Louis B. Mayer
One of the legendary moguls of Hollywood's Golden Age, Louis B. Mayer rose from the immigrant son of a junkman to the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer beginning with the company's inception in 1924 to his ouster in 1951. It was Mayer who helped to establish the studio's reputation as a glamorous dream factory on the strength of lavish epics and musicals like "Ben-Hur" (1925), "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) and "Gone with the Wind" (1939), and for much of the Depression, audiences queued up to relieve their worries with one of Mayer's lush, family-friendly visions. Changing audience tastes and rampant production costs helped to unseat him in the early 1950s, which in turn signaled the beginning of the end of Old Hollywood's studio system. But in the decades following his death, Mayer's "beautiful pictures," as he liked to call them, endured as glimmering symbols of a period in Hollywood history where a studio could claim, in Mayer's words, to host "more stars than there are in heaven."
Louis B. Mayer was born Lazar Meir in Dymer, a town in the Ukraine some 25 miles north of Kiev, on July 12, 1884. In later years, he would change his birthday to July 4 to emphasize his patriotism and distance himself from his foreign roots. His father, Jacob Meir, moved his wife, Sarah Meltzer, son Lazar and two daughters, Yetta and Ida, to the United States in 1886, settling first in Rhode Island, where Mayer's younger brothers, Rubin and Jeremiah were born. Anti-Semitism forced the family to move once again, this time to Saint John, in New Brunswick, Canada, but conditions there were no better, and Mayer frequently found himself brawling with classmates to preserve his dignity. Home provided no sanctuary; Jacob Meir was physical and emotionally abusive parent who took out the frustrations of his day job as a scrap metal dealer on his family. His solace came from his mother, whom he idealized to the extent that he kept a picture of her above his bed throughout his life.
After graduating from elementary school, Mayer joined his father's business, and remained with him until 1904, when he left Canada for Boston, MA. There, the 19-year-old operated his own scrap metal business before purchasing and renovating the Gem Theater, a rundown burlesque house in the suburb of Haverhill. Mayer quickly announced that the new theater would only show wholesome, high-quality films; though the move was largely calculated to dispel the theater's seedy past, it would also represent his taste in motion pictures throughout his career. The Gem turned enough of a profit to allow Mayer to purchase all five theaters in Haverhill. As his stock in the New England theater business grew, he partnered with Nathan H. Gordon, owner of the 38-theater Olympia chain, and formed the Gordon-Mayer Theatrical Company, which began distributing films in 1914. A year later, the partnership struck pay dirt when they purchased the exclusive rights to D.W. Griffith's controversial epic "The Birth of a Nation" (1915). The film was a runaway hit, and Griffith's price tag of $25,000 returned over $100,000 in profit to Mayer's coffers.
In 1916, Mayer moved to Los Angeles to try his hand at producing his own films. He initially partnered with Richard A. Rowland's Metro Pictures Corporation in New York, but lit out for Los Angeles two years later to form his own company, the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. The middle initial "B" was a relatively new addition to Mayer's self-mythologized personality; though he claimed it stood for Burton, it was a fabrication intended, like all of his affectations, to give an air of respectability and professionalism. The Mayer Pictures Corporation began turning out films in 1918, beginning with the melodrama "Virtuous Wives" and averaging four to five pictures a year for almost a decade. Mayer's films, all low-budget and dripping with turgid emotional scenes, were marketed to women, who turned out in droves to enjoy these weepers. The key to the company's success was the working relationship between Mayer and his young chief of production, Irving Thalberg. A former executive at Universal, Thalberg was a tireless worker and a perfectionist who handled the creative side of production while Mayer concentrated on the finances. Their collaboration resulted in a string of hits for Mayer, which in turn caught the attention of theater chain owner Marcus Loew.
Having purchased Mayer's previous company, Metro, and Samuel Goldwyn's ailing Goldwyn Picture Corporation, he realized that he needed a strong figure to oversee production in Hollywood. Loew dispatched his assistant, Nicholas Schenk, to Hollywood to strike a deal with Mayer; however, Thalberg was left out of the initial offer. Mayer insisted that the younger man be brought aboard the new company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thalberg and producer Harry Rapf were made co-heads of production, while Mayer was Loew's new vice-president and head of operations in Hollywood. Mayer's first success was the Biblical epic "Ben-Hur" (1925), which had run aground in Rome after years of shooting for Goldwyn. Mayer scrapped the existing material and moved the production to MGM's studio in the L.A. suburb of Culver City, CA. The completed film's combination of splendor and piety captured audiences' imaginations, as did "The Big Parade" (1925), a WWI drama about a trio of friends who endured the terrors of trench warfare. Both films helped to establish MGM's reputation in the industry as the leading force in big-budget, quality films, a notion that Mayer strove to enforce through smart business decisions and projects that matched his penchant for morally upstanding stories.
The back-to-back successes allowed Mayer and Thalberg to cherry-pick stars for the subsequent projects. They wooed such talents as Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford and Lon Chaney to their doors, as well as a rising actress named Norma Shearer, who would later become Thalberg's wife. Top directors like King Vidor and Eric von Stroheim also came to work for MGM, enchanted by Thalberg's decree that multiple takes would be allowed to provide the best film possible, no matter what the expense. The company soon began to experiment with the two-color Technicolor process, and released the first complete Technicolor feature with sound, "The Viking," in 1928. By the 1930s, MGM had the biggest stars in the business in its stable, including Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Wallace Beery, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and the singing team of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, as well as Hal Roach's comedy shorts, which featured Laurel and Hardy and the "Our Gang" children. A partial list of their output released in that decade include some of the most popular and celebrated films of the 20th century, including "The Thin Man" (1934), "Anna Karenina" (1935), the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera" (1935), "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) and "Gone with the Wind" (1939), which MGM distributed.
