For a sign of just how much times have changed since MGM: When the Lion Roars was made, back in 1992, look no further than the spine of the DVD case: MGM (and Turner Entertainment) ostensibly first oversaw the project, but Warner Brothers now distributes this particular homage to a radically changed studio and a permanently altered studio system. (That Warner Brothers is issuing this DVD is a little strange, since Fox handles home video distribution for MGM these days; perhaps it's because this is a Turner production, which would now be owned by WB.) Written by Frank Martin and Michael Henry Wilson and directed by Martin, MGM: When the Lion Roars is a sprawling, detailed look at one of Hollywood's formative studios. Hosted by Patrick Stewart, this three-part documentary, originally broadcast on TBS (and later, Turner Classic Movies), attempts to pay tribute to the glory days of a bygone era, while also celebrating some of the greatest films ever made.
Spread over a generous six hours, Roars often teeters on the edge between biography and hagiography; the miniseries isn't helped by Stewart's stentorian intonations about the greatness and genius and daring of the men shaping MGM's future -- Louis B. Mayer stopped just short of finding a cure for cancer, if you believe some of the windier sentiments in Martin's documentary. What Roars does provide is a wealth of remembrances from an assortment of actors, directors and executives who are all but mysteries to a generation weaned on Blu-ray. Everyone from Mickey Rooney and June Allyson to Stanley Donen and Esther Williams sits for an interview, often providing some insight into the rigorously structured studio system.
Roars begins with "The Lion's Roar," picking up in 1924 as MGM is founded by Marcus Loew, who installs the venerable Louis B. Mayer as the new studio's tenacious head of production. "Lion's Roar" continues through the death of the silent era and into the early Thirties and the birth of sound, concluding in 1936 and the death of an early MGM star, Irving Thalberg, a man whom many credit with shaping the taste and tone of MGM's early output.
While this two-disc splits the second installment -- "The Lion Reigns Supreme" -- it continues the MGM story, as the studio reels from Thalberg's death but is soon guided solely by Mayer, who oversees the 118-acre site by himself and continues to shepherd productions like Boy's Town and Mrs. Miniver through the beginnings of World War II. Dore Schary, who will figure prominently into MGM's history, is also introduced.
The final third of Roars, "The Lion in Winter," is understandably the most elegiac, as it chronicles the end of an era. Television arrives, as does CinemaScope, but the death of Louis B. Mayer and increasingly frequent corporate takeovers dim the lion's roar once and for all (the film essentially comes to an end with the MGM sign being removed from the backlot in 1986). Interestingly, and for reasons I couldn't discern in my research, this last third of Martin's documentary has been, according to IMDb, heavily edited since it originally aired on television, excising much of the Fred Astaire footage originally featured. It's a curious deletion, but unless you've memorized the entire six-hour documentary, you probably won't notice its absence.
MGM: When the Lion Roars is exhausting, occasionally thrilling and rife with clips from classic films such as Gone With the Wind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ninotchka. Added to that are copious interviews with a galaxy of stars, directors and executives who worked behind the scenes and you have, despite its occasionally saccharine tone, a valuable resource for cinephiles. While the melodramatic interludes with Stewart are eye-rollingly bad, the meat of what makes up Roars is worth sinking one's teeth into.
Presented as originally broadcast on TBS (and later Turner Classic Movies), all four parts of MGM: When the Lion Roars are presented in 1.33:1 fullscreen. Sadly, while this miniseries is making its debut on DVD, it doesn't appear that the image has been cleaned up in any noticeable way (I saw a hair in the frame during one segment about Anchors Aweigh). There's plenty of softness, grain and a general dullness to the color sequences; the vintage black-and-white clips don't fare much better. While there are moments of clarity and sharp detail, too much of MGM: When the Lion Roars feels like a missed visual opportunity, particularly given the historical nature of the project.
As with the visual presentation, the aural end of things doesn't fare very well. The Dolby 2.0 stereo track gets the job done, rendering dialogue cleanly and free of distortion, as well as conveying the slightly overwrought score with clarity. While some of the archival footage suffers from fleeting defects, but the interviews are heard with no problems, making this an acceptable, if unremarkable, soundtrack. Optional English and French subtitles are included.
Sadly, no supplements are included.
Written by Frank Martin and Michael Henry Wilson and directed by Martin, MGM: When the Lion Roars is a sprawling, detailed look at one of Hollywood's formative studios. Hosted by Patrick Stewart, this three-part documentary, originally broadcast on TBS (and later, Turner Classic Movies), attempts to pay tribute to the glory days of a bygone era, while also celebrating some of the greatest films ever made. The lack of supplements is regrettable, but having this doc on DVD might be prize enough for some film fans. Recommended.