About Louis Burt Mayer (Meir)
November 28, 1907, was a big day in the history of dreams. On that day, exactly 100 years ago, a half-educated scrap-metal dealer opened a 600-seat movie theater in a converted burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts. It was the beginning of a climb that would take him to the top of the most important movie studio in the world. Two decades later, Louis B. Mayer would add his name to the company destined to set the pace for Hollywood through its golden years: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
MGM movies became part of American life: Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ben-Hur, The Philadelphia Story, Mutiny on the Bounty, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade. MGM stars were idols to millions: Lon Chaney, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Judy Garland. And the MGM style—polished, wholesome, upbeat films aimed squarely at the American middle class—would influence popular culture for decades.
“I know what the audience wants,” Mayer told a reporter late in his career. “Sentimentality! What’s wrong with it? Love! Good old-fashioned romance. Is that bad? It entertains. It brings the audience to the box office.” And bringing the audience to the box office was always his forte.
His own story was as mythical as the ones he committed to celluloid. Born Lazar Meir in a Ukrainian village around 1884 (he was vague about the date and later adopted the Fourth of July as his birthday), he grew up in St. John, New Brunswick. From an early age he worked in his father’s salvage business, pulling a cart through the streets looking for stray nails and cans. Arriving on his own in Boston in January 1904, when he was 19, he “didn’t have the price of a sandwich.”
After trying unsuccessfully to establish himself in the scrap trade there, he took the advice of a friend and leased the down-at-the-heels Gem Theater in a working-class town 30 miles north of Boston. “I saw what it could become,” he would later say. Investing borrowed money and sweat equity, he refurbished the building, renamed it the Orpheum, and opened it on Thanksgiving with a showing of the film The Passion Play, which proved to be popular Christmastime fare.
Motion pictures were still in their infancy. The technology had been developed in the 1890s by the Lumière brothers in France and Thomas Edison’s laboratory in this country. In many theaters, the short films accompanied stage shows, but astute impresarios like Mayer recognized that it was the fast-paced, modern movies, not song and dance, that were drawing the crowds.
The form took a leap forward with the work of D. W. Griffith, who in 1915 finished The Birth of a Nation, an epic, three-hour apologia for the Ku Klux Klan. Mayer, who by then was running a string of theaters, risked $50,000 for the rights to exhibit the film. “I pawned everything I owned . . . just to get the New England states’ rights,” he said 10 years later. “Since then, everything’s been very pleasant.” He earned an estimated $500,000 on that first movie blockbuster.
Three years later he moved west and set up Louis B. Mayer Productions, one of many companies making films in the favorable climate of Southern California. A majority of the men heading these companies were Jews, entrepreneurs attracted to an industry offering great promise and an escape from the social barriers that had hampered them in the East.
In 1924 Marcus Loew, who ran the largest movie theater chain in the country, was searching for a reliable source of films to fill his seats. He engineered the merger of Metro Pictures with the Goldwyn Company and brought Mayer in to run the operation. The opportunity established the hard-working businessman among the top ranks of movie moguls. Mayer drove the operation, an MGM writer recalled, with his “tremendous vitality, salesmanship . . . devotion of his time and shrewd judgment of character. He was gutter-smart.”
Studios had by now begun to make movies on a factory scale, and during its heyday MGM would turn out a film almost every week. Mayer provided the organizational talent that made that complex feat possible. Even more important was his gift for recognizing and nurturing talent. Along with Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, he realized that the way to sell films was by selling stars. “The real business of making movies,” he said, “became the business of making idols.” One of those idols was a Swedish film actress he brought to Hollywood and turned into a towering presence—Greta Garbo.
But his greatest coup was hiring Irving Thalberg to oversee the details of production at the studio. A delicate young man of refined sensibility, Thalberg became the creative genius behind MGM’s early years until his death from pneumonia at age 37 in 1936. Together the two men made movies of consistently high quality and turned MGM into the leading studio in Hollywood.
During the 1930s Mayer helped reassure a beleaguered American populace with movies ranging from Grand Hotel to the exceedingly wholesome Andy Hardy series, starring Mickey Rooney. He did so, according to the historian Neal Gabler, by “fashioning a vast, compelling national fantasy out of his dreams and out of the basic tenets of his own dogmatic faith—a belief in virtue, in the bulwark of family, in the merits of loyalty, in the soundness of tradition, in America itself.” The formula made him the highest-paid business executive in the land, with an annual salary of more than a million dollars.
In the 1950s Mayer cheered Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting. “He’s doing a great job to get rid of the ‘termites’ eating away at our democracy,” he declared. He was always conservative in his opinions and emotions. He opposed Dwight D. Eisenhower for the 1952 Republican nomination for being too moderate (though he supported him in the general election).
By then he had been forced out of his job at MGM. The era of the moguls was over. The whole studio system was faltering, and MGM soon began to nosedive. In 1957, the year Mayer died, the company turned in its first financial loss. It limped through the 1960s and was largely dismantled in the 1970s. The businessman Ted Turner bought the studio’s 4,000-film library in 1986 and built a media empire around it.
Louis B. Mayer was often caricatured as a crude and irascible tyrant, but he was touched by the genius of a true showman. He really did know what audiences wanted, and he gave it to them. If the idealized world of his imagination seems dated in this age of irony, it still appeals to the millions who find in classic MGM films a chance to dream. “We’re all sentimentalists at heart,” he once said, “no matter how hard we try to deny it.”
—Jack Kelly, American Heritage magazine