MEN OF VISION - LOUIS B. MAYER...
...and the Dream Factory that Was
by Nick Zegarac
“He was the most honest man I ever met in Hollywood. L.B. had a sense of romance about the movie business…he was really an entrepreneur in the old-fashioned sense…He believed. He adored the business and he understood it.”
– Katharine Hepburn
In the roughly 51 years since his death, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer has been described as everything from a benevolent father figure to a “courtly polished villain”. Whatever the public’s perception of this great man today Mayer’s legacy has endured as a formidable star maker and purveyor of some of the grandest motion pictures that Hollywood has ever produced. “He was truly a great administrator,” said agent/producer Charles Feldman, “…if they had more men in the business with the sort of imagination and daring that Mayer had in the years of his prime, the business would not be wallowing in the slough of despond that it’s in today.”
During his reign at MGM, Mayer’s policy for building the studio to prominence was simple: hire good people and leave them alone. He trusted and admired creative individuals for the areas in expertise that he admittedly lacked. “Mayer’s great faculty was the wooing of stars,” said director King Vidor, “The perpetuation of the star system.”
True - and every star was equal in L.B.’s eyes. When new contract player, Lena Horne was told that the commissary was closed to ‘her kind’, Mayer invited Horne and the entire cast of Cabin in the Sky (1943) to sup with him in his private dining room for the afternoon, then issued a direct memo to all studio departments that read, ‘All colored performers and other employees at MGM will, in future, have the same access as white performers and employees to all facilities of this studio!’ As if to back this claim through external deeds, Mayer further courted the acceptance of Walter White, president of the NAACP, proclaiming that “I live and breathe the air of freedom and I want it for others as well as myself!”
In hindsight, L.B.’s personal reflections after being deposed from MGM in 1951 were cluttered with residual resentment toward Dore Schary and Nick Schenck – the two men directly responsible for his removal - and a growing bitterness that eventually consumed his every thought, though his words have also accurately foreshadowed the mire of making movies today. Offering his opinion on the business in 1955, the impassioned Mayer publicly fretted that “We have so few real stars today. The glamour’s gone out of the business. Imagine public idols, gods, washing dishes, wearing blue jeans, going to psychiatrists. How can anyone idolize people like that?”
Indeed, by 1960 L.B.’s dream factory was in a bad way. The appointment of Dore Schary by Loewe’s chairman Nicholas Schenck, as V.P. in Charge of Production almost a full decade after Thalberg’s death had been an ill fit for the studio from the start. Schary and MGM were not only strange, but highly incompatible bedfellows. Schary was an ambitious writer/producer and an intellectual, “…so constipated with his own importance that his smallest pronouncement sounds like the Pitt of the Elder” (S.J. Perelman).
MAYER VS. SCHARY
“If seriously challenged L.B. would maul you to death. Nick (Schenck) would do you in with a cyanide cocktail.”
– Dore Schary
To understand Mayer’s resentment toward Dore Schary is to first admittedly reflect briefly on the man who would eventually come to be L.B.’s quiet nemesis and successor. Born in 1905, Schary was an MGM alumni thrice removed from power by producer Harry Rapf before being appointed by Nick Schenck to oversee daily production. In his early years at the studio, Schary had been a successful screenwriter, but had also managed to acquire the patina of being a devious backstabber – thanks in part to an incident where he attempted to pass off Irving Brecher’s screenplay for the Marx Bros. Go West (1940) as his own work.
Despite his reputation, or perhaps in spite of it, Schary was a rising star at MGM who had managed a modestly impressive slate of projects under Rapf’s supervision; including Lassie Come Home, Journey For Margaret and Bataan. However, when Mayer elected to cancel two of Schary’s more weighty projects, Schary chose to skulk off to David O. Selznick, then RKO rather than work within Mayer’s framework.
