Almost 90 years after its formation there is not much left of the once greatest Hollywood giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, but in the long history of the studio countless amazing movies were created, many of which have become the greatest classics of American film history. Even today the lion sometimes roars on the silver screen, but now, the glory days of MGM can mostly be relived in the home cinema only.
Since the mid-1980s, the home video rights of all early MGM productions have been in the hands of the Turner group, which owns one of the biggest and most treasured film libraries of the world. When the DVD was introduced as the successor of VHS in 1996, Turner began to take special care of the many classics in their archive through the capable hands of their home entertainment branch Warner Bros., but even long before the company knew how to take advantage of the MGM archive via its television branch.
When Turner Network Television was founded in 1988, the cable channel at first relied on repeats of contemporary programs and showings of movies from the MGM catalogue, but soon TNT began to broadcast its own productions. The beginning was not a television movie or a series, but a documentary about filmmaker John Huston, which became the beginning of a long tradition - soon, many more programs of this kind were made. In 1991 the film studio documentary Here's Looking At You, Warner Bros and Myrna Loy - So Nice To Come Home To followed, but compared to the next project of Turner Pictures these were still relatively small endeavours.
Filmmaker Frank Martin, who had already produced The Man, the Movies, the Maverick about John Huston for Turner, dared to tackle a much, much bigger endeavour: an all-encompassing documentary about Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, recounting the long history of the studio from the beginning in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s. It was an ideal subject for Turner, because there was no need to acquire all the necessary film rights because the company already owned most of the MGM library. And because there was no need to spend money on the film clips, the filmmaker was able to use the budget for the production itself.
With the cooperation of Turner Pictures, Frank Martin and producer Joni Levin were able to create one of the biggest and most elaborate documentaries ever made about a Hollywood studio - When The Lion Roars was conceived not as a dry and boring film history lesson, but as glamourous and exciting as the golden days of MGM were. To achieve this, a very unusual concept was created, presenting the documentary as a show itself. An elaborate, stylized set with many elements of MGMs studio history was built, which was not only inhabited by the narrator in person, but also by some extras in a kind of background story. Also very unusual was the specially composed music by Steven Goldstein, which was not only used in the opening and closing credits, but also flowed seamlessy together with the film clips.
The choice of the host and narrator was likewise unconventional - instead of an American Hollywood star or journalist, the filmmakers chose the british actor Patrick Stewart, who had become well-known in the USA since the late 1980s as Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but actually had his roots in England on the theatrical stage. With his enormeous versatility and his unmistakable voice, he proved to be perfect for When The Lion Roars and gave the documentary real class. But Patrick Stewart was not only the anonymous voice in the background, he also appeared in person as the host roaming through the huge set, just being a phantastic showman in countless different costumes matching the current period of the documentary. He hd no problems bringing the sometimes a little rough text beautifully to life in the way only Patrick Stewart can - with enthusiasm, honest emotion and wit.
When The Lion Roars not only dazzles with a shining exterior, but also has to offer a remarkable content. The documentary recounts the full history of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from its creation in 1924 until the selling of the studio lot in 1986 and not only put a lot of emphasis on the movies, but also on the people behind them and the wheelings and dealings of the studio system. The many clips from almost all important movies of the studio made When The Lion Roars a treasure trove for movie enthusiasts, as did the mostly newly conducted interviews with more than thirty actors and filmmakers, whose detailed recollections make up the major part of the documentary and who, together with Patrick Stewart, often become narrators themselves. Complementing this amazing collection was a lot more archive material, ranging from vintage interviews to trailers, promotion material, stills and even some behind-the-scenes footage.
The amazing amount of information, Patrick Stewarts excellent and entertaining presentation, the many film clips and the many interviewees make When The Lion Roars a remarkable document about Hollywood's golden era from the perspective of one of the greatest film studios of its time. The documentary even has the courage to mention the downsides of Hollywood and all the highs and lows of MGM are equally addressed. There are no heavy emotions or crass glorifications, instead the mood ranges between honest admiration, respect and a little melancholy. In the end, the documentary reaches the rightful conclusion that the studio may today exist in name only, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's movies are here for eternity.
