Mayer created MGM, the ultimate creator of cinematic fantasies, and the maker of many classic movies of all genres, which painted for world consumption Mayer's rosy, idealised picture of an innocent and wholesome America, which never, in fact, existed. With great energy, skill and determination he built MGM into the most financially successful motion picture studio in the world.
He was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) and along the way he became the highest paid corporate executive in the U.S. and the first to earn a million-dollar salary. He was an astonishing man, and the most famous and influential of the all-powerful studio moguls of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
BiographyHe was born in Vilna, Imperial Russia, (in what is now Lithuania) between 1882 and 1885, with the birth name of Lazar Meir. He later patriotically claimed July 4th as his birth date but the exact date and year of his birth has never been clarified.
He was the middle child of five, with two younger brothers and two older sisters. As a young boy, when his parents fled the oppression of Imperial Russia, Mayer immigrated with his family, first to Rhode Island and then to Canada. He attended school in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada but was an unwilling pupil and left when he was 12 to join a small business which his father had started.
America and First Marriage. His father was an illiterate peddler and scrap metal and general junk dealer and the family were very poor. Mayer had a poverty-stricken, uncomfortable childhood with his mother being the only shining light. For the rest of his life Mayer would hold the image of the saint-like devotion of his mother as an example for all women to follow.
Mayer left the family home and moved to Boston in 1904 to expand the family junk dealership. He met and married a local girl, Margaret Shenberg and the couple had two girls, Edith in 1905 and Irene in 1907, both of whom would later marry into the movie business.
Mayer was young, energetic and ambitious and he began to look round for opportunities outside the junk business. He discovered the embryonic movie industry and shrewdly purchased a run down burlesque theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which he renovated and reopened in 1907 as a movie theater. He began by alternating live shows with the latest motion pictures and he was astute enough to recognise that it was the fast-paced, modern movies, not old fashioned short song and dance fillers, that were drawing the crowds.
His theater made money and Mayer began to purchase and renovate more old theaters until, after a few years, with a partner, Nathan Gordon, he had the largest theater chain in New England.
His theaters made him rich and he could see the phenomenal popularity of movies. His ambitions extended beyond merely showing films. He realised that the real power and wealth lay in distributing and ultimately producing them. In 1914 the Mayer-Gordon partnership purchased a Boston film distribution company and the following year they bought the exclusive rights to the movie that was about to sweep the country: D. W. Griffith's classic 'Birth of a Nation'. It was a good choice and the film was a major financial success. Louis Mayer was on his way.
With another partner, Richard A. Rowland, Mayer in 1916 created Metro Pictures Corporation, a talent booking agency, in New York City. But film production was now his holy grail and two years later he left Metro and formed Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. (Metro Pictures would later be made part of MGM.) Mayer made the fateful move, with his family, to Los Angeles in the favorable climate of Southern California. He was going to make movies.
Hollywood and Movie ProductionFrom the start Mayer had an uncanny instinct for knowing what the public wanted and then giving it to them. He understood the immense importance of star names and one of his first actions after forming the new company was to tempt actress Anita Stewart away from competitors, Vitagraph. His first production, 'Virtuous Wives', starred Stewart and Hedda Hopper, and was a great success.
Mayer quickly established a formula for his pictures. He enjoyed romantic films with sentimental plots in which a poor but morally "good" girl triumphs over adversity. The public flocked to his movies and to the new stars whom Mayer excelled at discovering. He quickly added glamorous actresses Norma Talmadge and Renee Adoree as well as brilliant off screen staff such as director Fred Niblo and producer Irving Thalberg.
Creation of MGMIrving Thalberg was one of the foremost creative geniuses of early Hollywood and it was a major coup for Mayer when he was able to tempt him away from Universal Studios where he had built his reputation as a producer of quality films. Still only 24 when he joined Mayer in 1923, Thalberg became the creative half of a formidable team.
In 1924 Marcus Loew had the vision to imagine a movie company where everything took place under one roof - studio management, film production and theater management. He already owned Loew's Theatres, which was the largest movie theater chain in the country, and he had purchased Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures to make the movies. The company he had formed was called 'Metro-Goldwyn'.
In 1924 he bought Louis B. Mayer Pictures and kept on Louis Mayer and Irving Thalberg to run his new conglomerate. Mayer oversaw the whole Californian operation and Thalberg had day to day control of the movie studios. The new company was quickly given a name change. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had arrived.
MGM and the Golden AgeMayer had now risen to the top ranks of Hollywood moguls. He moved to the Goldwyn lot in Culver City, a 40-acre facility with a three-story office building and six large stages. With the facilities and talent of the three combined studios at their disposal, he and Thalberg began to build an entertainment empire.