To be certain, L.B. could harbor a grudge. He also preferred things be done his own way – not an outrageous request considering that after Thalberg’s death the sole responsibility of daily operations had been placed squarely on his shoulders with much trepidation but with regular success. Mayer intuitively understood the artistic, as well as the business end of making movies. His shift away from more ‘adult’ movies into ‘family entertainment’ bode well with the wholesome appeal for ‘clean entertainment’ during the war years. He would be less successful and popular with the post-war generation.
Worse, the creative landscape of Hollywood that surrounded L.B., the Hollywood that Mayer half-heartedly and unsuccessfully attempted to reenter a half dozen times as ‘star maker’ after his ousting from the studio, had so drastically changed with the onslaught of television that it must have seemed a remote and foreign enterprise to this man who once was regarded as at the forefront of his craft.
Perhaps one of the greatest misperceptions about L.B. Mayer was that he was a very fortunate tyrant – an uncouth and uneducated dictator who made and ruined talent to suit his own changeable whims. On the contrary, upon discovering a talent – any talent - Mayer would do everything in his power to expose and nurture it – cultivate it through acting, dancing and singing lessons, instructing his writers, directors and producers to craft tailor-made product for it and ever fine-tuning finished films to ensure that every star shone brighter than most others in the cinema firmament.
Nothing was too good for Mayer’s protégés. Though not initially one of his favorites, Judy Garland was quickly embraced and even coddled by Mayer’s patience and respect, primarily after L.B. heard her sing ‘Dear Mr. Gable’. Mayer could certainly recognize a talent and with Garland he did not have to look hard or long. Today, Mayer’s sanctioning of prescription sedatives to help Garland quell the emotional fragility that plagued the latter half of her life has been misinterpreted as Mayer’s acting as Judy’s drug dealer – a sort of manipulative rouse by the mogul to get his actress hooked on pills that could be used to bend her will and make her a more manageable commodity for the studio to exploit.
In fact, Mayer was only making available to Garland whatever medicinal cures existed in a concerted attempt to straighten out her erratic behavior. Since Mayer knew nothing of mental illness or even that prolonged exposure to such sedatives leads to addiction, it seems highly unlikely in retrospect that his intensions toward Garland were laced with anything but the milk of human kindness. To be certain, Mayer wanted Garland back on the job – but not unhealthy or uncontrollable, to hold up the company with countless costly delays.
For Mayer, Judy was necessary to MGM’s musical success – ergo, she needed to be cured. That no cure proved instant or lasting was a tragedy and likely not one that Mayer would have wished on one of his most popular stars. Mario Lanza – whose ego alone could have occupied two floors of the Thalberg Memorial Building also could do no wrong as far as Mayer was concerned. Mayer’s nephew Gerald would later admit “I think there’s a misapprehension that he (Mayer) was lucky. Most men won’t hire people who can replace them, but he hired Thalberg and Cedric Gibbons and a lot of others…He had a kind of genius.”
That genius would be tested immediately following the untimely death of MGM’s V.P. in Charge of Production Irving Thalberg in 1936. The relationship between Mayer and Thalberg, as all relationships between Mayer and fellow colleagues who were at least on equal creative and/or business plains, had been periodically strained. Following Thalberg’s demise, it had been quietly rumored around town that MGM’s supremacy in the industry would soon be in jeopardy. Instead, Mayer took control as few of his peers expected, ushering in the golden age of musicals under Arthur Freed while developing and maintaining complete and absolute control over all daily operations.
“L.B. wasn’t crude at all,” Esther Williams would later reflect, “Super-intelligent people might have found him common or crass, but he was trying to be the kind of executive that Lew Stone or Walter Pidgeon would play. He may have been an immigrant with a good suit of clothes, but never forget that this was a man working hard to be an American!”
At the dawn of her MGM tenure, Williams had been one of Mayer’s reluctant discoveries. Although Mayer’s initial response to signing this champion swimmer had been “How the hell do you make movies in a swimming pool?” a quiet and mutual respect developed between mogul and future star almost from the moment the ink on her contract had dried. Williams no nonsense approach to celebrity garnered L.B.’s admiration.
