Narrator gets in way of TNT's fascinating footage from MGM

March 21, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Just like the movie studio it depicts, "MGM: When the Lion Roars" is big, big, BIG. It's also hammy, over-produced and great fun to watch -- at least if you love the movies.

Premiering at 8 p.m. tomorrow on cable's TNT network, the three-part series (with parts two and three at the same time Monday and Tuesday) tells the story of Hollywood's legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios.

"The spectacular rise of an empire, and its lamentable fall," is how host/narrator Patrick Stewart ("Star Trek: The Next Generation") summarizes the series early on.

Not surprisingly, the documentary series unreels rich footage from MGM movies both memorable and forgotten. TNT is part of the Ted Turner cable empire, which in 1985 purchased the entire MGM film library (for $1.3 billion).

Viewers also benefit from the presence in interview segments of a variety of people who go back to the early MGM days. In part one, for example, we see and hear from performers Helen Hayes, Lew Ayres, Maureen O'Sullivan and Jackie Cooper, and behind-the-camera figures Margaret Booth, Clarence Brown and even the legendary silent movie director, King Vidor.

Indeed, the mix of archival footage with commentary from knowledgeable subjects makes a mystery of why we see and hear so much of Mr. Stewart in a variety of production settings.

The documentary opens, for example, with Judy Garland singing "Over the Rainbow" from the big MGM hit "The Wizard of Oz."

Suddenly, Mr. Stewart in a dressing gown paces across a set of fleecy clouds, intoning, "over that rainbow was a land of dreams . . . the grandest motion picture studio the world has ever known."

Viewers may be oddly reminded of the gloomy, pompous newsreel technique of Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane."

Periodically through the series, Mr. Stewart reappears in other mock movie-land settings to read from an inflated script. Apparently, the intent is to evoke the period under discussion, but viewers may be more distracted than anything. (One nice exception is when the famous MGM lion, Leo, is led out to a filming of the familiar logo as Mr. Stewart strolls past.)

Fortunately, the MGM story consistently fascinates. Part one, for example, sketches believable profiles of the two men who made the studio go: robust one-time junk dealer Louis B. Mayer and his protege, the shy, frail Irving Thalberg.

"I realized that movies are the only thing you can sell and still own," Mayer is quoted as explaining his decision to go into the business.

He comes across as the creative power behind the early MGM, as Mr. Cooper (a child star in King Vidor's "The Champ") relates that Mayer knew what he wanted in movies and insisted his performers and directors give it to him.

But Mayer also was a man of passion, so smitten with star Jean Howard that he tried to throw himself out a window when he learned she was seeing someone else.

By contrast, Thalberg was called "the boy wonder" for his financial acumen. But "When the Lion Roars" reveals that his judgment was sometimes curiously fallible.

In the later years of the silent era, it is said, he contended that not only "talkies" but color film were fads that had no place in the art form of the movies.

Luckily for movie-goers, MGM geared up for the new technologies anyway.

*

MURKY MAGIC -- Publicity materials for "Black Magic," a new film premiering tonight on the Showtime cable network, promise subscribers "90 minutes of mystery, passion and psychosexual betrayal."

Hmmm, they forgot to say "boredom."

Too bad. The movie, billed as a "quirky mystery," starts promisingly and even has its good moments throughout -- especially an upbeat music score from Cliff Martinez.

But "quirky" may be the new euphemism for "confusing" or just plain "goofy." About an hour into "Black Magic," you just don't care what is really going on.

Stars Rachel Ward ("The Thornbirds"), Judge Reinhold ("Beverly Hills Cop") and Anthony LaPaglia ("Betsy's Wedding") do the best they can, but producer Dan Wigutow seems to have been unable to decide whether he wanted a real mystery or a comedy.

The film plays like an awkward mix of "Beetlejuice" and the wonderful old "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958, with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak).

Mr. Reinhold is a New York man suffering from insomnia and bad dreams -- specifically, nightmares in which his presumably dead cousin Ross (Mr. LaPaglia) appears to him as a member of the "undead."

At the urging of his shrink, our baggy-eyed hero travels to Istanbul -- Istanbul, N.C., that is (actually the Wilmington region), where his cousin supposedly died.

Surprise! He finds the man is only missing. Then he falls for Ross' girlfriend (Ms. Ward), then learns she may be a witch, then is told to murder her (by his undead cousin in a dream), then . . . well, by now things are pretty "quirky."

Some nice lines offer occasional laughs, at least.

At their first meeting, for example, Mr. Reinhold tells Ms. Ward he understands she and his cousin were "intimate." She grins and replies, "Yes, we intimated."

And later, he asks her if she is a witch and she retorts, "Are you crazy? I'm a Methodist."

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