July 12, 1884 – Louis B. Mayer:
A star is created, carefully and cold-bloodily, built up from nothing, from nobody. Age, beauty, talent, least of all talent, has nothing to do with it.
When I was in college nearby, I would sneak on to the MGM lot and poke around Main Street and the other outdoor sets. It was thrilling; all that history. If you read about the fabled MGM studios, do you know about the ”M”, the ”G” and the other ”M”? Louis B. Mayer, or as he was called “L.B.”, was head of production at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1924 to 1951.
Hollywood films of his era helped paint a pretty picture of life in the USA to show the rest of the world, and as the head of the most esteemed Hollywood film studio of his day, Mayer became a major figure in the history of American culture. He was also that classic American success story: a poor boy from an immigrant family who left school in his early teens and became the highest paid person in the United States.
Mayer was born in Ukraine city and he was curiously given to lying about both the place and the date. A self-made American, he claimed to have been born on the Fourth of July (just like Louis Armstrong). Like most of the men, and a few women, who built Hollywood, Mayer came from a poor Jewish immigrant background. As a teenager in St. John, New Brunswick, he would dive into the cold Bay of Fundy for pieces metal from shipwrecks that his junk dealer father would then sell. He quit school at 12-years-old and three years later was brokering all the deals for the family’s scrap business.
At 21-years-old Mayer moved to America and purchased a broken-down burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The locals called it the “Garlic Box” because it catered to poor Italian immigrants. which he remade into a popular movie theatre. He pawned his wife’s wedding ring and purchased The Birth Of A Nation, paying D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to the movie and building his fortune on the ticket sales. He soon realized that stars would be the keys to his success because, as he said later:
This is a business of making idols. Everything else was secondary.
This acumen became the foundation of the studio Mayer built in Los Angeles. With an eye for star-wattage, among the stars he put on contract were Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Greer Garson, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Sentiment and given to sobs and shouts, Mayer understood how to sell his idols to a hungry public. Of swimming star Esther Williams, he said:
Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.
To actor Robert Young, he advised:
Put on a little weight and get more sex. We have a whole stable of girls here.
At its zenith, MGM was huge: 185 acres in Culver City, with 30 soundstages, a fake jungle and a real zoo, a barbershop, its own police force that was larger than Culver City’s, and a 24-hour commissary that served chicken soup to over 2,700 a day. There was also an in-house bookie, and a drug dispensary. MGM employed 6,000 people, with 40 cameras and 60 sound machines used on its six separate lots, and connected with its own rail line. Power was supplied by an in-house electrical plant which could light a city of 25,000. However, MGM did not have a staff abortionist; for that service, its stars and contract players had to go across town to 20th Century Fox.
Up to 18 movies were being shot at one time. They were either shooting or preparing to shoot on every sound stage.
In 1937 Mayer earned $1.3 million. The MGM studio, which boasted more stars than there were in heaven, made 50 films a year in the 1930s. In 1939 alone the studio released 55 shorts and features including: Idiot’s Delight with Gable and Shearer, Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Garson, The Wizard Of Oz, The Women, Babes In Arms, Ninotchka for Garbo, three Andy Hardy movies, two Dr. Kildare films, the third of the Thin Man series, The Ice Follies Of 1939, the first The Fast And The Furious, On Borrowed Time with Lionel Barrymore and Beulah Bondi, and Gone With The Wind with Butterfly McQueen and Olivia de Havilland.
Mayer was decidedly not an intellectual, but he was a sucker for sentimental romance, a taste shared by film fans of the era. He had phenomenal energy; his workday lasted 12 hours. Mayer was a great executive, someone who could have run General Motors just as well as a large studio like MGM. He worked all the time, and decisively, without any fixed schedule, but didn’t like paperwork. Mayer had a lot in common with newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Hearst even financed various MGM pictures, while MGM benefited by having film reviews included nationwide in the Hearst newspapers.
Mayer took Hearst’s suggestion to build himself an office bungalow on the MGM lot, something Hearst said was appropriate for a studio head, adding:
Everybody of distinction from all over the world comes to Los Angeles and everybody who comes wants to see your studio and they all want to meet you and do meet you, so put on a few airs, and provide the atmosphere.
Mayer’s temper was widely known, but most of his staff and talent knew that his sudden bursts of anger faded quickly. He preferred to leave department heads alone, but would fire executives if they failed to produce successful films over a long period.
Mayer helped create the “star system”. Mayer:
All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I’d have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting.
In the late-1930s, Mayer understood that the Germans could ban or boycott Hollywood, with serious economic implications, since 40% of Hollywood’s grosses came from European audiences. Nevertheless, MGM produced Three Comrades in 1938, despite the warning that the film was a serious indictment of Germany and would be resented by the Nazis.
In 1939, Mayer authorized the production of two anti-Nazi films, The Mortal Storm with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart and Escape with Shearer and Robert Taylor. The Nazi government informed the studios that the films would be remembered by Germany when they won the war, and those nasty Nazis threatened Mayer with a boycott of all MGM films.
All films that could be considered anti-Nazi were banned by the Hays Office. The U.S. ambassador to England, Joseph Kennedy, told the studios to stop making anti-German films. Defiant, Mayer produced Mrs. Miniver, a simple story about a London family trying to get by during the bombing blitz. Mayer wanted Garson, his personal discovery, to star, but she refused to play an unglamorous role. Mayer pressured Garson to accept the role, and she won the Academy Award for her performance. Mrs. Miniver won six Oscars and became the Number One box office hit of 1942.
Both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill loved the film, and Roosevelt wanted prints rushed to theaters nationwide. The Voice of America radio network broadcast the big speech from the film and copies of it were dropped over German-occupied countries.
In 1943, MGM released another Oscar-winning film, this supporting the home front, The Human Comedy starring Mickey Rooney. It was Mayer’s personal favorite of all his films. Mayer assisted the American government by making short pro-democracy propaganda films.
After World War II there was gradual decline in profits for MGM and the other studios. Mayer had to let go of his top producers and other executives.
Mayer resigned from MGM in August 1951. On his final day, he walked down a red carpet laid out in front of his executives, actors and staff who applauded him as he left. It was the end of an era.
When Mayer died in 1957, the Hollywood he helped build died too; a film industry built by first and second-generation European Jews.
His funeral service at the temple on Wilshire Boulevard was attended by 2,000 people, with 3,000 more gathered outside. Spencer Tracy gave the eulogy. Honorary pallbearers included ex-President Herbert Hoover, filmmakers Cecil B. De Mille and David Selznick. Jeanette MacDonald sang, Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.
Sure, he was anti-union, a Republican, and he was what was called ”handsy with the ladies” in that era, behavior that would never cut it in our own. Joan Crawford:
…at MGM we were lucky because Louis B. didn’t believe in the casting couch routine. He may have been a tyrant at times, but he taught me discipline, and he made me feel that I could be a star, and he made me act like a star.
Mayer never wrote or directed films, yet he understood movies and what the audience wanted.
The story he wanted to tell was the story of America, the land for which he had an almost furious love, born of gratitude—and of contrast with the hatred in the dark land of his boyhood across the seas. It was this love of America that made him an authority on America.