The Washington Post
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayerby Scott Eyman
An immigrant from tsarist Russia, Mayer began in the film business as an exhibitor but soon migrated to where the action and the power were -- Hollywood. Through sheer force of/i>
Lion of Hollywood is the definitive biography of Louis B. Mayer, the chief of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer -- MGM -- the biggest and most successful film studio of Hollywood's Golden Age.
An immigrant from tsarist Russia, Mayer began in the film business as an exhibitor but soon migrated to where the action and the power were -- Hollywood. Through sheer force of energy and foresight, he turned his own modest studio into MGM, where he became the most powerful man in Hollywood, bending the film business to his will. He made great films, including the fabulous MGM musicals, and he made great stars: Garbo, Gable, Garland, and dozens of others. Through the enormously successful Andy Hardy series, Mayer purveyed family values to America. At the same time, he used his influence to place a federal judge on the bench, pay off local officials, cover up his stars' indiscretions, and, on occasion, arrange marriages for gay stars. Mayer rose from his impoverished childhood to become at one time the highest-paid executive in America.
Despite his power and money, Mayer suffered some significant losses. He had two daughters: Irene, who married David O. Selznick, and Edie, who married producer William Goetz. He would eventually fall out with Edie and divorce his wife, Margaret, ending his life alienated from most of his family. His chief assistant, Irving Thalberg, was his closest business partner, but they quarreled frequently, and Thalberg's early death left Mayer without his most trusted associate. As Mayer grew older, his politics became increasingly reactionary, and he found himself politically isolated within Hollywood's small conservative community.
Lion of Hollywood is a three-dimensional biography of a figure often caricatured and vilified as the paragon of the studio system. Mayer could be arrogant and tyrannical, but under his leadership MGM made such unforgettable films as The Big Parade, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and An American in Paris.
Film historian Scott Eyman interviewed more than 150 people and researched some previously unavailable archives to write this major new biography of a man who defined an industry and an era.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Kevin Brownlow, author of The Parade's Gone By...
"Scott Eyman has accomplished the near impossible he's taken Louis B. Mayer, the comic goblin of so many Hollywood histories, and restored him to his rightful place as one of the great business executives of the twentieth century. Laughable no more, Mayer is a fascinating amalgam of vision, chutzpa, cunning, and sheer genius."
James Curtis, author of W. C. Fields and James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters
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In the summer of 1944, when he looked out his window on the third floor of the Thalberg Building, Louis B. Mayer saw a studio -- his studio -- that covered 167 acres. Lot 1 encompassed seventy-two acres, housed all the thirty soundstages, office buildings, and dressing rooms, the seven warehouses crammed with furniture, props, and draperies. Lot 2 consisted of thirty-seven acres of permanent exterior sets, including the town of Carvel, home of the Hardy family, and the great Victorian street from Meet Me in St. Louis. Here was the house where David Copperfield lived, there the street where Marie Antoinette rolled to the guillotine.
Lots 3, 4, and 5 were used for outdoor settings -- the jungle and rivers that provided the backdrop for Tarzan, much of Trader Horn, the zoo that provided the animals, including the lion that heralded each and every Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film. Connecting everything was thirteen miles of paved road.
In periods of peak production, which was most of the time, the studio had six thousand employees and three entrances to accommodate them -- the gate between Corinthian columns on Washington Boulevard; another one farther down Ince Way; and a crew gate on Culver Boulevard, where the workers punched time clocks.
MGM owned forty cameras and sixty sound machines. Thirty-three actors were officially designated stars, seventy-two actors were considered featured players, and twenty-six directors were under contract. "Anywhere from sixteen to eighteen pictures were being shot at one time," remembered actress Ann Rutherford. "They were either shooting or preparing to shoot on every soundstage....You could stick your nose into any rehearsal hall or soundstage, and it was just teeming with life."
The studio had its own dentist, its own chiropractor, its own foundry. It made its own paint, its own rubber molds. There were shops where old cars could be fabricated and assembled; electric, glass, and plastic shops. If a prop could not be found in the vast warehouse, it could be made overnight, or purchased; the studio spent $1 million a year buying props.
