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LOUIS B. MAYER: Lion Of Hollywood

8 minute read
Budd Schulberg

Dan Quayle would have loved Louis B. Mayer, a man for whom the words family values had real meaning. Motherhood, the Stars and Stripes and God were equal parts of a lifelong strategy that would establish Metro Goldwyn Mayer as the industry’s dominant film factory, from the silent era through the talkies revolution. While the other early moguls were simply trying to make the best movies they could, young Mayer was an ideologue intent on using the power of the new medium to exert what he considered the proper moral influence on the American public.

Mayer went West in 1918, just after the first wave of Hollywood pioneers. He had been on the move since his threadbare family left its Cossack-ridden Ukrainian village in the late 1880s and a few years later settled in St. John, New Brunswick. There his father Jacob Mayer struggled as a junkman. Little Louie, half starved, battled anti-Semitic bullies and helped his father–whom he despised as much as he adored his mother. Escaping St. John in his late teens, he moved on to Boston, where he discovered the Nickelodeon, the embryo of the moving-picture business. Quick to seize his opportunities in the young business of film distribution, Mayer earned a breakthrough $500,000 by putting up $50,000 for a lopsided 90% of the New England ticket sales on the first movie blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation. Now ready to produce his own pictures, he inveigled a popular actress, Anita Stewart, into breaking her contract with Vitagraph, and in 1918-19 starred her in a series of teary films at the modest studio leased from the Selig Zoo in downtown Los Angeles, where my father B.P. Schulberg joined him in the now vanished Mayer-Schulberg Studio in 1920.

A major step up for Mayer was entertainment tycoon Marcus Loew’s reaching out to him as commanding officer of a new company merging Metro and Goldwyn, with Mayer soon adding his big M to the mix. He raised the contract system to a state of the art, using it to rule over a stable of stars who were legally bound to the company for years. In L.B.’s studio, with frail, dedicated lieutenant Irving Thalberg at his side, L.B. worked hard to project himself as a father figure to his extended family of stars, directors and producers.

He was the master manipulator, and it was generally acknowledged that of all the great actors on the lot–the Barrymores, Spencer Tracy, Lon Chaney, Garbo–L.B. was No. 1. When Robert Taylor tried to hit him up for a raise, L.B. advised the young man to work hard, respect his elders, and in due time he’d get everything he deserved. L.B. hugged him, cried a little and walked him to the door. Asked, “Did you get your raise?” the now tearful Taylor is said to have answered, “No, but I found a father.”

There were ways to get to him. When ingenue Ann Rutherford asked for a supplement to her modest salary in the highly profitable Andy Hardy series, L.B. began his familiar ploy. Then Rutherford took out her little bank book, showed him her meager savings and said she had promised her mother a house. Mother was the magic word. L.B. embraced her, but chastely; down his cheeks came the obligatory tears; and Rutherford left with her raise.

Mayer was building a roster of household names that almost lived up to MGM’s slogan, “More stars than there are in heaven”: Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner, the Marx Brothers, Ava Gardner and, of course, Garbo, L.B.’s personal discovery.

He kept them in line with hand holding and falling to his knees in tears, but if that failed, he’d reverse field, as he did with Gable. When Gable was getting $1,000 a week and wanted $5,000, L.B. blackmailed him by threatening to reveal to Gable’s wife Ria his affair with Crawford. Both knew Gable was worth $12,000, but he settled for $2,000. The indentured servitude had its benefits, though, for the kind of power that L.B. wielded on the studio lot extended to local politics. When a drunken Gable hit and killed a pedestrian near Hollywood Boulevard, L.B. sent Gable into hiding and then conspired with the local D.A. to have a minor executive take the rap in return for staying on the payroll for life at a higher salary. A pliant press hushed the story.

While L.B.’s moral code was complicated, his zeal was not. When his biggest star at the time, Jack Gilbert, used the word whore in reference to his co-star Mae Murray, and then–gasp–about his own mother, the president of MGM rushed from around his desk and knocked down his million-dollar meal ticket.