Reportedly, after their first and only disagreement, Williams quietly let L.B. rant for a few moments before informing him that he should not raise his voice to her again. When asked by a perplexed Mayer why this was so, Williams calmly added, “Because you can’t get to the other end of the pool.” Mayer considered that he was not a great or even a good swimmer. “They’d say swimmer take your mark,” Williams went on, “I’d go to the other end and you’d go right to the bottom.” Agreed. It was a tete a tete between equals. Mayer had his strengths. Williams had hers.
“Placed in his proper perspective, he was probably the greatest single force in the development of the motion picture industry to the heights of prosperity and influence it finally attained.”
Louis B. Mayer was born Eliezer Mayer in Minsk Russia in 1885, the son of an immigrant junk dealer who moved his family from New York to Halifax before settling in Haverhill Massachusetts in 1904. He was Jewish but only by birth, forever extolling the virtues of God in public and in print while rarely entering the synagogue to confirm that devotion. Mayer was not formally educated but he became master in his profession and a legitimate authority on movie making. It was not an immediate or an easy climb.
Purchasing a small theatre in Haverhill, by 1914 Mayer was president of the largest theater franchise in New England. But his heart and ambitions lay elsewhere. He would later cogitate, “I realized then that movies are the only thing you can sell and still own.”
In 1917 Mayer launched Louis B. Mayer Productions, entering into a lucrative business arrangement with theatre magnet Marcus Loewe; moving his producer operations to Los Angeles while acquiring Metro Pictures in the process. There, an alliance with Samuel Goldwyn (who had already been successfully producing) resulted in the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios – a company that in a mere ten years became the largest and most profitable film factory on the west coast, in no small part thanks to L.B.’s constant foresight and vision.
At the time of Thalberg’s death, Mayer could already lay claim to the most up to date production facilities, most proficient technical staff, an ever-growing roster of top quality star talent and the biggest commissary in Hollywood. With its own fire and police departments and an educational facility for its expanding youth roster, MGM was legally classified as a city – Culver City. The studio’s supremacy in the public’s mind drew loud applause in theaters even as Leo the Lion roared before each feature.
But MGM’s stature was also reflected in films made at other studios. When Warner Bros. or Paramount gambled on their own one or two big movies per annum, these were readily referred to by critics as ‘of MGM’s quality.’ In fact, what other studios spent on two or three movies made up the budget of just one MGM movie; and a B-feature at that. B movies were afforded A-list budgets and A-list movies exemplified the studio’s wealth and stature with mind-boggling artistry. Of the top 10 box office draws in the country, at least 5 were under contract to Mayer’s dream factory at any one time between 1933 and 1949.
A formidable businessman, Mayer’s lack of formal education didn’t seem to hurt his prospects. As he ruled MGM with an iron fist though arguably gentle hand, Mayer became the highest paid personage in the industry and President Hoover’s very first guest at the White House. Despite his accolades and admiration from without, within the organization of Loewe’s Incorporated, Mayer had his detractors. When Marcus Loewe died, Mayer found himself pitted against wily corporate wheeler and dealer – Nicholas Schenck. When Schenk plotted in the late thirties to sell MGM to rival mogul William Fox – a move Mayer successfully thwarted through his political connections – a professional wound opened that would have serious repercussions for Mayer and his studio years later.
The rift between Schenck and Mayer, though bitter, was perhaps not quite as apparent immediately after Thalberg’s death. After all, there were too many good movies being made at MGM; The Human Comedy, Girl Crazy, A Guy Named Joe, Meet Me In St. Louis, Gaslight, National Velvet, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The White Cliffs of Dover to name but a handful. With profits soaring, Schenck had to concede that Mayer knew what he was doing. “Mayer had wonderful intuition,” Esther Williams would later reflect, “He worked purely from instinct. He didn’t read. He couldn’t create from scratch. But give him the framework and he could assemble the pieces like his life depended on it…which it did.”