About 2,700 people ate in the commissary every day, while the research department answered about five hundred questions daily. The studio's laboratory printed 150 million feet of release prints every year. Power was supplied by an in-house electrical plant, which was of sufficient size to light a town of 25,000.
MGM maintained a police force of fifty officers, with four captains, two plainclothesmen, an inspector, and a chief -- a force larger than that of Culver City itself. Each member of the MGM police was trained to recognize all contract players and to salute each star.
The MGM police had a slightly different mandate than most police forces. Part of their job was protecting the studio's assets from the public, but they also had to protect those assets from themselves. No matter what an MGM actor did, police chief Whitey Hendry had to beat the local police to the scene, where publicity chief Howard Strickling would make arrangements to keep the story out of the papers. To do this, the studio had paid informants in every local police department.
Twenty years earlier, when Mayer had moved onto what was then the Goldwyn lot, the studio had consisted of forty acres, five stages, six cameras, six stars, a half-dozen directors, and six hundred employees. In the intervening years, Louis B. Mayer and his lieutenants built a company that was regarded by the public and his peers alike as the pinnacle of the industry.
"It was the studio in this town," said screenwriter Bernard Gordon. "When I came out here in 1939, I drove by MGM and I thought to myself, 'By God, that's Hollywood.' No other studio compared, and Mayer was the boss. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Mayer!"
Each studio had its own specific ambience, and MGM's was a luxury that was a synonym for quality. The songwriter Harry Warren used to have a stock story about the difference between Metro and the competition: "At Warner Brothers, you come in the gate at seven in the morning. The guards on the walls keep their guns aimed at you. At 7:05, Hal Wallis calls out, 'Have you written that song yet?'
"At Metro, the birds sing. The grass is green. Everybody smokes a pipe and has the Book-of-the-Month under his arm. Nobody works at Metro. You watch the flowers grow."
For the audience, MGM was predominantly a means of escape. In the 1930s, MGM came to symbolize an alternate reality from the drabness and squalor of the worldwide Depression, an escape into a dreamworld of Park Avenue swells. During World War II, MGM movies were serving simultaneously as escape and rallying cry -- Mrs. Miniver rallied support for England and, by implication, the internationalist cause, while the home front was bolstered by The Human Comedy and Andy Hardy.
For audiences at home and abroad, MGM was Hollywood at its most Hollywood in the best sense of the word, proved by the fact that MGM grosses were reliably leagues ahead of its competitors' and had been since the company was formed in 1924.
The year before, in 1943, MGM had released thirty-five pictures, among them The Human Comedy, DuBarry Was a Lady, Girl Crazy, A Guy Named Joe, Bataan, Lassie Come Home, and a full roster of programmers. In 1944, Mayer was riding herd on a group of pictures that included Meet Me in St. Louis, Gaslight, National Velvet, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and The White Cliffs of Dover. Although there was a war on -- actually, because there was a war on -- profits for the MGM division of Loew's, Inc. for 1944-45 (the financial year ran June to July) would be an astonishing $22.4 million on a gross of $98.1 million, compared to $14.5 million in profits for Paramount, $10.9 million for Fox, $3.4 million for Universal.
Within the industry, when Paramount or RKO made a particularly good picture, it would be said that "it was of MGM quality"; at a sneak preview, when the MGM logo of a roaring lion appeared, there would be a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.
Singer Tony Martin asserted that "Being...at MGM was the movie equivalent of being a pitcher on the New York Yankees -- you were first-class, everybody knew you were first-class and there was no reason not to be grateful for having the privilege."
"Warner Brothers had its stock company, sure," said Ann Rutherford, "but who wanted to rub elbows with Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert, bless their hearts?...Most of the contract people at MGM stayed and stayed and stayed. Why? Because the studio looked after them. Warner Brothers wouldn't -- they were always spanking somebody or selling them down the river. From the time you were signed at MGM you just felt you were in God's hands."
