Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Most Successful Studio Never to Exist

When people think of the most successful studios in the history of Hollywood, they might think of MGM, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and so on. One studio that does not come to mind is Mammoth Studios. Of course, there is a good reason for that; a Hollywood studio called "Mammoth Studios" never existed. Nonetheless, the name probably sounds familiar to many Americans, because the name has been used repeatedly for fictional studios in movies, television shows, and books.

I am not sure why various directors and writers seized upon the name "Mammoth Studios." I have heard the big studios of Hollywood's Golden Age described as "mammoth" fairly often, and perhaps this is the source of the name. Regardless, it has been used repeatedly in films, television, and other media for a very long time.

Indeed, I am not sure when the name "Mammoth Studios" was first used. It may well have been in the 1933 screwball comedy Bombshell, starring Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy. The movie cast Harlow essentially as herself. She played Lola Burns, a rising starlet at Mammoth Studios. In Bombshell Mammoth Studios is obviously a takeoff on MGM. There are references to such MGM performers as Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. The entrance way to Mammoth even resembles that of MGM! This is remarkable given the fact that MGM produced the film, so that they were in effect parodying themselves.

A studio bearing the name "Mammoth" would also appear 12 years later in Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. The movie casts Abbott and Costello as barbers Kurtis and Abercrombie, whose shop just happens to be down the street from Mammoth Studios. Naturally, they find themselves in trouble and they are forced to hide out at that studio's lot. Curiously enough, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood is another MGM production. Indeed, the backlot used in the film is that of MGM.

It seems quite possible to me that in its first few uses in movies, Mammoth Studios was pretty much a fictionalised version of MGM. This certainly seems to be the case in Merton of the Movies from 1947. Also produced by MGM, Merton at the Movies features a movie usher from Kansas, Merton Gill (played by Red Skelton), who imitates his screen idol Lawrence Rupert's heorics so well that the studio brings him out to Hollywood in hopes of free publicity. Naturally, Gill thinks he is being considered for stardom. Set in 1915, during the Silent Era, the plot of Merton at the Movies actually predates MGM. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would not be founded until 1918 when Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures were combined to form a new company. Regardless, it is a Silent Era version of the MGM backlot where much of the movie's action takes place.

Of course, Mammoth Studios does not only appear in movies produced by MGM. In fact, its most famous appearance may well be in a television show. On The Beverly Hillbillies, during the 1964-1965 season, banker Milton Drysdale obtained controlling insterest in Mammoth Studios for hillbilly multi-millionaire Jed Clampett. For the next few seasons Mammoth Studios head Lawrence Chapman's life would never be the same. Drysdale tried tearing down the studio to make way for a new development. The Clampetts tried opening a general store on the studio lot. They even made a silent movie featuring legendary star Gloria Swanson. Regardless, Lawrence Chapman had to be thankful for the Clampetts. His studio on the decline and Milburn Drysdale wanting it torn down, it was only the Clampetts which kept the studio running!

Although it received most of its exposure on The Beverly Hillbillies, Mammoth Studios was also referenced on another sitcom, The Monkees. Curiously, on The Monkees Mammoth Studios seems to have been in worse straits than it was on The Beverly Hillbillies. It appears in the first season episode "I've Got a Little Song Here" as a thriving studio where the latest movie featuring starlet Joanie Janz is being made. It is only nine episodes later, however, in The Monkees at the Movies, that a comment is made that Mammoth went out of business years ago! Indeed, in the second season episode The Picture Frame, Mammoth Studios appears as being totally abandoned. The final reference to Mammoth Studios is in the final episode of The Monkees, "Mijacogeo" (AKA "The Frodus Caper"). Although they are at TV station KXIW, Peter tells the police on the phone that they are being held captive behind Mammoth Studios! I can only guess that maybe the studio was back in business and had bought KXIW-TV. Or maybe KXIW-TV had bought Mammoth Studios....

References to Mammoth Studios aren't simply limited to movies and television. The name has also been used in books. Mammoth Studios appears in the 1960 book The Woman Chaser by Charles Willeford and later in the film adaptation of that novel. Both the book and the movie centred around a used car salesman desperate to break into film. The Woman Chaser differs from many works which mention Mammoth Studios in that, while it has its funny moments, it is definitely not a comedy. Instead, it is a thriller of the hardboiled variety which also serves as a psychological study of its protagonist.

