Louis B. Mayer (1885-1957) was one of Hollywood's original "moguls," a movie house pioneer who helped found one of the film industry's most prominent studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. From 1924 until 1951, Mayer ruled over a vast film empire, producing a string of classic hits and discovering countless stars. Mayer never strayed from a promise he made early in his career to create what he called "decent, wholesome pictures" the whole family could enjoy.
Louis Burt Mayer was born Eliezer Mayer in Minsk, Russia, on July 4, 1885. The product of a working-class Jewish family, he moved with his parents and two brothers in 1888, first to New York, then to St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. There, Mayer's mother peddled chickens door to door, while his father worked as a dealer in scrap metal. Upon completing grade school, Louis briefly joined his father's business before moving to Boston in 1904 to start his own junk enterprise. That same year he married Margaret Shenberg, the daughter of a kosher butcher.
Entered Film Business
Mayer's arrival in Boston coincided with the nickelodeon craze that was sweeping the nation. Intrigued by the commercial potential of these "flickers," Mayer began a side business buying up and renovating rundown nickelodeon arcades, starting with The Gem in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1907. The huge crowds that turned out that Christmas season to see Pathe's hand-tinted Passion Play convinced Mayer for all time of the mass appeal of wholesome family entertainment. Promising to show "only pictures that I won't be ashamed to have my children see" in his refurbished auditoriums, Mayer turned a tidy profit and was able to leave the junk business entirely. He formed a partnership with Nat Gordon, another theater owner, and began acquiring movie houses all over New England. Within seven years, the two men had assembled the region's largest theater chain.
Mayer's next goal was to acquire distribution rights to the films themselves. His first foray into this arena was an overwhelming success. Without having seen it, Mayer paid filmmaker D.W. Griffith $25,000 for exclusive northeast distribution rights for Griffith's Civil War epic Birth of a Nation (1915). At the time, it was the highest bid ever made for the exhibition of a single film. The arrangement eventually netted Mayer more than $100,000.
Early Days in Hollywood
Having conquered exhibition and distribution, Mayer next moved into production. He joined the Alco Company (later Metro Pictures) in New York City, but was dissatisfied with the type of films the company was producing. He left Alco in 1917, moved to Los Angeles, and formed his own production house, The Mayer Company. The new company produced numerous romantic melodramas, many featuring starlet Anita Stewart. In 1923, Mayer hired Universal's Irving Thalberg as his production chief. The following year, at the instigation of Metro head Marcus Loew, Mayer merged his company with Metro Pictures and The Goldwyn Company and became West Coast head of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Thalberg was named production supervisor. The Big Parade (1926) and Ben-hur (1926) were among their early projects for the studio.
Mayer ran MGM with a ruthless efficiency. With wise use of resources and a strong promotional apparatus (including the slavish devotion of the Hearst newspapers), Mayer kept the studio profitable throughout the lean years of the 1930s. He discovered many of the era's top stars and got many others to swear an oath of fealty to the studio. Together with Thalberg, he helped launch the careers of such performers as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Charles Laughton, along with numerous writers, directors, and producers. One of Mayer's personal "discoveries," Greta Garbo, went on to become a legendary Hollywood icon. The assemblage of talent paid off in the form of a string of classic features, including the first "talkie," 1927's The Jazz Singer, and such hits as Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Camille (1936).
The MGM Style
While Mayer thought of himself primarily as a businessman, and professed not to have any interest in motion pictures as an art form, he did exert enormous influence over the style and content of MGM films. "He likes vast, glittering sets," wrote Henry F. Pringle in a profile of Mayer published in The New Yorker. "He approves of gorgeous gowns, pretty girls, lingerie sequences, and expensive assignations." Escapist musicals, sumptuous costume dramas, and screwball comedies accounted for the bulk of MGM's output under Mayer's aegis, a reflection of his earlier pledge to produce only those pictures his children could see. Mayer's creative influence reached its apex with the Andy Hardy series, a string of hits starring Mickey Rooney that were as successful as they were saccharine. To its critics, MGM's output during Mayer's reign was formulaic pap, but to Mayer it was just the kind of wholesome family entertainment Depression-era audiences wanted.
