MGM: When the Lion Roars ★★★

The Lion's Roar
This three-part, six-hour documentary is included with Warner's terrific 70th anniversary edition of The Wizard of Oz. I've long been aware that MGM had once been the most prestigious studio, but by the time of my youth, Kirk Kerkorian came along and gutted the organization. I was therefore keen to finally be introduced to the historical roots of the studio and its reputation for having "more stars than there are in Heaven".

When this first episode opened and it became apparent that host Patrick Stewart would be addressing us as though narrating a play in which no characters are aware of him, I was leery. It's a perfectly legitimate storytelling convention, but on an early 90's cable budget could the production be lofty enough to make it work - and for six hours, at that? It took some time to acclimate to the conceit, but acclimate I did. How it will hold throughout the next two episodes remains to be seen, of course.

The names are all familiar, of course: Louis B. Mayer; Irving Thalberg; David O. Selznick; Clark Gable; Greta Garbo; Lon Chaney, Sr.; Joan Crawford; Lionel Barrymore; Lilian Gish, and so on. In truth, I've seen very few works by any of those legends. To date, I've not seen a single picture starring Garbo, Crawford, or Gish. (It was a bit startling to hear Gish speak, incidentally, since in my mind she exists exclusively as a silent film star. It never occurred to me that she spoke, giving me an approximation of how first-generation talkie audiences must have felt.)

MGM: When the Lion Roars is ultimately little more than a historical survey, glossing over whole careers between clips from films released sometimes just months apart from one another. Unquestionably, it is Thalberg who dominates this episode just as he dominated MGM throughout the period covered here. He is portrayed as the rarest of specimens: an executive with artistic vision; a hands-on boss who got his own hands dirty and earning the loyalty and respect of all those under him.

This doc focuses exclusively on the professional lives of its subjects, acknowledging personal lives only insofar as they impacted the professional, such as Thalberg's marriage to Norma Shearer, to whose career he paid special attention. Consequently, there is little sense of who Thalberg was as a human being away from the studio. Even less attention is paid to most other subjects, save that they were either made into stars by MGM or lured to the studio. Only Garbo's personality is really explored, and I must concede that after watching this episode I've bumped her up on my To-Explore list quite a few notches.

As television, MGM: When the Lion Roars isn't terribly exciting. The interludes with Patrick Stewart are serviceable, relying in large part on his own theatrical presence to sell the concept. Otherwise, it's an ordinary parade of clips of films and interviews, with narration guiding us from one to the next.

I'm going to wait until I've watched all three episodes to add MGM: When the Lion Roars to my Flickchart.