"It was almost feudal in the way it was so self-contained," remembered actress Janet Leigh. "Everything was grown inside. It was a complete city. There were doctors and dentists, there were people to teach you acting and singing and dancing. There were people to help you with your finances. You could live there. And the people were like family, because everybody was under contract, not just the actors and producers, but the electricians. If I finished one picture, I might find a different crew on the next one, but the one after that would probably have the same crew from the first picture. You had a sense of being surrounded by friendly, familiar faces; you had great continuity."
"MGM functioned like General Motors," remembered actor Ricardo Montalban. "It was run with such efficiency that it was a marvel. It was done by teamwork; they could project the product, and the product was not any individual movie, it was the actor. They created a persona that they thought the public would like; they tailor-made the publicity to create a persona throughout the world. It was amazing."
The key to the smooth running of this machine was detail, a sense of the overall that kept employees functioning whether they were working on a picture or not. An actor who wasn't assigned to a picture was still expected to be exercising, attending acting, dance, music, or speech classes, working in screen tests with prospective talent, promoting the studio's releases, or slipping into a tux to fill an empty chair at a studio dinner.
And none of this vast, smooth-running organization mattered as much as it ordinarily would have that summer of 1944. Louis B. Mayer, sitting in his office with white leather walls, a custom-designed wraparound desk, and an adjoining soundproof telephone room where he could consult with New York a half-dozen times a day, had a serious problem: He believed that his most popular young leading man was homosexual.
This issue had arisen before, when MGM had to finesse the fact that two of its top stars, William Haines and Ramon Novarro, were gay, but that had been more than fifteen years ago. The movie business had expanded exponentially since then -- weekly movie attendance had increased by a third, from 65 million in 1928 to 85 million in 1944. Now, there was more at stake.
Van Johnson had been handed the job of replacing Lew Ayres in the Dr. Kildare movies, then landed a supporting part in The Human Comedy. The fan mail had perked up, and the fan magazines were avid for interviews and photographs.
Johnson was an engaging personality, a competent actor. And he was an ex-chorus boy who was, claimed one MGM employee, "notorious on Broadway." Mayer knew it was only a question of time until MGM's money would have to be used to buy somebody's silence. The studio had done that be-fore, with William Haines, an experience Mayer had vowed he would never repeat.
For Louis B. Mayer, homosexuality was not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. As with many people of his time, Mayer believed that homosexuality was a psychological aberration that could be successfully treated -- especially by a good woman. As Mayer's suspicions about Johnson grew, he ordered every available, beautiful woman on the lot thrown at the young actor in an effort to establish his heterosexual bona fides.
But now there was a chance...
On April 1, 1943, during the production of A Guy Named Joe, Johnson had been badly hurt in an auto accident on Venice Boulevard and had spent a month or so recuperating at the home of his best friend, MGM character actor Keenan Wynn, the son of the legendary comedian Ed Wynn. While recuperating, Johnson had sparked to Evie, Keenan Wynn's vivacious, entertaining wife. He had told anybody who would listen about how sweet she had been to him after his accident, how he envied Keenan's taste in women. Word got back to Louis B. Mayer. Word always did. Ida Koverman, the dreaded Mount Ida, Mayer's executive secretary and protectress, sent a limousine for Evie Wynn.
Mayer's office was designed to intimidate and it succeeded splendidly. The anteroom, where the secretaries sat, was grand enough, but behind the mammoth walnut doors the sanctum sanctorum was even grander. Evie Wynn entered and saw that the office was huge and white -- completely white. The carpet -- all sixty long feet of it -- the walls, the ceilings, desk, chairs, sofas, and lights were all snowy and pristine, with silver accents that combined to suggest a moderne temple.
At the end, behind a white-leather-sided crescent-shaped desk, sat the five and a half feet and 175 pounds of Louis (always pronounced Louie) Burt Mayer, who made the decisions that helped shape the parameters of the American Dream for twenty-five years of the twentieth century.
He looked rather like a very small, very charming white penguin, and he had soft, silken hands that disguised the fact that he had done manual labor for years.
"I have thrown June Allyson and Gloria De Haven and Sonja Henie at Van," Mayer began. "He will only marry you. I'm here to see if we can't work something out. What would make you happy?"