Few at MGM saw fit to argue with success, and for many of his 27 years there, Mayer was the highest-paid individual in the country. His annual salary, including bonuses, exceeded $1.25 million, a princely sum for the time. As his bankbook swelled, so did Mayer's influence-both inside and outside the film community. He took a leadership role within the movie industry, helping to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. A staunch conservative, Mayer also became active in politics, at one point serving as state chairman of the California Republican Party. He formed a close personal friendship with President Herbert Hoover, who offered him the post of U.S. ambassador to Turkey in 1929. The mogul wisely declined. In 1934, Mayer threw the weight of his considerable influence behind California gubernatorial candidate Frank F. Merriam, in his campaign against muckraking author Upton Sinclair. Mayer produced a series of faux "newsreels" for Merriam (featuring paid actors) that were widely credited with swinging the election in favor of the Republican.
Though feared and respected, Mayer was little loved by his colleagues in Hollywood. Hot-tempered and imperious, Mayer made numerous enemies during his career. He was quick to punish those who did not accede to his wishes. When Clark Gable went to Mayer to ask for a raise, for example, Mayer threatened to tell Gable's wife about the actor's affair with Joan Crawford. Gable settled for a much lower figure than he originally requested. Others saw their careers cut off because of some perceived or actual slight to the great mogul. On at least one occasion, retribution was physical. Mayer reportedly struck one of MGM's biggest silent film stars, John Gilbert, for disparaging remarks Gilbert made about co-star Mae Murray.
Still other stars benefited from Mayer's largesse. Ann Rutherford, an MGM ingenue of the 1930s and 1940s, once successfully extracted a raise from the sentimental Mayer by lamenting her inability to buy a house for her aged mother. Perhaps Mayer recognized in her plea one of his own favorite tactics, using charm to gain his objective. Actor Robert Taylor fell victim to Mayer's charms when, upon asking for his raise, the weepy mogul hugged him and advised him to work hard and respect his elders and in due time he would get all that he deserved. Clark Gable had Mayer to thank for his freedom after the intoxicated star struck and killed a pedestrian with his car. Mayer reportedly convinced the district attorney to blame the homicide on a minor MGM executive (who was rewarded with a lucrative lifetime salary by the studio in exchange for his cooperation).
Decline of Influence
Some may have questioned Mayer's methods, but not many dared complain too loudly while he was still at the top of the heap. Mayer reigned as the most powerful man in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, his influence began to wane. Inexorably, MGM began to lose its edge in the studio wars. Mayer's top lieutenant, Irving Thalberg, died in 1936, leaving MGM bereft of visionary leadership. Public taste began to turn against the wholesome escapist that Mayer favored. With few hits to back up Mayer's bluster, patience started running thin with the studio chief's despotic style.
In 1951, MGM's East Coast executives ousted Mayer after a brief power struggle. A defiant Mayer issued a statement denying he was through in Hollywood. But Mayer never returned to his former position of influence. He became an adviser for the Cinerama group, and spent his last years relentlessly lobbying stockholders of MGM's parent company, Loew's Inc., to overthrow the studio's management team. His efforts proved unsuccessful. He contracted leukemia and died in Los Angeles on October 29, 1957.
That Mayer was widely reviled in the Hollywood of his time as a crass, cruel vulgarian does not diminish one whit from his influence on the history of film. In fact, it was precisely his willingness to use his immense power in the pursuit of his vision of family entertainment that made him the prototypical Hollywood mogul.
Further Reading on Louis Burt Mayer
Altman, Diana, Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the Origins of the Studio System Birch Lane Press, 1992.
Crowther, Bosley Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer Holt, 1960.
Higham, Charles Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood Dell, 1994.
Thomson, David A Biographical Dictionary of Film Knopf, 1994.