Having learned not to say “ain’t” or use double negatives or drop his Gs, a more polished L.B. found a new role model in Herbert Hoover. He worked so effectively for Hoover that he dared hope he might be the new President’s choice as ambassador to England. An ambassadorship to Turkey was dangled, but Mayer chose to oversee his studio’s triumphant transition from silence to sound: “Garbo Talks!” The Mayers did claim the privilege of being Hoover’s first guests at the White House. From then on L.B. felt free to phone the President, and frequently did, to make suggestions for running the government.

Meanwhile he was cashing in on his conviction that morality sold. With films like the Andy Hardy series, featuring teenage star Mickey Rooney, sage father Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) and charming mother (Fay Holden), Mayer was defining American society according to his fantasies. He took his responsibility for American values so seriously that when Rooney, a precocious womanizer and partygoer, got out of hand, L.B. was overheard screaming at him, “You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re Stars and Stripes! You’re a symbol! Behave yourself!”

But as praise and profits soared, a conflict was building between Mayer and his brilliant production chief Thalberg. An intense perfectionist who never lost his schoolboy looks, Thalberg oversaw MGM’s record-breaking hits: The Big Parade, Ben Hur, Anna Christie, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Wizard of Oz. Thalberg was increasingly resistant to playing Andy to Mayer’s Judge Hardy. By 1936, Mayer was the highest-salaried executive in America, breaking the million-dollar barrier. Thalberg felt entitled to an equal share. For his part, L.B. had begun to resent the prevailing opinion that Thalberg was the genius behind MGM’s achievements, and Mayer the engineer who kept the plant humming.

By the mid-’30s, MGM was divided between Mayer loyalists and “Thalberg people,” and by the time the strong-willed, weak-hearted Thalberg collapsed and went to Europe for treatment, he and his former mentor were no longer speaking to each other. When Thalberg returned, Mayer offered a production deal in place of his old job. An angry Thalberg threatened to leave MGM. It was at this impasse that he died at age 37. L.B. cried, sent a spectacular spray of gardenias to the funeral and, soon after, remarked to my mother, “God saw fit to take Irving away.”

God wasn’t L.B.’s co-pilot; he was his senior partner, reaching out to remove those who dared get in L.B.’s way. For almost 15 years, L.B. would continue to reign at MGM. With a host of prizewinning and profitable films, MGM’s decline as Film Factory No. 1 was almost imperceptible. But in the postwar years, the Mayer formula of sentimental family fare and glossy romantic productions was wearing thin.

The golden years of the moguls were coming to an end too. The government forced the industry to divest its lucrative theater chains, and top stars and directors were demanding the profit participation that Mayer & Co. had always denied them. Mayer was forced to accept writer-producer Dore Schary in Thalberg’s old job, and at first it seemed once again that Mayer had found the son he had always wanted. But the liberal Schary found L.B. an overbearing and stultifying influence. A bitter showdown prompted Loew’s successor Nick Schenck to make a choice. To Mayer’s shock, Schenck picked Schary.

After 27 years of arbitrary power, L.B. was out. Even his vaunted patriotism had now become shrill. He identified with right-wing fanatic Senator Joe McCarthy and opposed General Eisenhower as too moderate at the ’52 G.O.P. convention. When Mayer died in 1957, the apostle of family values left a contentious, meanspirited will disinheriting family members, including his daughter Edith, because of her husband’s liberal politics. No happy ending there. No movie-star hero to set everything right at the rosy fade-out.

Had L.B. been making his own movie, it would have been different. He knew how to turn American life into pipe dreams. But give the devil his due: this self-inflated, ruthless and cloyingly sentimental monarch presided over the most successful of all the Hollywood dream factories, leaving a legacy of classic, inimitable films that defined America’s aspirations, if not its realities.

Novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg is the author of the classic tale of Hollywood, What Makes Sammy Run?

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