The tone was unthreatening -- a sophisticated, fatherly man of the world talking to his female equal, offering up his concern, his vulnerability, asking her help so they could protect each other's interests.
Evie Wynn was surprised but not flabbergasted. "I had thought about Van a lot at that point," she would remember nearly sixty years later. "Keenan was always busy; his work was his life. 'Go with Van,' he'd say. So Van and I would go to parties and premieres, and Keenan went into the background. I think Keenan thought Van was safe. Maybe he knew about his proclivities, but he never said anything. Van was thirty years old, and my head was turned."
Mayer went on to explain sorrowfully that MGM was in a difficult position. Character actors were a dime a dozen, and the studio had to economize wherever it could. Keenan, for all his great talent, was expendable.
But perhaps there was a solution. If Evie divorced Keenan and married Van, perhaps the studio could make some...accommodation. If Evie did this thing that would benefit her, Van, and, coincidentally, the studio, Keenan would be signed to a new contract that would pay him far more money than any character actor on the lot. That was only fair; he and Evie had children, after all.
Moreover, he would guarantee Keenan good parts in good movies -- no B films, no throwaways. And, as a final sop, there would be no unsalaried layoffs, the three-month hiatus that was a nominal part of all but the most gold-plated stars' lives. MGM would pay Keenan fifty-two weeks a year for seven years.
He wanted Evie to think about this situation, think about it very carefully. Everybody would win; nobody would lose.
"He was very fatherly," said Evie Wynn. "And I was scared to death. I did stick up for Keenan. In retrospect, I can see he was arranging my marriage to Van just as Universal did later for Rock Hudson. That was a farce. Ours was a real marriage. I was in love with Van, but I wouldn't have married him if I'd known he was homosexual."
Evie promised to think about it. Suitable arrangements were made. About a year after the meeting in Mayer's office, Evie and Keenan Wynn were divorced, and in January 1947, she and Van Johnson were married.
For Louis B. Mayer, arranging marriages was a normal part of his job. Coping with occupational hazards like alcoholism, suicide, and outré sexuality was as much a part of his job as negotiating contracts with stars and directors, as devising and promoting the accepted myths that first bewitched, then defined, several generations of Americans.
For Louis B. Mayer, it was just another day at the office.
There was no middle ground about Louis B. Mayer, not then, not now.
"You are talking about the devil incarnate," the normally mild-mannered Helen Hayes would say. "Not just evil, but the most evil man I have ever dealt with in my life. He was an untalented, mean, vicious, vindictive person. He deliberately undermined people, went after individuals who were good box office for Loew's, Inc.: Buster Keaton, Billy Haines. He turned everyone against everyone else, establishing himself as a kingpin, without having anything to offer himself. And he would lie to your face."
"Louis B. Mayer was a Jewish Hitler, a fascist," said Ralph Bellamy. "He had no feeling for any minority, including his own. No feeling for people, period. When he found that Lew Ayres was a conscientious objector he was furious. He informed everybody that 'Lew Ayres has some kind of phobia about killing people.' And he killed his career."
Others had a different view. Adela Rogers St. Johns described him as having "absolutely infallible judgment. And that's the only thing that is required of a producer....He headed the greatest studio that ever existed, and he was the only immovable figure in it."
"Everything that has been said about him has been the case for the prosecution," asserted the director Clarence Brown. "Louis B. Mayer...made more stars than all the rest of the producers in Hollywood put together....He knew how to handle talent; he knew that to be successful, he had to have the most successful people in the business working for him. He was like Hearst in the newspaper business....He made an empire out of the thing."
Sam Marx, an MGM story editor, said that "Mayer is [an overly] maligned man. His reputation is far worse than it should be. He once said to Hearst, 'We have two strikes against us -- we can write a check for a million dollars and it's good.' He was a true capitalist and a devout Republican, but he wasn't as violent as people thought he was. He had to be strong to do his job, and he couldn't do that without making enemies."
Even Helen Hayes had a disconnect between the man she hated, and the organization he had created and ran. "It was the great film studio of the world," she said. "Not just of America, or of Hollywood, but of the world."
