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Louis B. Mayer
1885 - 1957

 

 

His MGM was a film factory, with stars as assembly-line workers and a hit formula: chaste romance, apple pie and Andy Hardy
By BUDD SCHULBERG for Time Magazine
 

 

Dan Quayle would have loved Louis B. Mayer, a man for whom the words family values had real meaning. Motherhood, the Stars and Stripes and God were equal parts of a lifelong strategy that would establish Metro Goldwyn Mayer as the industry's dominant film factory, from the silent era through the talkies revolution. While the other early moguls were simply trying to make the best movies they could, young Mayer was an ideologue intent on using the power of the new medium to exert what he considered the proper moral influence on the American public.

Mayer went West in 1918, just after the first wave of Hollywood pioneers. He had been on the move since his threadbare family left its Cossack-ridden Ukrainian village in the late 1880s and a few years later settled in St. John, New Brunswick. There his father Jacob Mayer struggled as a junkman. Little Louie, half starved, battled anti-Semitic bullies and helped his father — whom he despised as much as he adored his mother. Escaping St. John in his late teens, he moved on to Boston, where he discovered the Nickelodeon, the embryo of the moving-picture business. Quick to seize his opportunities in the young business of film distribution, Mayer earned a breakthrough $500,000 by putting up $50,000 for a lopsided 90% of the New England ticket sales on the first movie blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation. Now ready to produce his own pictures, he inveigled a popular actress, Anita Stewart, into breaking her contract with Vitagraph, and in 1918-19 starred her in a series of teary films at the modest studio leased from the Selig Zoo in downtown Los Angeles, where my father B.P. Schulberg joined him in the now vanished Mayer-Schulberg Studio in 1920.

A major step up for Mayer was entertainment tycoon Marcus Loew's reaching out to him as commanding officer of a new company merging Metro and Goldwyn, with Mayer soon adding his big M to the mix. He raised the contract system to a state of the art, using it to rule over a stable of stars who were legally bound to the company for years. In L.B.'s studio, with frail, dedicated lieutenant Irving Thalberg at his side, L.B. worked hard to project himself as a father figure to his extended family of stars, directors and producers.

He was the master manipulator, and it was generally acknowledged that of all the great actors on the lot — the Barrymores, Spencer Tracy, Lon Chaney, Garbo — L.B. was No. 1. When Robert Taylor tried to hit him up for a raise, L.B. advised the young man to work hard, respect his elders, and in due time he'd get everything he deserved. L.B. hugged him, cried a little and walked him to the door. Asked, "Did you get your raise?" the now tearful Taylor is said to have answered, "No, but I found a father."

There were ways to get to him. When ingenue Ann Rutherford asked for a supplement to her modest salary in the highly profitable Andy Hardy series, L.B. began his familiar ploy. Then Rutherford took out her little bank book, showed him her meagre savings and said she had promised her mother a house. Mother was the magic word. L.B. embraced her, but chastely; down his cheeks came the obligatory tears; and Rutherford left with her raise.

Mayer was building a roster of household names that almost lived up to MGM's slogan, "More stars than there are in heaven": Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner, the Marx Brothers, Ava Gardner and, of course, Garbo, L.B.'s personal discovery.

He kept them in line with hand holding and falling to his knees in tears, but if that failed, he'd reverse field, as he did with Gable. When Gable was getting $1,000 a week and wanted $5,000, L.B. blackmailed him by threatening to reveal to Gable's wife Ria his affair with Crawford. Both knew Gable was worth $12,000, but he settled for $2,000. The indentured servitude had its benefits, though, for the kind of power that L.B. wielded on the studio lot extended to local politics. When a drunken Gable hit and killed a pedestrian near Hollywood Boulevard, L.B. sent Gable into hiding and then conspired with the local D.A. to have a minor executive take the rap in return for staying on the payroll for life at a higher salary. A pliant press hushed the story.

