Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Tale of the Lion and the Fox

It was the 1930's and everything had changed. Hollywood was not the same town it had been only a few short years earlier. The reason for all of the changes was the advent of "talkies" - motion pictures with sound. What a difference it made! Sound stages were going up all over studio production lots, and actors and actresses who previously had only to concern themselves with how they looked on film, were now taking elocution lessons, trying to rid themselves of an accent or a nasal tone. Many new people appeared on the Hollywood scene in the thirties, making the natural transition from Broadway to the talkies.

Sound productions not only made it possible for the fans to hear their favorite stars speak their lines, but now they could hear them sing their favorite songs as well, so the musical  developed into the most popular movie genre. The first all music, all dance talkie was the 1929 Academy award winner Broadway Melody. Musicals soon became so popular, that some of the movie veterans, who otherwise would have never even considered singing and dancing, were persuaded (by virtue of their contracts with the major studios) to hop on the musical band wagon.

The undisputed ruler of the musical was Metro-Goldwyn Mayer, who produced somewhere in excess of 200 musicals during their first fifty years. Although no other studio came close, there was competition.

A rival studio - 20th Century Fox - had a young star named Shirley Temple who was becoming America's sweetheart, and MGM was obsessed with her! Oh, to be sure, MGM had its own child actors, but none of them had achieved the type of popularity, nor brought the studio the notoriety, that Miss Temple and Fox were enjoying.

MGM was obsessed. They desperately wanted her contract. They approached Fox executives. MGM had an idea for a movie that would be just right for little "Curly Top". Could an arrangement be made?

"No deal", said Fox.

MGM tried again. "How about if we throw a couple of our actors into the deal - two of ours for one of yours?"

"No deal", said Fox.

"Fine", said MGM, stomping off.

"Fine", said Fox.

They went their separate ways and there were no more negotiations.

Well, MGM went ahead and made the movie anyway - without Shirley Temple. They gave the part to one of their own actresses, Frances Gumm, a sixteen year old that they had had under contract now for about four years. She had played in a couple of bit parts. Nothing big. Could she handle the lead role in a new musical? That was the question that they were asking themselves at MGM back in 1939.

For over seventy-five years now, generations of movie goers have answered that question with a resounding "YES". You know the movie. You have seen it time after time. The movie that MGM originally planned for Shirley Temple. The movie about a little girl from Kansas and her dog Toto. The Wizard of OZ, staring Frances Gumm - whom you know better as Judy Garland.

But wait. There's more...

Remember the two actors that MGM was willing to trade to Fox for Shirley Temple? The first one was actually another actress - the beautiful and talented Jean Harlow, who stared in such films as Hell's Angels, Platinum Blonde, and Red Dust. In 1937, she became the first actress to appear on the cover of LIFE magazine.

The second was an actor you may have heard of as well. He also made a movie for MGM in 1939. His name was Clark Gable. The movie was the 1939 Academy Award winning best picture - Gone With the Wind.