One of their first big productions was the silent epic 'Ben-Hur' in 1925, starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, and directed by Fred Niblo. The movie had already been started and was in deep financial trouble. Mayer and Thalberg rescued it just in time and created a movie triumph from the jaws of disaster. They began making their own productions, starting with 'He Who Gets Slapped' in 1924, starring Lon Chaney. The following year they made 'The Big Parade', which was an enormous financial success. The new studio was on its way.
Although MGM was initially slow to adapt to talkies, Thalberg was able to create a series of crowd-pleasing films around teams of popular female stars such as Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer (Thalberg's wife), and Myrna Loy chasing and being chased by male stars such as Clark Gable, William Powell, Robert Montgomery and Spencer Tracy followed a decade later by Franchot Tone, James Stewart and Cary Grant.
Mayer developed and used the contract system to a state of the art, using it to rule over an increasingly large stable of stars who were legally bound to the company for years. He ruled MGM as a father figure, rewarding loyalty and obedience, punishing insubordination, and regarding opposition as personal betrayal. For a time, the MGM film factory released an average of one feature film per week.
In 1936, Mayer was the first business executive in the country to make $1 million per year, and he remained the highest-paid executive through to 1944.
Conflict gradually built up between Mayer and Thalberg. Thalberg had overseen many record-breaking hits. As well as 'The Big Parade', and 'Ben Hur', he also produced 'Anna Christie' in 1931, 'Grand Hotel' the following year, both starring Greta Garbo, and 'Mutiny on the Bounty' in 1934, and he felt entitled to an equal share of the rewards. He threatened to leave MGM and the conflict was only ended when the sickly Thalberg died of pneumonia in 1936.
Mayer RulesFor almost 15 years after Thalberg's death Mayer reigned supreme at MGM. Living up to MGM's slogan, "More stars than there are in heaven," he continued to build up his roster of star names, including Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner, the Marx Brothers and Ava Gardner. He became the prime creator of the Hollywood dream which never actually existed but which endures to this day. In addition he found time to become one of the country's most successful horse breeders, a political force, and the leading spokesman for the Hollywood film industry.
Decline and FallBoth Mayer and MGM reached their peaks at the end of World War II. With a host of prizewinning and profitable films and dazzling stars, MGM's decline was unexpected and almost imperceptible. But in the postwar years, the Mayer formula of sentimental family fare and glossy romantic productions was wearing thin and by the late 1940's MGM had fallen below its competitors, Paramount and Columbia, in the rankings of major studios.
Mayer was seriously out of touch with post-war changing tastes. He rejected the new wave of so-called "message pictures" and film noir movies and he also made the cardinal, and financially catastrophic, error of underestimating the importance of the new medium of television. The unbelievable was about to happen. Mayer was about to lose his job.
Much conflict arose between Mayer and Nicholas Schenck, president of MGM's parent, Loews, Inc. Mayer needed another Irving Thalberg and he decided to hire writer and producer Dore Schary as production chief. But Schary had a decided preference for message pictures in contrast with Mayer's liking for traditional, wholesome films. Three years later, in 1951, Schenck chose Schary as the future of the studio and dismissed Mayer from the job he had held for 24 years.
PersonalMayer married twice. His first marriage to Margaret Shenberg lasted 43 years and produced two daughters, Edith, who married William Goetz, future head of Universal Pictures, and Irene, who married producer David O. Selznick. After divorcing Margaret in 1947, he married the following year Lorena Layson, an actress who was only 2 weeks older than his daughter Irene. Mayer paid lip service to the qualities of love, devotion and family values. In reality he had a reputation as a starlet chaser and young actresses entered his office at their own risk.
Final YearsMayer was a millionaire many times over but he did not have a happy retirement. Resentful of the way he had been dismissed and disdainful of the "new" Hollywood he largely avoided public appearances apart from giving occasional interviews which gave him the opportunity to castigate the new breed of movie makers. He did attempt to purchase RKO and Republic Pictures but was unsuccessful.
Louis B. Mayer died from leukaemia on October 29th, 1957. He is interred at the Home of Peace Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Mayer was one of the smartest and most ruthless executives in Hollywood. He created MGM and ruled it for almost three decades as the studio set the standard for its competitors to follow. He employed thousands of people and could make or break careers at a stroke. He was part paternalistic and part tyrannical, respected and feared in equal measure. He was the right man at the right time and he enjoyed his life at the top, quite prepared to interfere in his stars' personal lives if necessary.
He personally discovered and moulded some of the Golden Age's greatest stars and he drove the movie industry forward with his energy, business knowledge and strong personality. Without Louis B. Mayer Hollywood and the movie industry would not be the same today. He himself was one of Hollywood's greatest talents.