In a much more humourous vain is Elementary, My Dear Groucho by Ron Goulart. It is the third in a series of comedic mysteries Goulart has written which feautre the legendary comedian Groucho Marx solving various crimes. In Elementary, My Dear Groucho, Groucho and his writing partner Frank Denby must solve a murder on the set of a Sherlock Holmes movie being filmed at Mammoth Studios. In this novel he has competition in the form of the film's star, Miles Ravensclaw (playing Sherlock Holmes in the Mamoth Studios film), who boasts that he can catch the killer before Groucho and Denby can.

Mammoth Studios has also been mentioned in comic books. In Blue Ribbon Comics (published in the late Thirties and early Forties by MLJ Comics, which later renamed itself after its most successful character, eternal teenager Archie), a studio known both as Mammoth Studios and Mammoth Pictures appeared in two Rang-A-Tang the Wonder Dog stories. In the first, "The Madman of Mammoth Studios," the Wonder Dog must find who is causing the mysterious accidents surrounding a new director at the studio. In the second Rang-A-Tang must stop Nazis from shutting down one of the studio's latest productions.

In Marvel Comics, the character known as The Hangman was Jason Roland, a former actor at Mammoth Studios. First appearing in Tower of Shadows #5 (May 1970), he made a deal witht the devil for fame and fortune as a horror actor. To this end the devil gives him a monstrous visage. Unforutnately, he found that at the end of the production, the makeup wouldn't come off. Roland later made another deal with demons to restore him to human form. After this, he became The Hangman. In his first appearance as The Hangman, he attempted to shut down a remake of one of his old movies at Mammoth Studios.

I am not sure, but I suspect that "Mammoth Studios" may be the most often used name for fictional studios in film and television, and perhaps books as well. Of course, it is not quite so fictional any longer. There is a Mammoth Studios in Burnaby, British Columbia, which boasts the largest sound stage in North America (I think parts of The Fantastic Four movie were filmed there). Of course, this Mammoth Studios is a Candian operation, whereas the Mammoth Studios mentioned in film, television, books, and even comic books, is always very much a Hollywood affair.

Indeed, if one looked at the references in film and television as reflecting the history of a real life studio, then the fictional history of the fictional Mammoth Studios would parallel those of the real life studios. In Bombshell, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood, and Merton at the Movies, Mammoth Studios is a thriving movie studio. In fact, as it is modelled after MGM, it could well have been the biggest studio in Hollywood. These movies were made at a time when the real life Hollywood studios were at their peak, so the success of the fictional Mammoth Studios in those films reflects that the real life studios were having at the time. This was not the case at the time of The Beverly Hillbillies was in production. The Hollywood studios were already well into their decline. Increasingly, the studios looked to television production as a means of making money (consider the number of TV shows produced by Warner Brothers and Universal in the Fifties and Sixties). And by the Sixties, studios were already becoming part of conglomerates. MCA had acquired Universal. Gulf & Western would acquire Paramount in the mid-Sixties. As alarming as it may be, the major studios were under constant threat of suffering the same fate that Mammoth Studios had apparently suffered on The Monkees--of being shut down forever. Indeed, RKO ceased operating as a studio in 1957. Ten years later, had things unfolded only a little differently, it could have easily been 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, or even former giant MGM that shut down.

Sadly, forty years later, the studios of the Golden Age are either parts of conglomerates or have ceased to exist altogether. Indeed, MGM and United Artists were bought by Sony just last year. While films will still be released under the MGM and United Artists names, for all practical purposes they have ceased to exist as independent studios. If Mammoth Studios had existed, this would probably have been its fate. A Hollywood giant in its glory days, featuring such stars as Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, Mammoth Studios would either close its doors or be a mere subsidiary of a larger corporation. Of course, that is if the Clampetts had ever decided to sell it....


Toby O'B said...

I'm watching an episode of 'The Lucy Show' "Lucy Meets Robert Goulet", and Mammoth Studios is holding a Robert Goulet look-a-like contest to promote a movie he's in. Lucy finds a look-alike and tries to help him win.

Thought you'd like the additional reference.....

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks! I somehow suspected Mammoth Studios would be mentioned on Lucy...

michael said...

I'm a massive Monkees fan and recently acquired the series dvds and noticed the Mammoth mentions and remembered it on Beverly Hillbillies. So I searched it and ended up here. I've come to think of it a little like the "555" phone number prefix in tv and movies. I do however really like what you've done with the blog. I think sometime someone should write an actual (though entirely fictional) "history" of Mammoth. It's a fun subject and nowadays we can all use a bit of an escape every now and again.