It’s been 98 years since MGM was founded on Apr. 26, 1924, but some of the biggest problems that confronted the new film studio are still plaguing Hollywood.
NY theatre magnate Marcus Loew formed MGM to get the volume of movies he needed for his growing theatre circuit. Metro Pictures, which he bought for $3M in 1920, couldn’t supply him with enough films. Buying financially troubled Goldwyn Pictures for $4.7M (plus $600,000 for stock owned by Sam Goldwyn, who’d already left GP) got him a 46-acre studio, a growling lion logo, and a roster of top acting & directing talent.
But Loew felt Goldwyn’s management wasn’t up to running the new studio, so on the advice of his attorney, J. Robert Rubin, he hired indie producer Louis B. Mayer. Loew acquired Mayer, his small studio, and his boy wonder production assistant Irving Thalberg for just $76,500.
Mayer & Thalberg soon found they’d inherited two big production problems from Goldwyn. The drama GREED was being finished by the notoriously difficult director Eric von Stroheim. His final cut ran 40 reels — about 6 hours! After weeks of pressure, he trimmed it to 24 reels, running about 3 1/2 hours. Then Mayer & Thalberg put an editor to work, chopping off two more reels. They told von Stroheim this was the final version — and, finally, he got the message to start working on his next project.
They faced a worse problem with the action epic BEN-HUR, based on General Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, which director Charles Brabin had been shooting in Italy since October 1923. Realizing it was a disaster, Loew had Mayer secretly assemble a new team to take over in Italy — director Fred Niblo, screenwriter Bess Meredyth & Ramon Navarro to replace George Walsh in the title role.
Loew sailed to Italy in July, broke the bad news, and supervised the changeover before returning to NY in August. But the new team didn’t do any better, as Mayer found out on a visit to Rome months later. He & Thalberg decided the only way out was to shut down in Italy, build massive new sets in Culver City, and complete production there. That’s where the legendary chariot race was shot by second-unit director B. Reeves Eason and 62 assistant directors using 42 cameras and 200,000 feet of film. Production finally wrapped in August 1925.
BEN-HUR wound up costing $3.95M — over $60M today — making it Hollywood’s most expensive silent movie. Its worldwide release brought MGM $9M, but thanks to Goldwyn’s very expensive original deal for the film rights, it didn’t return a profit until it was re-released in 1931.