Perhaps in trying to understand the man who created this great studio we should look for middle ground, areas where some general agreement can be found. Mayer was, first of all, a superb manager. "Mayer was a great executive and could have run General Motors as successfully as MGM," said screenwriter-director-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
"Mayer was a man born for success," said the producer Armand Deutsch. "He was a fierce man, beneath a variety of exteriors. Sometimes his eyes would just blaze. The thing that distinguished him and that made MGM the greatest was the insistence on being the best. He was a showman. And the engine that drove this factory, that sent forty or fifty films a year into the marketplace, was Louis B. Mayer."
He was a businessman, but a businessman with a specific vision. He was unusual for a movie mogul in that he took an overt moral position in his movies -- a provincial nineteenth-century Victorian propriety. An ardent purveyer of what would today be termed family values -- indeed, as the main mover behind the Andy Hardy movies, Mayer was one of the defining agents of those values -- he was not above being attracted to some of the beautiful women that crowded the MGM lot. But such was his personality that he tended to fall in love with them rather than maintain an essentially mercantile relationship. As with every one of the Jewish movie moguls, no matter how haimish he seemed to be, the first wife was eventually discarded and a shiksa enlisted for the job.
What Mayer wanted in his movies -- and usually got -- was an idealized vision of men, women, and the world they lived in. Mayer fervently believed that movies were not a reflection of life, but an escape from life. He believed in beauty, glamour, the star system, and materialism.
Marriage was sacrosanct and mothers were objects of veneration, hence completely desexualized. When MGM made The Human Comedy, Mayer's favorite of the eight hundred movies produced under his aegis, Fay Bainter was cast as the mother of a five-year-old. At the time, Bainter was a matronly woman in her mid-fifties.
But Mayer was a businessman before he was a moralist, so MGM was the proud home of the tomcat sexuality of Clark Gable, the easy availability of Jean Harlow, the wry, common-man persona of Spencer Tracy, the wounded vulnerability of Judy Garland, the shopgirl heat of Joan Crawford, and the ethereal Greta Garbo -- a personal discovery of Mayer's, as were Hedy Lamarr and Greer Garson.
To get the vision he wanted, Mayer would implore, he would beg, he would placate, he would scream, he would threaten. And once in a while, if imploring, begging, placating, screaming, and threatening didn't work, he would allow the actor or director or producer to go ahead anyway. If they failed, he would be sure to say, "I told you so." And if they succeeded, he would just as invariably admit he had been wrong.
Even while he was alive, his values and the kinds of movies he loved were being supplanted. Since his death in 1957, he has been ruthlessly caricatured as a vulgar, roaring tyrant, a metaphor for the banality that New York intellectuals found in Hollywood, even as they scrambled to earn the salaries paid by those vulgarians. Respected film critics have thrown around the word "evil" -- a word that should probably be reserved for the people who herded Jews into boxcars -- about Mayer, as if he were Edward Arnold in a Frank Capra movie.
All this overlooks the fact that Mayer, more than any film producer of his generation, had a deep and instinctive understanding of the mass audience's taste and needs, and built the most successful operation ever devised to meet those tastes and needs.
Sophisticates in New York or Los Angeles might scoff at Andy Hardy or the let's-put-on-a-show MGM musicals, but Mayer knew that formula works. Then, as now, people -- especially Americans -- like stars, spectacle, and optimism, if possible with a little sentiment attached. They do not want to be challenged or instructed, but comforted and entertained, and the aesthetic quality of a film is less important to its commercial success than its fitting securely within an existing category -- and certain categories are more easily manufactured than others.
Variety's estimation of Mayer's achievement is irrefutably accurate: "Placed in his proper perspective, he was probably the greatest single force in the development of the motion picture industry to the heights of prosperity and influence it finally attained."
He was many things -- tycoon is insufficient. Elia Kazan, who knew something about feral ambition, compared Mayer and the rest of the men who created the Hollywood studio system to those who thronged to Alaska during the gold rush, "desperate men in a bare-knuckle scramble over rugged terrain, roughnecks thinly disguised, men out of a book by Frank Norris or Theodore Dreiser, alike in reach and taste...but, when they felt they had to, ready to go for each other's throats." In Mayer's case, literally.
