During these summer months we’ll visit the mighty studios of Old Hollywood. We will be hearing from Twentieth Century-Fox and Paramount Pictures in the next few weeks, but this time let’s visit the largest of the old studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM boasted that it had “more stars than there are in heaven” and nobody disputed the claim.
MGM produced an hour-long weekly radio show broadcast directly from its sound stages and managed to showcase just about everybody on its payroll, even writers and directors. The broadcast of December 23, 1937, is a good example. The show, GOOD NEWS OF 1938, was sponsored by Maxwell House Coffee. The master of ceremonies is James Stewart, with regulars Frank (Wizard of Oz) Morgan, and Fanny Brice (the original “Funny Girl”). The music maestro is Meredith Willson who later wrote THE MUSIC MAN. This particular show is a celebration of Cole Porter’s ROSALIE that was about to open at 300 movie theaters nationwide the following day. The film’s stars are on hand to perform: Nelson Eddy, Eleanor Powell, and Ray Bolger. Most interestingly, the host of the ROSALIE party is none other than Louis B. Mayer, the legendary mogul of MGM.
The entire show is performed live and and you can hear the complete broadcast by clicking the arrow below:
Young Jimmy Stewart as he looked in the late 1930s. His post-war film career would be so distinguished that his pre-war years as an MGM star have been somewhat overshadowed. Ironically, his best film from those early years, the iconic MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939), would be made on loan-out from MGM at Columbia.
Frank Morgan gags it up for the camera in this original color photo. He became more or less typecast in befuddled comedy roles but every so often he turned in a serious performance, such as in THE MORTAL STORM (1940), where he proved that he was a fine dramatic actor too. Even on radio, he was given serious roles from time to time:
If MGM was king of the studios in Old Hollywood, then Louis B. Mayer was king of the movie studio moguls. Mayer tends not to get complimentary treatment in film histories but there is some evidence that he appreciated people who respected him and could be loyal towards those individuals:
Fanny Brice was a singer and comedienne (as women comedians were then called) who starred on Broadway for many years in the Ziegfeld Follies from about 1916 to the early 30s. She developed the character of Baby Snooks for stage skits but brought it to radio in 1937 on this MGM program as a weekly regular. Brice’s creation was a huge hit and she and Hanley Stafford, who played her long-suffering Daddy, continued with their own series until her death in 1951.
Ilona Massey, a Budapest beauty who Mayer brought to MGM (as he relates during the broadcast), was introduced in ROSALIE. She was teamed with Nelson Eddy in BALALAIKA (1939), an underrated film that deserves revisiting.
ROSALIE was a huge production that managed to be consistently entertaining despite its lumbering two hour running time. Cole Porter’s music helped a lot but eliminating the big finale, a ballet set to the music of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, might have improved the overall impact.
Meredith Willson was a classically-trained musician who played in John Phillip Sousa’s band and with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Arturo Toscanini. At the time of this broadcast, he served as NBC music director and created arrangements of the songs heard on the show.
Movie studios also used radio extensively to promote their new releases. Since we’ve mentioned BALALAIKA, let’s hear the radio promo for the film from the “Leo Is On the Air” series of 15-minute infomercials (as we might call them today):
Quiz for fans of film musicals: do you recognize the music at the very end of the promo? The melody was taken from another MGM film made nearly a decade earlier and is regarded as one of the most sought-after “lost films” of the early sound era:
The answer is below in the Comments section.