After Thalberg’s death, Mayer assumed total control of all MGM productions with what affectionately became known around the back lot as his ‘college of cardinals’ – a troupe of producers beholding to Mayer and responsible for making his kind of entertainment; light, frothy and lavish. “MGM functioned like General Motors", recalled Ricardo Montalban, “It was run with such efficiency that is was a marvel…it was amazing.”
For a while this formula assembly line worked, particularly since what became known as ‘the MGM style’ remained a slow, though ever-evolving constant on the screen, overseen behind the camera by Production Designer Cedric Gibbons. Henceforth, MGM’s movies were an architectural treat for the eye as much as they were emotionally satisfying for the heart and soul. Mayer’s zeal for ‘family’ films bode well with war time audiences who sought escapism over reality. However after the war, audience tastes changed considerably while Mayer’s perception of wholesome entertainment did not.
Nick Schenck, who had been forced into silence after his failed merger with Fox and during the heady profit-driven days, could be more public now with his distemper toward Mayer. MGM had failed to earn a single Oscar between 1946 and 1948. What had been popular with the masses a few short years earlier was now either only moderately successful or falling shy of expectations. The world of entertainment was evolving. MGM was not. Something had to be done.
In the interim, Mayer had become preoccupied with interests outside of the studio’s domain. First on this list of distractions was Mayer’s divorce from his first wife, Margaret. By all accounts, L.B.’s sexual appetites were robust. After Margaret’s hysterectomy, Mayer confided to close male friends that the thought of making love to his wife was repugnant. Gradually, Mayer’s eye began to wander – first to close female friends, then starlets under contract, though as an aging lothario L.B.’s technique in the art of seduction was hardly on par with his prowess as MGM’s mogul and chief. A series of light-hearted ‘social’ affairs often ended badly. Then finally, L.B. became smitten with society matron Lorena Danker. The two were eventually married.
However, Mayer had also found time away from skirt chasing to indulge yet another passion that had absolutely nothing to do with making movies. At any given time of day, L.B. could be found on Lot 13 – a quaint euphemism for Santa Anita Racetrack where he frequently bet on his ever-increasing stable of prized thoroughbreds.
It is likely that if MGM had been taken care of first, Nick Schenck would have continued to look the other way on everything else that Mayer had been investing his time. But with profits at their lowest since the Depression, Schenck seized upon the opportunity to project his own authority over Mayer. Ordered by Schenck to find ‘another Thalberg,’ Mayer settled on Dore Schary. More Schenck’s choice than Mayer’s own hand-picked candidate, Dore Schary moved into his Vice Presidency with all the comfortable assurances from both Schenck and Mayer that one might expect of a man who had just been handed the keys to the most formidable kingdom in all of Hollywood.
The argument has often been made in Schary’s defense that, unlike Mayer, he was a man trying to keep up with the times; meaning he desperately wanted to make more socially conscious films that reflected an awakening away from the glamorous haze that movies in general and MGM movies in particular had provided audiences. To this end, Schary’s revamping of the studio’s film line up resulted in individual budgets being slashed by 25 percent.
However, Schary, unlike Mayer, had far too many blind spots to effectively run MGM – except perhaps, into the ground. He simply could not see the validity in maintaining a certain status quo that had been – and might have continued to be - MGM’s bread and butter. Schary also had little stomach for molly-coddling delinquent stars. Lana Turner’s late night carousing and various public scandals were a prime example. To censure Turner without appearing outwardly obvious, Schary instead put the actress in two colossally stupid movies – their back to back flops at the box office suggesting both to Turner and her fans that her days as MGM’s reigning sex goddess were rapidly coming to an end.
