Louis B. Mayer The Real MGM Lion
Louis B. Mayer
Co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
"Be smart, but never show it."-Louis B. Mayer
In Hollywood, there are lots of players. But only a few write a whole new script for the industry. One of these was Louis B. Mayer. By filling his studio with "more stars than there are in heaven," and making what he believed were good, wholesome, family movies, he established Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the industry's dominant film factory and ruled Hollywood for nearly a quarter of a century.
A Russian-Jewish immigrant whose family came to the United States in the late 1880s to escape the oppression of czarist Russia, Mayer began his show business career as a theater operator. Although movies were still in their infancy, he foresaw the tremendous financial possibilities in their development. In 1907, he purchased a dilapidated burlesque house just north of Boston in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and transformed it into a 600-seat movie theater.
A keen marketer from the start, Mayer built his patronage by alternating films with stage attractions, and within a year he was grossing $25,000. Using his profits, Mayer swiftly took over other theaters in the area, ultimately acquiring control of the largest theater chain in New England. To ensure a steady supply of films for his growing string of theaters, he organized his own distribution company in 1914.
Next Mayer decided to try his luck at production. He moved to Los Angeles in 1918, founded the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corp., and released a series of tear-jerkers starring the then popular actress Anita Stewart. Mayer's success in all three aspects of the film industry-exhibition, distribution and production-attracted the attention of Marcus Loew, the owner of Loews' Theaters, who was negotiating the purchase of the Goldwyn Studio.
Loew needed an experienced executive to oversee the films that would be produced by the newly combined Metro-Goldwyn, and offered Mayer the job of vice president in charge of production. Mayer agreed, but under one condition: that his name be added to the company. And thus, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was born.
With the help of his dedicated lieutenant and so-called "boy wonder" of the industry, production chief Irving Thalberg, Mayer transformed MGM into a film factory, churning out an average of 47 feature films a year. He built up a roster of household names that included Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner, the Marx Brothers, Ava Gardner and Greta Garbo, and controlled them with a contract system that legally bound the stars to MGM for years.
Mayer worked hard to project himself as a father figure to his extended family of stars, directors and producers, but he was a master manipulator who could be brutally ruthless. When Clark Gable asked Mayer for a raise from $1,000 to $5,000 per week, Mayer blackmailed him, threatening to tell his wife about his affair with Joan Crawford. Gable settled for $2,000.
Yet when it came to defending his "family" against scandal and rumor, Mayer would go to incredible lengths. For instance, when a drunken Gable struck and killed a pedestrian near Hollywood Boulevard, Mayer sent him into hiding, then conspired with the local D.A. to have a minor executive take the rap in return for staying on MGM's payroll for life.
While Mayer's professional moral code may have been tinged with shades of gray, his movies reflected his penchant for wholesomeness and escapism. Convinced that morality sold, he favored the virtues of patriotism and family over controversial subject matter. With films like the Andy Hardy series (starring Mickey Rooney), Mayer defined American society according to his fantasies. And for quite some time, the strategy worked. Moviegoers flooded MGM's theaters, and critics lauded MGM films.
But as praise and profits soared, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. Thalberg, who oversaw such MGM blockbusters as "Ben Hur," "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "The Wizard of Oz," was growing tired of playing "second fiddle." Mayer was the highest-paid person in the nation, making more than $1 million a year, and Thalberg felt entitled to an equal share. For his part, Mayer had begun to resent the growing opinion that Thalberg was the true creative genius behind MGM. By the mid-1930s, the rift between the mogul and his protégé grew to the point that they no longer spoke to one another. Thalberg eventually threatened to leave MGM for another studio, but before he could make good on this threat, he died of a heart attack in 1937.
Mayer would continue his arbitrary reign at MGM throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, producing a host of prizewinning and profitable films. But during the postwar years, Mayer's invincibility began to fade. Audiences were becoming more sophisticated and Mayer's formula of sappy, sentimental family fare and glossy romantic productions lost its appeal. Even worse, the government forced the industry to divest its lucrative theater chains, so top stars and directors were demanding the profit participation the studios had always denied them.
Looking to boost MGM's profits, Albert Schenck, who had succeeded Marcus Loew, hired Dore Schary from RKO, hoping that he would become a "new Thalberg." But Schary's promotion of realistic dramas with controversial themes clashed with Mayer's sentimental romanticism. When Mayer told Schenck it was either him or Schary, Schenck chose Schary. After nearly 27 years as Hollywood's most powerful producer, Mayer resigned from MGM in 1951.
In the years that followed, Mayer attempted new ventures sporadically, but never with much enthusiasm. Still bitter over his oust from MGM, he tried to take over Loew's company in early 1957 through a complicated stock maneuver, but the effort failed. Mayer died shortly afterward.
Despite his faults, Mayer was a true innovator. Unlike other Hollywood moguls, who were simply trying to make a profit, Mayer was an idealist intent on using the power of movies to exert what he considered the proper moral influence on the American public. As a result, he built MGM into the most prestigious film studio of the 1920s, '30s and '40s, and left behind a legacy of classic films that defined America's aspirations, if not its reality, for many years after his death.
In The Beginning
One of Louis B. Mayer's early successes came when he offered director D.W. Griffith $50,000 for the exclusive New England rights to "The Birth of a Nation." The deal eventually netted Mayer a record-breaking $500,000.
Committed to obtaining the best talent money could buy, Louis B. Mayer scouted pretty girls and dashing men the world over, personally discovering Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Rudolph Valentino and Clark Gable.