Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh star in the MGM epic “Gone with the Wind”

By Tony Rizzo
As Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios — $5 billion in debt — fights off bankruptcy and the same billionaire trying to take over Lionsgate, as well as the sale of its vast film library, we long for movies made by the most legendary studio that ever existed.

MGM was founded in 1915 as Triangle Pictures and went on to make some of the greatest movies of all time. Surely you can find one of your favorites in a list of classics that includes “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Ben Hur,” “Showboat,” “An American in Paris,” “Gigi,” “The Dirty Dozen” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

There was a time when MGM boasted having “more stars than in the heavens!” Famed MGM publicist Esme Chandlee recalls, “When I worked at MGM we had 51 major stars under contract. Stars like Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, James Stewart and Lucille Ball, to name a few.”

When Clark Gable’s contract ended at MGM, he wanted no press or fanfare as he rode off the lot, just Ms. Chandlee in the car with him. Esme recalls, “I was on a location shooting with Gable, and he asked if I needed a ride home, and I said that would be wonderful. Then we boarded his private plane and flew home. You’d be hard put to find any star today who can measure up to him, except maybe Tom Selleck, whose publicity I did for most of his career.”

In the 1970s, a corporate raider acquired MGM, which was the beginning of the end for the great studio. He sold 38 acres of the studio back lot to housing developers, sold Dorothy’s ruby slippers for $15,000 and even sold Bert Lahr’s lion suit from “Oz” for $2,400. He used the money to build the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. MGM became a studio without a home lot and stopped making films to run its hotel, which today has been stripped of all MGM memorabilia.

In 1981, MGM acquired United Artists and became MGM/UA. In 1986, the vast film library of MGM was sold to Ted Turner for his cable TV channels. Also in ’86, Leo the Lion, who hung over the studio entrance for decades, disappeared from sight forever.

Turner later merged with Warner Bros., which now controls the greatest films made by MGM. Today, the MGM lot is owned by Sony Pictures, which bought the MGM name for $5 billion. In 2006, Tom Cruise and his partner, Paula Wagner, bought United Artists to make movies under that name. The deal didn’t include the James Bond, Pink Panther or Rocky movies, which MGM kept. Even though the last Bond film, “Casino Royale,” was a success, the next 007 film has been put on hold due to a lack of money to produce it.

Most movie people in Hollywood are sick over the way this once great studio, the backbone of Hollywood, has been dissected, picked apart and sold off piece by piece. It is truly sad we will never again see the likes of the great Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

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© 2010 King Features Synd., Inc.