While L.B.'s moral code was complicated, his zeal was not. When his biggest star at the time, Jack Gilbert, used the word whore in reference to his co-star Mae Murray, and then — gasp — about his own mother, the president of MGM rushed from around his desk and knocked down his million-dollar meal ticket.

Having learned not to say "ain't" or use double negatives or drop his Gs, a more polished L.B. found a new role model in Herbert Hoover. He worked so effectively for Hoover that he dared hope he might be the new President's choice as ambassador to England. An ambassadorship to Turkey was dangled, but Mayer chose to oversee his studio's triumphant transition from silence to sound: "Garbo Talks!" The Mayers did claim the privilege of being Hoover's first guests at the White House. From then on L.B. felt free to phone the President, and frequently did, to make suggestions for running the government.

Meanwhile he was cashing in on his conviction that morality sold. With films like the Andy Hardy series, featuring teenage star Mickey Rooney, sage father Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) and charming mother (Fay Holden), Mayer was defining American society according to his fantasies. He took his responsibility for American values so seriously that when Rooney, a precocious womanizer and partygoer, got out of hand, L.B. was overheard screaming at him, "You're Andy Hardy! You're the United States! You're Stars and Stripes! You're a symbol! Behave yourself!"

But as praise and profits soared, a conflict was building between Mayer and his brilliant production chief Thalberg. An intense perfectionist who never lost his schoolboy looks, Thalberg oversaw MGM's record-breaking hits: The Big Parade, Ben Hur, Anna Christie, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Wizard of Oz. Thalberg was increasingly resistant to playing Andy to Mayer's Judge Hardy. By 1936, Mayer was the highest-salaried executive in America, breaking the million-dollar barrier.

Thalberg felt entitled to an equal share. For his part, L.B. had begun to resent the prevailing opinion that Thalberg was the genius behind MGM's achievements, and Mayer the engineer who kept the plant humming. By the mid-'30s, MGM was divided between Mayer loyalists and "Thalberg people," and by the time the strong-willed, weak-hearted Thalberg collapsed and went to Europe for treatment, he and his former mentor were no longer speaking to each other. When Thalberg returned, Mayer offered a production deal in place of his old job. An angry Thalberg threatened to leave MGM. It was at this impasse that he died at age 37. L.B. cried, sent a spectacular spray of gardenias to the funeral and, soon after, remarked to my mother, "God saw fit to take Irving away."

God wasn't L.B.'s co-pilot; he was his senior partner, reaching out to remove those who dared get in L.B.'s way. For almost 15 years, L.B. would continue to reign at MGM. With a host of prizewinning and profitable films, MGM's decline as Film Factory No. 1 was almost imperceptible. But in the postwar years, the Mayer formula of sentimental family fare and glossy romantic productions was wearing thin.

The golden years of the moguls were coming to an end too. The government forced the industry to divest its lucrative theatre chains, and top stars and directors were demanding the profit participation that Mayer & Co. had always denied them. Mayer was forced to accept writer-producer Dore Schary in Thalberg's old job, and at first it seemed once again that Mayer had found the son he had always wanted. But the liberal Schary found L.B. an overbearing and stultifying influence. A bitter showdown prompted Loew's successor Nick Schenck to make a choice. To Mayer's shock, Schenck picked Schary.

After 27 years of arbitrary power, L.B. was out. Even his vaunted patriotism had now become shrill. He identified with right-wing fanatic Senator Joe McCarthy and opposed General Eisenhower as too moderate at the '52 G.O.P. convention. When Mayer died in 1957, the apostle of family values left a contentious, meanspirited will disinheriting family members, including his daughter Edith, because of her husband's liberal politics. No happy ending there. No movie-star hero to set everything right at the rosy fade-out. Had L.B. been making his own movie, it would have been different. He knew how to turn American life into pipe dreams. But give the devil his due: this self-inflated, ruthless and cloyingly sentimental monarch presided over the most successful of all the Hollywood dream factories, leaving a legacy of classic, inimitable films that defined America's aspirations, if not its realities.
 