He was a man with a manic intensity and creative vanity. Competition was everything, and the movies were the vehicle by which he would justify his beliefs. He competed with the other moguls to see who'd make the best or biggest grossing picture of the year, who would sign up the hottest star or writer or director. Usually, it was L.B.
He liked his drama melodramatic, his comedy laced with a strong dose of sentimentality. He loved swaggering, charismatic hams like Lionel Barrymore and Marie Dressler. He loved the respectability the studio gave him, and he delighted in the reflected glory earned by hosting meet-and-greet luncheons for visiting dignitaries. When Charles Lindbergh or George Bernard Shaw came to Los Angeles, they visited MGM. He had the essential narcissism of a child; there was no higher form of praise than for him to say of someone, "I like him; he can talk to me."
And he loved music and the movies that featured music. In his most far-sighted creative act, he made a songwriter named Arthur Freed the associate producer of The Wizard of Oz. When that film lost $1.1 million in its initial release, Mayer promptly gave Freed his own unit, for no good reason other than he had a hunch.
Freed responded by rolling out a series of films still venerated as the high-water mark of the form: For Me and My Gal, Girl Crazy, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway, On the Town, An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Gigi -- cumulatively, Mayer's greatest contribution to posterity.
For all of his idealism about the movies, inside the business, with the possible exception of Columbia's boss Harry Cohn, there was no one in Hollywood who was more feared. He was a great hater, and once you got on his list, it was very hard to get off. And if he hated you, he would try his best, not merely to get you out of MGM, but to get you out of the movie business.
Mayer came out of Russia and into the movies laboring beneath a miserable education. His grandson Daniel Selznick remembers Mayer's notes accompanying Christmas and birthday presents as being ungrammatical -- misspelled, and with no capitals at the beginning of his sentences.
To survive he had had to be aggressive; to flourish he had to be ruthless. Empire builders by definition have to fight for money, fight for power. They may be kind to animals and small children while doing all this, but make no mistake: if, in the line of business, somebody has to get hurt, it won't be them. Business, as Charlie Chaplin observed in Monsieur Verdoux, is a ruthless business. There should have been no surprise in any of this -- show business is a jungle, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's symbol was a lion.
"No one got to know Mayer but Mayer," said Fredericka Sagor Maas, a writer at the studio in the mid-'20s. "He was a chameleon -- strong and brutal. His people respected him highly, but he could destroy you with his pinkie and he damn well knew it. He brooked no contradiction or anything else that would diminish his power. And he was obsessed by his fear of [Loew's, Inc. chairman] Nicholas Schenck, who was more powerful than he was."
What he wanted was the same thing as what he needed, and to get it he would do anything he deemed necessary. As one MGM employee remembered, "Typically, he tried every angle. If Mayer couldn't get in the front door, he tried the back. If he couldn't get in the back, he'd try the chimney. If he couldn't get in the chimney, he'd try to blow the house down."
"He was always acting," said MGM star Esther Williams. "He was the best actor on the lot, but since I wasn't marrying him I didn't care if he was sincere or not. But you believed him at your peril."
Jack Warner was always Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn was always Sam Goldwyn, Darryl Zanuck was always Darryl Zanuck. But Mayer was different things to different people. If you needed a father, Mayer would be your Daddy. If you needed a demanding coach, Mayer would set the bar six inches higher and tell you he knew you could vault over it. He would sob and wail, he would listen and offer advice. He could be whatever he needed to be. He always saw the endgame, and always saw that endgame in terms of what he wanted, what the company needed. He was Hollywood's greatest closer.
The value Mayer cherished was a clannish loyalty. The employees of MGM, from Clark Gable to the night watchman, were family, part of his personal empire. He never wrote a movie, never directed a movie, and couldn't have even if he wanted to. He never pretended to tell writers what to write or art directors what to design. But he grew up in a time when a businessman recognized good workmanship when he saw it, and that was what L.B. respected. He had a horror of hoodwinking the customer; he believed in giving good weight. He never stopped feeling and smelling the goods. He would never pretend to understand cinema -- he usually disliked it when he saw it -- but he understood movies and the people who buy them and live in them as few others have.