When The Lion Roars is now over twenty years old itself, but it still remains one of the best, most interesting and entertaining film documentaries ever made. Although it limits itself to only one of the many classic film studios, it still represents the Hollywood of the golden age of filmmaking and is one of the very essential documentaries about film history.
When The Lion Roars was not only shown on TNT and later TCM in the USA, but was also broadcast on the European version of TNT, which was available free-to-air for several years in the late 1990s on the Astra satellite platform. There had also been VHS and Laserdisc releases in England and the USA, but nobody had really expected a DVD of this excellent documentary, because there were legal issues with the footage of Fred Astaire, which unfortunately had to be removed to solve the problems. But at the end of 2008, Warner surprised with an announcement that the documentary series would be released just in time for the 85th birthday of MGM in January 2009.
Technically, there is not much to anticipate in this DVD, because When The Lion Roars had been shot on film, but post-produced on video in 1992 and therefore has age-related image quality limitations - which is actually not a huge problem, because the contents are much more important than the presentation in this case. To fit the three two-hour episodes on two DVDs, the second episode was cut in half - a sensible solution, which is not annoying at all. Warner had taken care to provide the best quality possible and even designed a very elegant cover. There are, of course, absolutely no extras, but in this case, the documentary is the bonus material itself.
When The Lion Roars was not released on DVD in other regions outside of the USA and Canada, but the US disc, at least the original release reviewed in this article, has Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4 and therefore should work in any player that can handle NTSC output.
Like many other television productions of the 1990s, When The Lion Roars was shot mostly on film, but the postproduction was done on video, so that only a video master, in this case most likely a D2 composite tape, exists. The image quality is therefore limited, but certainly not unwatchable.
As the most important part of the documentary, the film clips look surprisingly good considering that this is all unrestored material from movies sometimes almost a century old. Scratches, dust and sometimes damages are completely normal, but sharpness is actually acceptable, because the masters used were not VHS tapes, but only the best available in 1992, probably from television broadcast transfers or laserdiscs. Fortunately, almost all clips retain their original aspect ratio, which for most of the time is, of course, 1.33:1, but in the last episode many widescreen films are shown and only the occasional open-matte transfer can be seen.
The interviews are mostly in better shape than the filmclips, but because there have been multiple sources including archive material, the quality is still somewhat erratic, but overall very adequate. The studio footage with Patrick Stewart, of course, looks best and only suffers slightly from the problems of the video master. Overall, the dreaded 1990s video look is somewhat obvious, but the DVD is at least fit for progressive playback at 24fps and there are hardly any typical video artifacts are largely absent except some dot crawl on some textx.
It might be possible to retransfer When The Lion Roars in High Definition, but it would be extremely hard because many of the movies and certainly lots of the interviews do not exist in HD and would have to be transferred or otherwise upconverted, which would amount to a completely new postproduction, making it much too costly for a relatively unknown documentary. With almost three hours on each DVD, the compression has almost reached the pain threshold, but because the material is not very detailed, there are no really visible artifacts.
Considering the circumstances, the quality of this DVD is quite satisfactory - When The Lion Roars has certainly never looked better. For a documentary made for 1992 television screens, this is really not bad and should not deter anyone from watching.
Much better than the image is the sound on this DVD, because When The Lion Roars has a very nice sound mix to offer, which integrates the new and old components seamlessy.
As a documentary with its very own music compositions, When The Lion Roars was mixed into stereo from the beginning and also sounds very good when played back in ProLogic, although the soundtrack is not advertised as Dolby Surround. The music actually fills the room and uses the rear channel for ambience, although the rest of the mix is basically in mono. Patrick Stewart's voice is firmly anchored in the center channel and has a very direct and clean presence. While the sound quality of the interview sections varies a little, everyone is perfectly intelligible.
The sound of the film clips is, of course, a wholly different matter and purely dependend on the shape of the used film elements. Because there have not been any major restoration efforts, there is a lot of hiss, crackle and other background noise especially in the older movies, but in the end nothing is completely unlistenable and despite many age-related defects the sound is pretty good considering the circumstances. The sound also gets better over the course of the documentary as the movies become newer - in the third part, some clips even have stereo sound, while all others are, of course only in mono. The soundtracks of the movies have been perfectly integrated into the mix so they don't unpleasantly stand out.
There are subtitles in English and French, something really rare for a documentary.