Louis B. Mayer may or not have been born on July 4th, but he never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Today we take a look back at the life and career of one of classic Hollywood’s most colorful movie moguls.
Like a true showman, Louis B. Mayer wasn’t above bending the facts to suit his purpose. Because his birthday was unknown to him, he chose July 4th as it seemed the patriotic thing to do. Like many immigrants, he also altered his name to make it sound more American. Later he added a “B” because he thought it had a dignified ring to it.
Here’s what we know:
Born Lazar Meir in what is now either the Ukraine or Belarus (Mayer claimed he was born in Minsk, others say it was elsewhere), Mayer and his Russian Jewish family moved to Rhode Island when he was 3 years old. Five years later, the family relocated to Saint John, New Brunswick, where his illiterate and often abusive father ran a scrap metal business. Mayer reluctantly went into the family business, but moved to Boston when he was 19.
There Mayer saw the growing popularity of nickelodeon theaters and decided to get into the film business by renovating a 600-seat burlesque theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1907. Soon he owned every theater in town and, after partnering with Nathan H. Gordon, controlled the largest theater chain in New England.
There was only so much money to be made in exhibition, though, and Mayer saw a bigger profit opportunity in distribution. He got into the game by scraping together enough money to buy regional distribution rights for a 1915 movie called Birth of a Nation – a movie he hadn’t actually even seen at the time. The film turned out to be a smash hit and with the windfall, Mayer decided to try his hand at production. He moved to Los Angeles and formed the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation.
Mayer first lured silent star Anita Stewart to break her contract with Vitagraph and appear in a series of weepies produced by B.P. Schulberg. But the transformative event that would make Mayer a movie mogul happened in 1924 when exhibitor magnate Marcus Loew, who already owned Metro Pictures, bought Goldwyn Pictures and needed someone to oversee the large new operation. He bought Louis B. Mayer Pictures and put its namesake in charge of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which through the merger had become one of Hollywood’s biggest players.
With producer Irving Thalberg, the first movie Mayer made as head of MGM (aside from two projects he inherited) was the Lon Chaney vehicle He Who Gets Slapped, which was a commercial and critical hit. Mayer and Thalberg proved a successful pairing, producing hits including Academy Award winners The Broadway Melody, Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty.
Thalberg favored high brow literary adaptations and projects perceived as more prestigious, which put him on a collision path with Mayer, who preferred the kind of glitzy productions that would bring in the biggest possible audience. Mayer was also a big believer in morally uplifting projects and those that championed mom-and-apple-pie type American values (especially the Mom part – Mayer doted on his mother all his life, and once reportedly punched director Erich von Stroheim in the face for speaking ill of his own mother).
After several years of mutual success and growing resentment, in 1937 Mayer used Thalberg’s failing health as a pretext for ousting him as production chief and instead installing David O. Selznick. MGM soon became the richest studio in town, remaining profitable even through the Great Depression. For nearly a decade, Mayer was the highest-paid person in the United States. A founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he was also influential in both California and national politics. When Herbert Hoover took the White House, Louis B. Mayer was his first guest.
Mayer made his fortune partly by keeping costs low. His genius lay in building the most star-studded studio in town – he’s generally credited with creating the star system – while keeping MGM’s payroll manageable. Despite MGM boasting luminaries like Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, the joke was that MGM’s best actor was Mayer, this for his ability to turn on the waterworks, scream, yell, beg or plead whenever it came time for contract negotiations. Elizabeth Taylor called him a monster, while Katharine Hepburn praised him as “the most honest man I ever dealt with in my life.”
But several factors conspired to unseat Mayer as the most powerful figure in entertainment – factors which would bring to an end the golden age of Hollywood and the star system. First came the Supreme Court anti-trust decision against Paramount Pictures, which ruled that movie studios could not also own theaters. Then came the rise of television, a medium MGM was slow to explore. “Our position has never been more secure,” Mayer said. “Who the hell is going to look at those pygmy screens?”
And finally, there were America’s changing tastes in the post-WWII era, which Mayer never quite adjusted to, preferring to stick to his tried-and-true formulas. Politically, too, he’d become a bit of a dinosaur, backing red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy over General Eisenhower in the 1952 Republican primary (when Mayer died, he left nothing in his will for his daughter Edith because he didn’t agree with her husband’s more liberal political views).
When MGM failed to win any Oscars for the third year in a row by 1951, Mayer was ousted. He tried to rally the board behind him, but it was no use. With his career ending, an era had come to pass.
But for all that has changed since Hollywood’s Golden Age, some things remain the same.
“Hollywood brings the world to the United States and the United States to the world,” said Mayer. “Good entertainment … knows no geography and has no international boundary lines.”