Friday, December 27, 2019

Culver City: The Heart of Screenland Beats Again

Culver City, a small civic enclave in West Los Angeles, likes to call itself  “The Heart of Screenland.” The legendary MGM Studios (which once used to boast that it had “more stars than there are in heaven”) occupied a central spot at the junction of Washington and Culver Boulevards. Back in the days of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was synonymous with glamour, and MGM’s mascot, Leo the Lion, was the king of the movieland jungle. Alas, by the time I moved into Culver City, the stars had largely gone elsewhere. With the decline of the studio system, MGM had sold off its fabled backlot, where Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz were filmed, to create a middle-class housing tract called Studio Estates. (You could live on street like Garland Drive, Hepburn Circle, or Astaire Avenue, each of them named after a Golden Age MGM notable.) What was left of the MGM lot—with its huge soundstages, star bungalows, and elaborate wardrobe facilities—was largely scooped up by a new Hollywood player from Japan, Sony Pictures.

Recently I took a tour, hosted by the ever-enterprising Los Angeles Conservancy, that focused on Culver City’s recent rebirth. Some of this involves ultra-cool modern architecture associated with the Southern California tech phenomenon called Silicon Beach. But in Downtown Culver City, near where the staid old Culver Hotel once housed a rowdy bunch of Munchkins who were appearing in The Wizard of Oz, old is meeting new in highly unexpected ways. It was a reminder to me that MGM has never been the only studio in town. Right down the road, in a stately white columned building that reminds onlookers of Scarlett O’Hara’s Tara, there’s a smaller studio that has also played a famous role in Hollywood history.

The Culver Studios Mansion was erected back in 1918 by silent film actor, director, and producer, Thomas Ince, who modeled it after George Washington’s Mt. Vernon. Ince didn’t enjoy his studio (which also included a 40-acre back lot) for long.  In 1924, in celebration of his 44th birthday, he boarded the yacht belonging to William Randolph Hearst for a pleasure cruise that also involved Charlie Chaplin and Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. After a dinner involving lots of champagne, he became severely ill, was carried off the yacht in Long Beach harbor, and died. Heart failure was the official cause, but persistent rumors tell a far different tale: that Hearst had shot Ince in the head, mistaking him for Chaplin whom he thought was having an affair with Davies.

After Ince’s death, his studio property was first occupied by Cecil B. DeMille, then by RKO, and by producer David O. Selznick, who featured the stately mansion in the opening credits for all of his films. (No, it was not used as Tara, but the burning of Atlanta in GWTW featured the bonfire made of old sets on the property.)  In the early days of television the studio was purchased by Desilu, and used for such landmark TV series as The Andy Griffith Show. Today a mural featuring Lucy and Desi commemorates that period.

So what’s going on now? The studio site has been acquired by Amazon Studios, and an extensive remodel is taking place. Though the Mansion and some legendary star bungalows (including one where Gloria Swanson canoodled with Joseph Kennedy) have been carefully preserved,  the lot is now dominated by massive construction equipment. That means offices, parking spaces (of course!) and such amenities as barbecue pits, along with modern facilities for turning out Hollywood-worthy content. High tech strikes again.

No comments:

Post a Comment