Saturday, April 10, 2010

The End of the Yellow Brick Road, and What I Found There

photograph taken from life goes to the movies

I am a shadow chaser with ear pressed to the ground, hoping to catch some faint footstep of the past. I am Nora Charles peering around the corner of the Myrna Loy building, led by an invisible Asta. I stumble over the ghosts that drift up from the seamless concrete, my hands full of stories that tumble to the ground and fall without sound. No one sees them, it’s like they were never here. And to the executives at Columbia, they never were.

I know right from the intro video that something is wrong. As I listen to the story of Harry Cohn, watch short silent montages of It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, hear the name Mayer mentioned once before it is slipped into a back pocket, I know their game. The winners rewrite the history and chain themselves to their bottom line, dogs behind a wire fence.

We are led to the old Irving Thalberg building, past the old offices right by the gate, the gate that had once roared its name, MGM, and the cool white building where the big white elevated desk once towered over hopes and dreams, teeth gleaming. Never more. We are led down the old main streets with new names like the Frank Capra bank, which I know Jean Arthur did not run past when she supposedly screamed I’m free, I’m free. We are led to a Foley studio, full of bottles and keys and fake grass and rugs and I finally know something lives here, something breathes here that recognizes it is a fake.

We see the old bungalows where Katharine Hepburn would throw rooftop parties, we stand in the vast cavern of stage 15 where the yellow brick road once stood, past stucco walls where Gene Kelly danced around a lamp post and an afraid of heights Red Skelton was supposedly forgotten in the rafters, a dummy thrown off the side as revenge. Sometimes I have to pull teeth for this information, and sometimes it is waved away with the flick of a wrist stamped by Columbia.

Something was here, I know it was, and I’ll yell it from the top of stage 6 till my face turns blue. The Columbia Cagneys’ll not tie me down; the faceless giants who poke fat fingers in my face. This is how it’s going to be, see? Nyah, nyah.
Shaded by trees, connected by paths, and surrounded by flowering shrubs, the bungalow dressing rooms of the stars gave an outward impression of an enclave of peace and tranquillity, but inside, as I was to learn, their walls bore the scars of countless exhibitions of temperament, noisy moments of triumph, and far too many lonely heartbreaks. I was also to learn that writers got drunk, actors became paranoid, actresses pregnant, and directors uncontrollable. Crises were a way of life in the Dream Factories, but by some extraordinary mixture of efficiency, compromising, exuberance,gambling, shrewdness, experience, strong-arm tactics, psychology, blackmail, kindness, integrity, good luck, and a firm belief that "the show must go on," the pictures came rolling off the end of the production lines. -David Niven
Something lived here, once. I know it. I just know it.


  1. It's such a shame the people leading the tours at the studios know little to nothing of their history. Maybe it's because it's not "MGM" anymore. Maybe with the Sony takeover, most of the lot's history went with it. :(

  2. The odd thing was that the guide claimed that he got the job because he knew a lot about the history, so either he thinks he does or he's been silenced because they just want to focus on what's going on now and how they can make a buck, which I suppose is understandable, how the world goes round, but the thing that REALLY bothered me was the way they just sneakily rebranded the studio and pretended it had always been columbia. they didn't outright claim that it happened one night had been filmed there, but when you're watching a video about the studio and it's all harry cohn and you can't take it with you there is a slight of hand going on which just made me so angry. i tried to give them the benefit of the doubt by reasoning that maybe the rights to some of the famous clips like singing in the rain, etc are still owned by mgm but still.

  3. Oh my bad, I thought you went on an MGM/Sony tour?

    The people in charge probably give the tour guides a general script or something that they have to follow

  4. I did! that's precisely my point! ;)

  5. Yeah, I don't think they prepare the tour guides like they used to. It's better when you get some old guy who's been around forever to give tours -- they just know everything. Somewhat unrelated story: once Conan O'Brien hid on his set (with a camera crew, of course) and listened in while some intern was giving a tour, and (with confusion and humor) pointed out all the wrong things he told the group of people. He eventually popped out when he had had enough, set the kid straight (again, with humor and not anger, because he's not that type of guy) and allowed the tour group to possibly have one of the best accounts of their lives. If the tour guide salaries aren't all that high, neither are the standards or the quality.

    I really liked how you wrote this post :)

  6. That is fantastic!! Great story. :) I imagine you are right, but that still doesn't explain their intro video that gave the story of columbia and made it seem like it had ALWAYS been columbia when all of the films that they were showing clips from would have been at sunset gower, the lot we visited being mgm at the time, and then lb mayer was just off somewhere chillin' in this really odd throwaway clip that they had. I get the push columbia bit, the fact that they've seemingly rewritten it doesn't jive with me. I feel like so much of what those studios are lies in the past, they're soulless without the stories and with the move away from the studio era and the move of moviemaking to vancouver, etc it just doesn't have the same cache. The magic is in those stories that they they have pushed into the distance.

  7. Dear Meredith:

    You had me at “shadow chaser.” I wondered where this was going. A very eloquent reconnoiter through -- I do not want to say enemy country -- but through some “make believe” region, squared (rebuilt on deception and bordering on despair). I think you found just the proper level, balancing between anger and sadness -- or, perhaps, fury and melancholy. We are all much too savvy to ask why. So your David Niven quote lands us back where we can: somewhere between Nathanael West and Louis B. Mayer. From there it is easier to ask why. And your perfect afterthought did not slam the door, but closed it sadly.


  8. what a wonderful comment. you are very eloquent yourself my good man!

  9. What a wonderfully written post, Meredith! I was totally caught up in the story. Thank you!

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