In one sense, you've got to tip your hat to Louis B. Mayer. There are many poor-kid-makes-good stories in life, but none of them compare to the heartbreaking adversity Mayer had to overcome. And let's face it. Anyone who goes from Minsk via a scrap-metal shop in Saint John, New Brunswick to become the head of the Rolls Royce of Hollywood studios and a place on Time magazine's list of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th century is one impressive guy.
But, especially in Mayer's case, impressive by no means translates to likable. Sure there were the usual garden-variety studio mogul stunts, like swindling rising stars out of hard-earned raises. All the studio moguls did that and those stunts have become Hollywood legend. The "problems" with Louis's legacy have more to do with events later in his life, and his appalling treatment of his own family and questionable political choices.
The story of Mayer's young life makes Horatio Alger look like a spoiled, third-rate slacker. Having seen enough of their Jewish community cut down by Cossack hordes in Czarist Russia, the Mayers somehow made it to New York and then on to Saint John, New Brunswick. Father Jacob had an unsuccessful scrap metal business. Mayer had changed his name to Louis around that time. He later added the "B" just because he thought it sounded classier. Life for the young Mayer in Canada was a step up from the Cossacks, but was still well within the realm of Hell. He despised his abusive father; the family's existence was barely above starvation level; and there was still enough anti-Semitism for him to experience the occasional beating at school.
That he had leaving on his mind became apparent when he changed his birthday to July 4. He clearly had no long-term plans to stay in Canada, though he always had a soft spot for people from his hometown. He would later hire the young Walter Pidgeon
just because they shared the same Canadian roots. When people tried to ingratiate themselves by alleging to come from the same town, he demanded they spell it. Few would know to spell out the S—a—i—n—t.
He moved to Boston in 1904 and did better on his own, well enough to marry the daughter of a kosher butcher and scrape up the cash to buy a rundown theatre (well, really an old burlesque house) in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He knew he had a product with a bright future and proceeded with the sureness and skill of an experienced acquisitions expert of a Fortune 500 company. He squeezed enough revenue out of his first theatre to buy another and soon controlled the largest chain in New England.
In 1915, he somehow cornered the market on distribution of the D. W. Griffith
epic The Birth of a Nation
and rode that blockbuster hit to a sizable fortune.
By 1918, he had the inclination and more than enough money to move to California and go into the production business with what later became Metro Pictures. Marcus Loew, who founded the theatre chain bearing his name, bought Metro as well as most of Samuel Goldwyn's company and the magical name was born. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer opened for business in 1924 with Louis B. Mayer as vice president. He would rule the studio from that position with an iron fist for nearly thirty years.
His transformation was not quite complete. As if trying to hide his background as a poor Russian Jew who came of age in Eastern Canada, he became a hyper-patriot, wrapping himself in the American flag. He felt that his studio should make movies that reflected and refined American values, which he thought were the finest on earth. His view of that society was a mythical one, out of a Norman Rockwell painting with a prosperous family: Father smoking a pipe and reading the Saturday Evening Post, Mother in an apron and children being well-groomed and subservient. Budd Schulberg offered this example in Time magazine:
“With films like the Andy Hardy series, featuring teenage star Mickey Rooney, sage father Judge Hardy and charming mother, 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, LB. was over-heard screaming at him, "You're Andy Hardy'. You're the United State& You're Stars and Stripes'. You're a symbol! Behave yourself!”
He considered himself to be a grandfather to the amazing stable of stars he was astutely compiling. "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" was MGM's slogan — Clark Gable
, Spencer Tracy
, Norma Shearer
(of Montreal), Katharine Hepburn
, Marie Dressler
(of Cobourg, Ontario), the Marx Brothers and, of course, his crowning achievement and personal discovery, Greta Garbo. It was, in fact, Mayer's idea to create the Oscar Awards that so many of his people would win.
Perhaps the most astute acquisition he ever made was Irving Thalberg. Thalberg was a genius of frail health but enormous creativity who oversaw MGM's record-breaking artistic achievements: Ben Hur, Anna Christie, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty
and The Wizard of Oz
. He became resentful when his efforts weren't rewarded with salaries and promotions. Mayer resented the widespread gossip that he, the highest-paid, most powerful mogul in Hollywood, was really just riding the brilliant coattails of his right-hand man. The team that had collaborated on some of the most profitable, artistic and memorable movies of all time ceased to speak to each other. Then Thalberg died tragically at the age of 37.
Aside from his self-imposed mission to preserve truth, justice and the American way, Mayer was also known for acts of kindness. Especially toward older actors, down on or at the end of their luck. He would find them small roles, make sure they got paid for work, even if it ended up on the cutting room floor, sensitive to preserving their dignity.
Though none of the studio heads was above a little blackmail to keep stars' salary demands in check, Mayer played a serious game of hardball. When Clark Gable
demanded a raise because of all the money that MGM was making off of his work, Mayer threatened to inform Mrs. Gable of the actor's affair with Joan Crawford
. They settled on a fraction of what Gable had asked for. His own dear Garbo asked for so much money that Mayer threatened to have his "friends" in Washington deport her back to Sweden. When she said that was fine with her, the blackmailer had his tables turned.
The awards and classics, meantime, continued apace. There was an elegance and sophistication to MGM films that became part of its aura. The Great Ziegfeld
(1936), Boys Town
(1938), The Philadelphia Story
(1940), Mrs. Miniver
(1942) — overall, everything at MGM, down to the minutest production values, just seemed a cut above the rest.
There are supporters and biographies who insist that Mayer was a great man whom other people hated only out of envy. His greatness is undisputed, but how anyone can dismiss the bitterly vengeful acts in later life mystifies. He abhorred unions. His politics became increasingly, almost obsessively, conservative. Having supported the disastrous Herbert Hoover for president in the 1930s, he hung out with the likes of J. Edgar Hoover. In 1952 a dedicated Republican, he dismissed war-hero Dwight D. Eisenhower as too moderate. And in his darkest moment of all, he supported the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities run by the fanatical, now-discredited congressman from Minnesota, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy's shameful witch hunt for Communists destroyed careers and lives. And Mayer was right there naming names. It was a low point in American political history and Mayer was a part of it.
In fact, his militant right-wing views alarmed the rest of the studio's board of directors and the once-omnipotent studio head was deposed, voted off, as it were, the MGM Island, the dynasty he'd built. Ironically, it was the same year that the Academy he'd founded chose to give him an Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.
When he died six years later in 1957, his will left the family in a state of shock. He disowned several family members, including his own daughter Edith because her husband was too liberal for Mayer's taste. Schulberg sums up the light and the dark sides of Mayer's legacy: “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.”