a Cause" was recorded for example. Well, that location pales in significance to any single inch of any single movie studio – which has probably hosted hundreds, thousands, of films across the decades. I sometimes drive though those vast anonymous subdivisions which were built where MGM's Lot Two once stood, and I can't help but wonder if the people in those tract homes on that land, know, or care, how historic their property really is. Movie-wise that real estate is more important than any single block of Hollywood Boulevard ever was!
Anyway, I think it's kind of fun to hopscotch through these lists and realize how versatile these sets were, and how much of our shared movie memories were created on them.
How and why did you hook up with me?
Now that's an interesting story. I don't know if readers of this blog are aware of this but Paul directed one of the last movies ever made on the MGM backlot. That 40 page chronological list I mentioned of films shot at the studio ends with his name on it.
I didn't know any of this. I had noticed that there were a few very tantalizing stills floating around on the internet of the studio in its very decrepit very last days. I couldn't figure out what film these stills were from or what movie was seen in production in them. I started asking around on the sites where these "holy grail" shots had been posted and that finally led Paul and I to a meeting where he was good enough to loan me some of these same stills and describe the strange production history of his picture "Show Biz." I'm not going to tell that story here because I can't do so as well as he can, but needless to say it is in my book, and hopefully some of those pictures will appear there as well. (The photo selection is still being assembled [at the time of the interview]). Let me just say that the history of Paul's movie quite a tale. Ask him to tell it to you…
MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT is a fun read and jammed full of great photos. Anyone interested in MGM and Hollywood history should have this book. It is available in bookstores and at Amazon. Click here:
In Part II find out about more about MGM. Stay tuned.