Such successes were hard fought. Mayer regarded his studio and staff as family, and as its head, he rewarded loyalty and hard work, but crushed insubordination and opposition through cajoling, weeping, and in desperate cases, fainting. If these histrionics did not work, he would turn ruthless, as Clark Gable discovered when he attempted to negotiate for a pay raise. Mayer blackmailed him into accepting a smaller raise by threatening to reveal Gable's affair with Joan Crawford to his second wife, Rhea Langham. Stars who displeased Mayer were also loaned out to low-budget Columbia Pictures and its even more iron-fisted chief, Harry Cohn; Mayer also clashed openly with Nicholas Schenk, who became president of the company after Loew's death in 1927, and squelched a potentially lucrative deal to William Fox of the Fox Film Corporation. Mayer was also responsible for starting a preteen Judy Garland on a pill-laden road to ruin by putting her on weight-loss pills, i.e., speed, as she was deemed "overweight."
Mayer's most controversial ouster was Thalberg, who was unseated as production chief following a heart attack in 1932. Thalberg was widely considered as the creative engine at MGM, while Mayer was essentially the hand on the financial reigns. Mayer was also at a philosophical crossroads with the younger man over the content of the studio's output, with Thalberg preferring adaptations of literary works and other more cerebral projects, and Mayer wholeheartedly behind the wholesome, crowd-pleasing musicals and comedies that had earned the company millions in ticket sales. When Thalberg returned to the studio, he found himself replaced by a cadre of independent producers, including Mayer's son-in-law, David O. Selznick. An infuriated Thalberg refused Mayer's olive branch of a production deal, and threatened to quit the company. Unfortunately, his chronic physical ailments led to his premature death in 1937, allowing Mayer to take over his position and crown himself head of production and studio chief. In doing so, he became the first man in America to earn a million-dollar salary, and over the course of the next nine years, was the highest paid man in America.
MGM continued to thrive under Mayer's command throughout the 1940s, with such films as "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940), "Pride and Prejudice" (1940) with Laurence Olivier, "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) and "Mrs. Miniver" (1942) all released within the first few years of his tenure as head of production. But as industry observers noted, the studio began to rely more on bankable franchises, like the "Andy Hardy" and "Thin Man" series. Though production costs continued to present the MGM luster, the material felt artificial, reflecting a sensibility that, while pleasing for audiences, was out of touch with reality. It was essentially Mayer's sensibility, and it began to create a rift between the studio and its audience, who viewed these second-string features as contrary to MGM's "Tiffany Studio" image. Complicating matters was the departure of the studio's biggest stars, including Garbo, Crawford and Shearer.
In response to the downward turn in ticket sales, Mayer cut back on the volume of films released by the studio from 50 a year to 25. He also continued to pour money into musicals, a genre from which most of the studios had retreated by the late 1940s. Glossy song-and-dance films like "Easter Parade" (1948), with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, "The Pirate" (1948), with Garland and Gene Kelly, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949), with Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949), which marked the final screen pairing of Astaire and Ginger Rogers, proved immensely popular with audiences. Unfortunately, they were also extremely expensive to make, and MGM's sizable slate of musicals threw their finances into chaos. Television was already taking a substantial portion of the moviegoing audience away from theaters, and MGM suffered a major loss of revenue due to the United States v. Paramount Pictures decision, which forced studios to give up their theater chains. In response, shareholders forced Mayer to find another Thalberg. His solution was screenwriter and playwright Dore Schary, who had seen considerable success while serving as head of production at RKO Pictures.
Unfortunately, the collaboration between Mayer and Schary was as fraught with conflict as the latter years with Thalberg. Schary was a staunch liberal who favored films with substantive stories and themes, while Mayer, a diehard conservative, was still dedicated to making what he called "beautiful pictures." However, Mayer was in no position to uproot his rival; MGM had not netted a major Oscar in three years, and the company's coffers were emptying faster than its production slate could refill. According to studio legend, Mayer called Schenck in New York with an ultimatum: fire Schary or risk losing their studio chief. Schenck surprised his longtime nemesis by terminating his contract with the company. By 1951, Mayer was no longer head of MGM. As much as most actors, directors and producers in Hollywood despised Mayer and his overbearing tactics, MGM without Mayer at the helm seemed a totally foreign idea.
After attempting and failing to launch a boardroom coup to oust the powers that be at the studio, Mayer struggled to find his way outside of the studio system. There was some satisfaction from an honorary Oscar in 1950, and the discovery that his final effort for MGM, 1951's "Quo Vadis?" had scaled the heights of the box office while Schary's debut, "The Red Badge of Courage" (1951), had failed miserably. But eventually, Mayer drifted away from the business that had granted him near-absolute power and riches. He settled into real estate and raising racehorses, the latter of which included the 1959 Preakness Stakes winner, Royal Orbit. He continued to grant interviews throughout the 1950s, which largely bemoaned the state of the entertainment industry and the rise of television. His complaints had some merit; by the mid-1950s, MGM was in a tailspin that would continue over the next five decades. Mayer never lived to see the company briefly revive itself on the strength of "Ben-Hur" (1959), a remake of the 1925 film he had saved and that, in turn, had helped to save the company. He was diagnosed with leukemia and died in 1957. Reportedly, his last words were, "Nothing matters."As the popular story went, after learning there was a large turnout at Mayer's funeral, former MGM contract player Red Skelton was said to have remarked, "See, it just goes to show you that if you give people what they want, they'll show up for it."