Schary also had no taste for musicals – a genre he did not appreciate or even understand, as is apparent by his suggestion to producer Arthur Freed that the climactic shooting match between Annie (Betty Hutton) and Bill (Howard Keel) be cut from Annie Get Your Gun (1950). The problem herein was that musicals were an MGM main staple – like shredded wheat or ma’ and homemade apple pie. Worse, Schary believed that both MGM’s star system and its producer system were top heavy hindrances to the fiscal future of the company. In his tenure at MGM Schary would add only two actors to its roster, James Whitmore and Nancy Davis – both credible actors, neither up to Mayer’s vision of the classic ‘star.’ Responding to Schary’s ambition for producing message pictures, producer/director Mervyn LeRoy reportedly told his boss, “If you want to send a message, go to Western Union!”
The alliance between Mayer and Schary eventually became so confrontational it resulted in a showdown that ended disastrously for Mayer. Assuming that his tenure through ‘lead by example’ had provided him with a Teflon coating, Mayer gave Nick Schenk an ultimatum – “It’s either me or Schary!” The die had been cast. Schenk fired Mayer in 1951 almost without blinking – his belief in Dore Schary as Mayer’s successor shaken to its core a scant four years later when Schary’s ambitions eventually sank the studio’s bottom line deep into the red.
Over the next several years Mayer made several attempts to regain his foothold in the film business – but these ventures – such as his appointment to run the board responsible for Cinerama - were half-hearted at best. By 1957, the strain of struggling to prove he was still worth his metal was too much. Embittered and alone, Mayer resigned himself to ranting in private, than publicly to anyone who would listen on how he had been wronged by Schary and Schenck. That same year, a lethargic Mayer would check himself into the hospital for a general physical only to learn that he was dying of leukemia. He did not last the year. His last words were to friend and publicist Howard Strickling, “Nothing matters…nothing matters.”
“Dore Schary could write a script and Dore Schary could make a speech. But Mayer was a showman. He had an uncanny knack for picking talent in executives and actors. He knew how to delegate power, which many executives can’t. He was more of a businessman than a creator, but don’t you think it takes creativity to build a company like MGM? He couldn’t write. He couldn’t direct. But he had a greatness.”
- Ralph Winters
Those who knew L.B. Mayer in his prime have had conflicted recollections of the great man since. Debbie Reynolds has echoed the vast perception shared by many from the old MGM alumni of ‘Papa Mayer’, a gentle, almost saintly coddler of his stars. “He would do anything for us,” former child star Freddie Bartholomew jokingly observed years later, “except pay us what we were worth.”
Yet, Bartholomew’s assessment seems grossly unfair in retrospect and casts a miserly pall on an individual who in truth was far from Ebenezer Scrooge. While it can be argued that Bartholomew’s MGM salary pales to what child stars receive today, it was nevertheless a proportionally responsible pay scale for its own time, comparable with what other child stars of his day were being paid at rival studios – save Shirley Temple’s gold star treatment at Fox (and rightfully so, since Shirley alone was responsible for pulling 20th Century-Fox out of receivership).
Furthermore, Mayer was ever the philanthropist throughout his life’s work. Whatever his personal failings, he always found time to invest in projects that could in no way advance his reputation as a film maker. He frequently invested in entrepreneurial projects put forth by other people and gave freely of both his funds and time in doing good by both the young and old. Perhaps it was all merely a façade; just another way to present himself to the world as a great man. Those who knew him best, however, doubt such planned cleverness. “I found him wonderful,” recalled Howard Keel, the star of such MGM classics as Showboat and Kiss Me Kate, “Doing benefits for charities and old people. When I reached out to shake his hand and thank him for the opportunity he had given me he pulled back a moment and pointed his finger at me, saying ‘Don’t thank me. Thank your mother.’”