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Louis B. Mayer (1885-1957) was one of Hollywood's original "moguls," a movie house pioneer who helped found one of the film industry's most prominent studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. From 1924 until 1951, Mayer ruled over a vast film empire, producing a string of classic hits and discovering countless stars. Mayer never strayed from a promise he made early in his career to create what he called "decent, wholesome pictures" the whole family could enjoy.

Louis Burt Mayer was born Eliezer Mayer in Minsk, Russia, on July 4, 1885. The product of a working-class Jewish family, he moved with his parents and two brothers in 1888, first to New York, then to St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. There, Mayer's mother peddled chickens door to door, while his father worked as a dealer in scrap metal. Upon completing grade school, Louis briefly joined his father's business before moving to Boston in 1904 to start his own junk enterprise. That same year he married Margaret Shenberg, the daughter of a kosher butcher.


Entered Film Business

Mayer's arrival in Boston coincided with the nickelodeon craze that was sweeping the nation. Intrigued by the commercial potential of these "flickers," Mayer began a side business buying up and renovating rundown nickelodeon arcades, starting with The Gem in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1907. The huge crowds that turned out that Christmas season to see Pathe's hand-tinted Passion Play convinced Mayer for all time of the mass appeal of wholesome family entertainment. Promising to show "only pictures that I won't be ashamed to have my children see" in his refurbished auditoriums, Mayer turned a tidy profit and was able to leave the junk business entirely. He formed a partnership with Nat Gordon, another theater owner, and began acquiring movie houses all over New England. Within seven years, the two men had assembled the region's largest theater chain.

Mayer's next goal was to acquire distribution rights to the films themselves. His first foray into this arena was an overwhelming success. Without having seen it, Mayer paid filmmaker D.W. Griffith $25,000 for exclusive northeast distribution rights for Griffith's Civil War epic Birth of a Nation (1915). At the time, it was the highest bid ever made for the exhibition of a single film. The arrangement eventually netted Mayer more than $100,000.


Early Days in Hollywood

Having conquered exhibition and distribution, Mayer next moved into production. He joined the Alco Company (later Metro Pictures) in New York City, but was dissatisfied with the type of films the company was producing. He left Alco in 1917, moved to Los Angeles, and formed his own production house, The Mayer Company. The new company produced numerous romantic melodramas, many featuring starlet Anita Stewart. In 1923, Mayer hired Universal's Irving Thalberg as his production chief. The following year, at the instigation of Metro head Marcus Loew, Mayer merged his company with Metro Pictures and The Goldwyn Company and became West Coast head of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Thalberg was named production supervisor. The Big Parade (1926) and Ben-hur (1926) were among their early projects for the studio.

Mayer ran MGM with a ruthless efficiency. With wise use of resources and a strong promotional apparatus (including the slavish devotion of the Hearst newspapers), Mayer kept the studio profitable throughout the lean years of the 1930s. He discovered many of the era's top stars and got many others to swear an oath of fealty to the studio. Together with Thalberg, he helped launch the careers of such performers as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Charles Laughton, along with numerous writers, directors, and producers. One of Mayer's personal "discoveries," Greta Garbo, went on to become a legendary Hollywood icon. The assemblage of talent paid off in the form of a string of classic features, including the first "talkie," 1927's The Jazz Singer, and such hits as Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Camille (1936).


The MGM Style

While Mayer thought of himself primarily as a businessman, and professed not to have any interest in motion pictures as an art form, he did exert enormous influence over the style and content of MGM films. "He likes vast, glittering sets," wrote Henry F. Pringle in a profile of Mayer published in The New Yorker. "He approves of gorgeous gowns, pretty girls, lingerie sequences, and expensive assignations." Escapist musicals, sumptuous costume dramas, and screwball comedies accounted for the bulk of MGM's output under Mayer's aegis, a reflection of his earlier pledge to produce only those pictures his children could see. Mayer's creative influence reached its apex with the Andy Hardy series, a string of hits starring Mickey Rooney that were as successful as they were saccharine. To its critics, MGM's output during Mayer's reign was formulaic pap, but to Mayer it was just the kind of wholesome family entertainment Depression-era audiences wanted.


