*Insert lion’s roar here*
There’s no such thing as being too big to fail. MGM was always one of the biggest and most successful studios in Hollywood, but when they fell, they fell hard.
Not that it was a surprise to anyone in the post-Production Code, post block-book era, seeing as MGM’s fortunes had been declining for roughly a decade since Ben Hur. During the nineteen-sixties, MGM’s output was way less than it had been at any time in its history and with some exceptions the quality of the films degraded significantly.
In 1969 a controlling amount of studio shares were sold to mysterious millionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian who did not want to be in the movie business. He may not have even liked movies, although by many accounts he wasn’t a mean guy. The plan was to use MGM’s assets to turn MGM into a hotel company, with MGM props and costumes lining the lobbies and hallways of his new resorts.
Nowadays, the MGM Resort Company swears up and down that they have no connection to MGM Studios and they don’t, but MGM Resorts doesn’t use the MGM name and lion logo by coincidence; Kerkorian was notorious for banking on brand recognition, and anyway, his attorneys released a statement in 1979 declaring that MGM was primarily a hotel company and not a film studio of any importance. In 1986 Kerkorian separated the studio from his hotel business when he sold MGM Resorts to Bally’s, who still controls them today.
Kerkorian’s volleying of the physical MGM studio. its film catalogue, and its various distribution rights could be a whole topic all by its lonesome, but the saddest part of his dealmaking was when he first became MGM’s principal shareholder.
First of all Kerkorian took Irving Thalberg’s name off of the Thalberg Building. Next he started selling off MGM’s backlots for their land value. These lots were still being maintained and used in the late nineteen sixties and early seventies, but Kerkorian only saw dollar signs.
Finally, for a cool $1.5 million, he sold MGM’s vast collection of props and costumes to the David Weisz Company to auction off to the highest bidder. Planes. Trains. Automobiles. Lampposts. Knickknacks. Furniture. The Cotton Blossom and the Bounty, both of which sat in repose on the backlot. A B-25 bomber that had been used in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Andy Hardy’s roadster. Just a fraction of MGM’s collection could make the poshest antiques dealer green with envy.
Then there were the costumes. MGM was notorious for saving every shirt, every pocket square, every skirt, and anything else connected with their films. The remotely average-looking textiles were kept in the studio’s general population of costumes, but pieces that were readily recognizable, such as Ziegfeld outfits or Wizard of Oz costumes, were put into deep storage on Lot Two in what was colloquially referred to as Mr. Culver’s Barn.
Kent Warner was called on to help with the mammoth task of sifting through the thousands of costumes (an estimated 350,000) and presenting them at the auction. A very talented costumer with an eye for the good stuff, Warner was already developing a reputation around town for helping studios unload their unwanted costumes, sometimes without their explicit knowledge, not that they would have cared anyway. Most of the studios didn’t give a flying fish about their history; RKO, for instance, stored costumes in their commissary and people would wipe grease and ketchup on them. Kent figured that since the studios had washed their hands of their historic properties, why not save them?
Even so, for many years movie memorabilia collection was a very sensitive topic because these items weren’t always discarded property in the true sense. Kent Warner is credited with saving historic garments and other artifacts that would have otherwise deteriorated or been thrown out.
When it came to MGM’s auction, cataloguing their vast stores was an extremely hot, dirty job with inches of dust, but Warner unearthed plenty of treasures, including several pairs of ruby slippers, the exact number of which he never revealed. To this day no one knows how many pairs he found.
Warner didn’t just want the costumes to be displayed on mannequins for people to stare at. He wanted them to seem alive. A Robert Taylor suit was posed to look as if it was climbing stairs. Some costumes appeared to flutter and breathe.
Not everything about the presentation of the costumes was handled so well, however. When MGM stored costumes, they were often hung up as complete outfits, with relevant shoes and accessories attached, as well as a call sheet. Much to the chagrin of anyone with a sense of history, the pieces in these packaged outfits were broken up and thrown into bins to be sold separately. Some got by, though–Jerry Maaren’s Lollipop Guild outfit from The Wizard of Oz has survived relatively intact.
The auction was held on May 3-20, 1970 (read an online copy of one of the catalogues here), and no one could have predicted how it would turn out. The prices might seem low to us nowadays, but interest was off the charts. To the surprise of many, the ruby slippers brought in the most money of any one item at $15,000. According to Rhys Thomas, Jeanette MacDonald was a surprise favorite as well, as was Clark Gable, whose trench coat went for $1,250. Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding dress from Father of the Bride went for $650, and Spencer Tracy’s morning coat sold for $125. Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan loincloth and Gina Lolobrigida’s panties took in $50 apiece.
There were several MGM celebrities in attendance, but the most visible was Debbie Reynolds, who purchased about $180,000 worth of costumes and memorabilia, intending to recreate whole sets in a planned Hollywood museum. Reynolds was very upset at the cavalier attitude of the auctioneers and most everyone involved with the liquidation of MGM’s assets, not to mention she was sorry to see historic artifacts scattered to the winds. Here’s a slideshow of some of the costumes and props that were sold:
In the most unkindest cut of all, the remainder of the costumes were sold in a rummage sale. In the early seventies it was the thing to wear Sergeant Pepper-like costumes, or rip lace off of older garments and sew it to jeans, and patrons thought nothing of dropping costumes on the floor and walking over them.
That’s not to say no one was paying attention. Chris Rich spied a Navy-style pea coat with “Clark Gable” written on the label. It was from the 1935 version of Mutiny On the Bounty. She bought it immediately for a dollar and sold it for two-thousand more over a decade later.
Overall, the MGM auction left everyone except possibly Kirk Kerkorian with a bad taste in their mouths. Kerkorian was looked on as a villain by the film industry and may still be. Decades of Hollywood history were now consigned to an unknown fate in the hands of collectors and a once great studio was a shadow of its former self. It’s fortunate that people did their best to save what they could.
For more MGM goodness, please see the Metzinger sisters at Silver Scenes. Thanks for hosting this, ladies–it was wonderful! Thanks for reading, all, and see you on Thursday for a new Shamedown…
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Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. New York: Alfred K. Knopf. 1977.
MGM: When the Lion Roars. Director: Frank Martin. Narrator: Patrick Stewart. Turner Entertainment, 1992.
Thomas, Rhys. The Ruby Slippers of Oz. Los Angeles: Tale Weaver Publishing. 1989.
Treasure! The Search For the Ruby Slippers. Written and produced by Rhys Thomas. Narrated by Stuart Nelson. A&E, 1998.