Gene Kelly’s glib response to an interview in 1990, “I didn’t like him, he didn’t like me…it was mutual” also seems more than a tad unfair in assessing Mayer’s general respect for talent – given Kelly’s repeated penchant for defying studio edicts by doing his own stunt work. If, as Kelly has suggested, Mayer never cared for him particularly, then Mayer could so easily have black-balled the fledgling star, not only from MGM but Hollywood in general. With Mayer’s overriding integrity and power it would have been so easily accomplishable. The fact that he did not fire Kelly during the mid-forties, long before Kelly proved his own saleable commodity at the box office with mega-hits like On The Town, An American in Paris and Singin’ In The Rain, attests to a more patient and forgiving nature than Kelly has ever given Mayer credit for.
In recent years, Mayer’s own words have come back to haunt his reputation. Upon leaving the funeral services for Irving Thalberg, Mayer is reported to have nudged Eddie Mannix and muttered, “Isn’t God good to me?”; a murderous statement by any standard. Yet, given the climate of tension, conflict and perceived animosity between him and his Vice President at the time of Thalberg’s death, one can almost sympathize with Mayer’s sense of relief. A thorn had been removed from his side.
The more recent rumor, that L.B. Mayer somehow managed to hasten Thalberg’s demise by generating more stress in Irving’s professional life, also seems rather misguided. If anything, following Thalberg’s first heart attack in 1933, Mayer tried to alleviate his stresses by giving Irving his own production unit while creating smaller units not under his authority, thereby lightening Irving’s load of responsibilities by with more time for convalescence. That Thalberg was impassioned about his job, an obsession that drove every fiber of his being past the point of no return is well documented.
After Mayer’s dismissal MGM was never quite the same again. The consistency that Mayer had provided – the idyllic circumstances for a fertile proving ground where creative talents could function at their zenith was gone. Schary’s tenure at the studio was brief, rather than galvanic, and disastrous to say the least, and, it was followed by an ever-changing cavalcade of appointments that barely had enough time to place their personal seal on any film before being ousted in favor of another major executive upheaval. “I think when (Mayer) died he took the studio with him,” reflected June Allyson – Metro’s most popular musical sweetheart, “…so he didn’t really lose in the end.”
There is little to deny that many of the films produced after Mayer’s departure lost some of their showmanship and ability to recapture the imagination that exemplified the best of the studio’s product under L.B. While the lion’s share infrequently managed a bit of the old luster that lived up to the studio’s motto of ‘ars gratia artis’ – loosely translated into ‘art for art’s sake’ with mega-hits like North By Northwest (1959) Ben-Hur (1959) Gigi (1958) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) for the most part, a genuine and overriding sense of finality to the good ol’ days had crept onto the back lot.
Indeed, by 1959 the studio system that Mayer had worked so diligently to cultivate and preserve was, sadly, a thing of the past. If Mayer had succeeded in making his comeback to Culver City he would have discovered a very different studio awaiting his command. Instead, and perhaps with the underlying knowledge that the times had made his sort of autocratic diplomacy as much of a relic as the Weimar Republic, Mayer chose an imposed isolationism for his final years. Though few who had trailed on his coattails visited him in the twilight of his life, if nothing else, L.B. Mayer could reflect with pride that his had been the most prosperous tenure of any mogul at any of the film studios in Hollywood.
The old edict once applied to Thalberg – “as long as Irving lives we are all great men” – could just as easily be ascribed (and should have been) to L.B. Mayer. Esther Williams has quipped, that Mayer’s number one compensation for his lack of culture and education was ‘intimidation’. To some extent this is true, as in the time Mayer became so displeased with resident operatic diva Jeanette MacDonald’s singing that he dropped to his knees to belt out a Jewish hymn with tears in his eyes to illustrate for MacDonald how she should carry a tune.
Perhaps former child star and frequent L.B. favorite Mickey Rooney best summed up the confusion surrounding Mayer’s legacy with, “After he died everybody wrote every nasty book about him, while he was alive he was the greatest guy in the world to everybody…I mean everybody.”
@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).