MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer once said about his studio that MGM had “more stars than there are in heaven.” The studio was famous for some of the greatest films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s like The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain and the Andy Hardy series. But by the 1970s, with the advent of television, the demise of the studio system, and a general shift in film tastes, MGM was in mighty trouble. In Peter Bart’s Fade Out: The Calamitous Final Days of MGM, readers have a glimpse of a doomed effort by some to resurrect the once-great institution.
Bart may not have been a great studio executive, but he’s an excellent writer. Fade Out reads like a pulpy page-turner as he shares details of how bad spending, ill-advised investments, and incompetence pushed MGM further into decline. He writes of the almost-blind hubris of some of these men who believed that they could turn around an inevitable failure by just slashing cuts and not taking into account that what made MGM great in its golden age was that the studio hired the best writers, directors and performers. It appeared that with a few exceptions, art seemed to have been beside the point – and this idea was made all the more clear when MGM temporarily pulled out of the movie business and instead opened two luxurious hotels in Las Vegas.
Another issue that Bart seemed to have caught is that the executives in charge of the dying MGM did not know how to deal with temperamental, artistic egos of the directors hired, nor were they knowledgable on how to wrangle the talents to put together a movie under budget and in time. At times, the folly is strangely enjoyable – a schadenfreude if you will, at seeing men who think that mony can buy anything, including credibility. But at times, there is a poignancy, as when Bart recounts his tussling with Australian director Gillian Armstrong who was trying to finish up work on Mrs. Soffel, a dark period drama that was bleeding its coffers. Armstrong was a find who helmed two indies, and never had to work with a big-budget or famous movie stars (Mel Gibson and Diane Keaton starred), and at times, was bitter, isolated and homesick. It was sad to read how out of her depth Armstrong felt.
Knowing that MGM never returned to its salad days, gives the reader some hindsight into how hopeless the task of reinvigorating the studio really was. Bart, an excellent journalist and film writer, takes a sharp and critical eye at who was at fault for the collapse – and he includes himself in the list of men and women who contributed to the fall. It’s obvious he loves movies, and he has a passion for film, which gives the book some pathos, as he seemingly believed that MGM could rise again. And while Bart is realistic and unsentimental, there is not a trace of bitterness – instead Fade Out plays like a cautionary tale of what can happen when people take on a gargantuan project without humility or self-awareness.