Movie mogul Louis B. Mayer worshipped his mother, and this came out time and again in his Metro Goldwyn Mayer films.
As impoverished Russian-Jewish immigrants in New Brunswick, Canada, it was Mayer’s mother who kept his family together and put food on the table for Mayer and his four other siblings, according to biographer, Scott Eyman, author of Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.
So, it wasn’t an accident that a nurturing, all-forgiving mother character recurred throughout many of MGM’s aspirational, family values-themed films, particularly in the Andy Hardy film series starring a raffish puck Mickey Rooney whose kind mother was played by Fay Holden.
Another example was Marie Dressler. Mayer was instrumental in reviving the dead career of Dressler, a careworn actress in her 60s at the time who, helped by Mayer’s patronage, became an incredibly successful movie star for the last 10 years of her life and received a best actress Oscar, late in life, for her role in Min and Bill.
“In Dressler, Mayer saw all the mothers of the world who labored beneath unsuccessful husbands who had sacrificed their lives basically at the altar of their children,” says Eyman. “You rarely saw a mother in MGM pictures who was anything but a paragon of virtue.”
Mayer’s mother wasn’t the only one who supported the family. The movie mogul left school at the age of 12 and stepped into the role of entrepreneur at a young age. Young Mayer supported his family through several pursuits, including collecting heavy scrap metal for resale during some brutally cold News Brunswick winters. Around 1903, at the age of 19, Mayer moved to Boston to expand the family’s scrap metal business.
Mayer, who’d always held an interest in theater according to his biographer Eyman, didn’t have entry into that field during that time as a Jew. So, he plunged into the movies, instead. Outside of Boston, he purchased a rundown burlesque hall which he converted into a 600-seat movie theater, an endeavor he ran with enormous success and profit. This allowed him to eventually take over the entire New England movie theater market.
However it wasn’t until 1914 that his step toward being a Hollywood goliath was established. Mayer purchased the New England rights to the smash hit of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for $50,000. He ended up raking in approximately $500,000, a fortune at the time.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1918 and formed the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation, which got the attention of business magnate Marcus Loew and film producer Samuel Goldwyn who had merged companies to form Metro-Goldwyn film studios. Mayer was asked to head it as vice-president, and he agreed with the caveat that his name be added to the studio’s name. Hence the birth of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which he ran for nearly three decades.
The movie mogul, with a sixth grade education, was responsible for iconic films such as Ben Hur, Singing in the Rain, Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz. He became the first person in American history to earn an annual salary of a million dollars, an enormous sum in the 1920s.
Mayer was clearly a standout individual in the landscape of film and history, and here are five more reasons why he was a true radical and visionary.