The problems of an uncreative man in a creative industry would seem to be insoluble, but unlike many businessmen, Mayer had a knack for abstract thinking, and he was a master at manipulating people, many of whom were inherently unstable, into giving him what his studio needed. His supreme gift was his understanding of the nature of stardom and the needs of the audience, bred by his years of being an exhibitor.
MGM movies didn't have the best scripts or the best directors. Most of them weren't even the best movies, but they assuredly had the largest concentration of the greatest stars, the illuminated personalities who meant the most to what Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard would call "those wonderful people out there in the dark." For the audience, MGM represented what the movies should be.
For years, Mayer was regarded as merely a businessman, the one who coordinated, who set budgets and gave approvals for Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder who ran MGM production. And when Thalberg died in 1936, people in Hollywood waited for Mayer to stumble and fall.
It didn't happen. The studio went from strength to strength, making even more money, making even better pictures. For ten more years, MGM thrived, until changing times and tastes conspired to destroy, first Mayer, then, incrementally, his studio.
It is easy to smile ruefully at, or be horrified by, a man like Mayer. He has been demonized in memoirs and relentlessly caricatured in popular art -- Michael Lerner's definitively hilarious turn in Barton Fink -- as the archetypal emotional tyrant. And enough of it is true to give the stories the resonance of fact.
"He could be grating," said Evie Johnson. "He was a bulldog; you had to believe what he believed. His opinion was the right one, and no debate was possible. Socially, as a dinner partner, he was a lot of fun -- ingratiating and kind. But you had to remember he was also a despot who used the carrot-and-stick approach."
dProducer David Lewis, a protégé of Irving Thalberg, called him "brilliant, seductive, unprincipled. A rattlesnake was tame compared to Mayer. But all in all a man of genius, one of only three such men with whom I crossed paths in the motion picture business."
Yet, to walk the streets of MGM during the Mayer era was to visit Olympus. There was Garbo with a retinue holding up the train of her dress; there the three Barrymores, or Clark Gable, who seemed to carry some sort of masculine spotlight that illuminated him from within. And there were the problem children -- the alcoholic, impetuous John Gilbert, the crude, crass Wallace Beery, who physically abused Mickey Rooney until director Sam Wood challenged him to a fistfight.
In what we seem doomed to regard as the movies' Golden Age, MGM defined Hollywood in ways that transcend any individual movie. Some of those things are intangible -- glamour, gloss, the specific sound of the MGM orchestra -- but some are not. Louis B. Mayer defined MGM, just as MGM
defined Hollywood, and Hollywood defined America.
His is an extraordinary story, symbolized by the immense difference between the place where he began and the place where he finished. Dealt a miserable hand at birth, he made it to America and climbed the ladder of the most exciting business in the world.
I began this book knowing little of Mayer besides the oft-repeated stories, but the man that more than 150 interviewees told me about was far more complex than the one-dimensional ogre of legend.
The bell can't be unrung, of course; it's not that all the famously negative stories of Mayer are false, but, rather, that there was another Mayer -- one willfully undocumented because he was less like an absurd comic heavy in a movie, more like a human being. This aims to be a portrait in three dimensions.
Mayer's creation was MGM -- the stars, the stories, and the way they were presented that led audiences the world over to applaud the moment they saw the MGM lion. More than Thalberg, more than any of the actors, Mayer was the constant, the man who set the tone.
Even today, with the studio divested of everything except its name, the words Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer still resonate with the glory of Old Hollywood -- a town that wouldn't have achieved half the renown it did without Louis B. Mayer.
Copyright © 2005 by Scott Eyman
Meet the Author
Scott Eyman has written thirteen books, including biographies of Hollywood legends such as John Wayne (a New York Times bestseller), Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille, and Louis B. Mayer. He also collaborated with Robert Wagner on two books. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He was formerly books editor of The Palm Beach Post. He lives with his wife, Lynn, in West Palm Beach. Follow@ScottEyman1.
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