Influential Figure

Few at MGM saw fit to argue with success, and for many of his 27 years there, Mayer was the highest-paid individual in the country. His annual salary, including bonuses, exceeded $1.25 million, a princely sum for the time. As his bankbook swelled, so did Mayer's influence-both inside and outside the film community. He took a leadership role within the movie industry, helping to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. A staunch conservative, Mayer also became active in politics, at one point serving as state chairman of the California Republican Party. He formed a close personal friendship with President Herbert Hoover, who offered him the post of U.S. ambassador to Turkey in 1929. The mogul wisely declined. In 1934, Mayer threw the weight of his considerable influence behind California gubernatorial candidate Frank F. Merriam, in his campaign against muckraking author Upton Sinclair. Mayer produced a series of faux "newsreels" for Merriam (featuring paid actors) that were widely credited with swinging the election in favor of the Republican.

Though feared and respected, Mayer was little loved by his colleagues in Hollywood. Hot-tempered and imperious, Mayer made numerous enemies during his career. He was quick to punish those who did not accede to his wishes. When Clark Gable went to Mayer to ask for a raise, for example, Mayer threatened to tell Gable's wife about the actor's affair with Joan Crawford. Gable settled for a much lower figure than he originally requested. Others saw their careers cut off because of some perceived or actual slight to the great mogul. On at least one occasion, retribution was physical. Mayer reportedly struck one of MGM's biggest silent film stars, John Gilbert, for disparaging remarks Gilbert made about co-star Mae Murray.

Still other stars benefited from Mayer's largesse. Ann Rutherford, an MGM ingenue of the 1930s and 1940s, once successfully extracted a raise from the sentimental Mayer by lamenting her inability to buy a house for her aged mother. Perhaps Mayer recognized in her plea one of his own favorite tactics, using charm to gain his objective. Actor Robert Taylor fell victim to Mayer's charms when, upon asking for his raise, the weepy mogul hugged him and advised him to work hard and respect his elders and in due time he would get all that he deserved. Clark Gable had Mayer to thank for his freedom after the intoxicated star struck and killed a pedestrian with his car. Mayer reportedly convinced the district attorney to blame the homicide on a minor MGM executive (who was rewarded with a lucrative lifetime salary by the studio in exchange for his cooperation).


Decline of Influence

Some may have questioned Mayer's methods, but not many dared complain too loudly while he was still at the top of the heap. Mayer reigned as the most powerful man in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, his influence began to wane. Inexorably, MGM began to lose its edge in the studio wars. Mayer's top lieutenant, Irving Thalberg, died in 1936, leaving MGM bereft of visionary leadership. Public taste began to turn against the wholesome escapist that Mayer favored. With few hits to back up Mayer's bluster, patience started running thin with the studio chief's despotic style.

In 1951, MGM's East Coast executives ousted Mayer after a brief power struggle. A defiant Mayer issued a statement denying he was through in Hollywood. But Mayer never returned to his former position of influence. He became an adviser for the Cinerama group, and spent his last years relentlessly lobbying stockholders of MGM's parent company, Loew's Inc., to overthrow the studio's management team. His efforts proved unsuccessful. He contracted leukemia and died in Los Angeles on October 29, 1957.

That Mayer was widely reviled in the Hollywood of his time as a crass, cruel vulgarian does not diminish one whit from his influence on the history of film. In fact, it was precisely his willingness to use his immense power in the pursuit of his vision of family entertainment that made him the prototypical Hollywood mogul.

 

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008