Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on January 29, 2015
It’s 1974 and one of Hollywood’s oldest and most majestic movie studios is on the verge of collapse. Worldwide Films is deep in debt and in order to stay afloat they’ve decided to sell vast amounts of land they own that is currently occupied by dilapidated sets and abandoned sound stages. As bulldozers and wrecking balls begin to lay waste to decades of film history a lone cloaked figure arises from the devastation to take revenge on hapless vandals and careless construction workers. This masked ‘Phantom of Hollywood’ (Jack Cassidy) is determined to be classic cinema’s avenger and he kidnaps a studio executive’s daughter (Skye Aubrey) for leverage. But his flowery dialogue and medieval weapons are no match for the greedy studio moguls (Peter Lawford and Broderick Crawford ) eager to make a quick profit from property sales.
Unfortunately for classic film fans THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD (1974) isn’t 100% invention. In fact, many aspects of the telefilm’s plot are taken right from news headlines at the time. The fictional Worldwide Films studios are actually a stand-in for the world renowned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, which began systematically selling off its backlots in the early 1970s while auctioning off costumes and props from the beloved films they once produced. Director Gene Levitt (RUN A CROOKED MILE; 1969, NIGHT GALLERY; 1971, KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER; 1975) and writer George Schenck (KILL A DRAGON; 1967, MORE DEAD THAN ALIVE; 1969, FUTUREWORLD; 1976) managed to capture the appalling demolition of MGM and turn it into a melancholy made-for-TV movie that borrows generously from Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. But instead of a vengeful musician living underneath a Parisian opera house, THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD features a vengeful actor living underneath the ruins of what was once Mrs. Miniver’s house as seen in William Wyler’s 1942 film.
I’d be hard-pressed to call THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD a great movie but I have a fondness for telefilms made during the 1970s and as a history buff, this briskly paced thriller that runs a mere 74 minutes delivers on many counts. First and foremost, it captures the final days of the once great Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios and includes a beautiful opening montage that mixes scenes from classic MGM films including A TALE OF TWO CITIES (1935), YOUNG TOM EDISON (1940) and WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940) intermingled with miserable remnants of the decaying backlots where they were originally shot. The vacant and rundown studio is now populated by tumbleweeds instead of Academy Award winning actors and directors. All that remains are dust covered props that were once crafted with care and ramshackle buildings that have obviously suffered from years of neglect. The sheer magnitude of the waste and destruction on display is absolutely mind-boggling. While watching I kept asking myself how the studio had allowed itself to fall into such a horrible state of disrepair? This isn’t something that happened overnight or even during the last decade. The kind of carelessness and disregard on display had to of taken place over a number of decades indicating that the Golden of Age of Hollywood had started gathering rust at MGM long before the swinging sixties.
The common narrative is to blame the destruction of MGM on James “the smiling cobra” Aubrey who became MGM’s controversial president in 1969 but much of the damage had been done before Aubrey’s reign. At the time the studio was owned by Kirk Kerkorian, a shrewd businessman who bought MGM when it was $35 million dollars in debt due to a number of questionable business decisions. And it was Aubrey, as the new MGM president, who reportedly made the bad choice to start auctioning off MGM film props, costumes and whatnot in an attempt to recoup some of their costs. These auctions were widely publicized and attended by many Hollywood stars who were eager to buy back pieces of their own history including Barbara Stanwyck, Stephen Boyd, Walter Pidgeon, Mickey Rooney, Barbra Streisand, Rock Hudson and Shirley Jones (wife of PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD star, Jack Cassidy). The most notable celebrity in attendance was Debbie Reynolds who was smart enough to realize MGM was making a huge mistake and purchased as many items as she could for a future Hollywood Hall of Fame that sadly never materialized. Following the auctions, MGM executives began selling the land they owned by the studio which was obviously suffering from decades of neglect and what they couldn’t sell ended up as landfill. It’s shameful that the studio didn’t see the value in maintaining and preserving the property that had been the location of so much film history. Audrey, along with previous MGM moguls, have a lot to answer for and history will not be kind to them.
THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD clearly sides with preservationists and although it used the ongoing destruction of the MGM lots as a dramatic backdrop, the filmmakers seem to obviously sympathize with the resentful Phantom who wants the demolition to end. To bring home their point they cast Skye Audrey (daughter of MGM president James T. Audrey) in the role of Randy Cross, the so-called “damsel in distress” who is kidnapped by the Phantom. Audrey was a forgettable actress who appeared in a number of television movies and shows undoubtedly due to her father’s influence so there’s something incredibly ironic and somewhat unnerving about seeing her here surrounded by her father’s willful devastation. Her father is played by one time MGM star Peter Lawford who’s appropriately sleazy as the studio executive prepared to sell film history to the highest bidder.
Besides offering classic film fans a fascinating last glimpse of the once proud MGM studios, THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD provided Jack Cassidy with one of his last and most enduring roles. Cassidy, who was always a bit theatrical and over-the-top, hams things up considerably here and seems to be channeling the ghost of MGM star John Barrymore. He also gets the film’s best lines and delivers them with much aplomb.
This once forgotten and hard-to-find telefilm is available on DVD from the Warner Archives and is currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant. And although it suffers from a minimal budget, some unremarkable performances and a paper thin plot, its historic importance is undeniable. THE PHANTOM OF HOLLYWOOD is a fascinating film for classic film fans who appreciate MGM’s squandered history. I rarely root for the bad guy. I just don’t get much pleasure in cheering on murderous monsters such as Norman Bates in PSYCHO or Leatherface in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. But I couldn’t stop myself from happily applauding Jack Cassidy’s tormented Phantom as he takes down heartless vandals and reckless moguls and I think many classic film fans will be able to sympathize with him as well.
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