Scott Eyman – Lion of Hollywood – The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer

Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) was another of the Eastern European Jews who created Hollywood.  He headed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1924 to 1951, the period when it was the most powerful, glamorous and wholesome of the big Hollywood studios.  Every studio had their niche.  MGM’s was to be more respectable, more polished, and have higher budgets that anyone else.  Some studios allowed individuals to take creative chances.  MGM was a machine, where talent was a necessary component, but subservient to the process.

For almost three decades, talent didn’t care.  Neither did audiences.  MGM made some great movies, like A Night at the Opera (1935), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), but Hollywood in the Golden Age was not primarily about creating great movies, not in the sense movie nerds think of them.  They were presenting a vision that appealed to audiences at the time – and in some cases still does.  That vision was summed up in Mayer’s habit of always looking for ways to improve his movies by spending more money on them.  Money and polish, not brilliant directors, made Hollywood great.

Mayer’s MGM favorites were the Andy Hardy movies, a series of B movies about a small-town family that can be compared to today’s family-friendly TV dramas.  Mayer didn’t need the Production Code to keep his movies decent.  He was a zealous convert to middle-class wholesomeness, to art as something that should provide moral and esthetic elevation.  This eventually went out of fashion, and Mayer left the scene along with it.

2 Responses to Scott Eyman – Lion of Hollywood – The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer

  1. Petter says:

    I recently read an interview Kurt Vonnegut did with Budd Schulberg, legendary screenwriter – On the Waterfront – “I could have been a contender”, and novelist, his most noted being _What Makes Sammy Run_ which was a skewering of Hollywood by a Hollywood insider. Bud’s father, a Hollywood muckety muck in his own right, pleaded with Bud not to publish it, telling him he’d never work in Hollywood again it he did. Bud published it. The following – copied and pasted from the interview was Mayer’s reaction. (BTW- the interview is linked to in the Wikipedia article on Bud).
    —-
    I heard that at a meeting of the producers’ association presided over by Louis B. Mayer and the head of MGM, Mayer had looked down the long table at my father and said, “B.P., I blame you for this. Why didn’t you stop him? You should have stopped him!” My father said, “Well, as a matter of fact, Louie, I did write to him—” Mayer said, “Well, you know what I think we should do with him? I think we should deport him.” He really meant it. In Mayer’s mind he was the king of a country. Hollywood was like Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. The district attorney was on the studio payroll; you could and did commit murder, and it wouldn’t be in the paper. That was the kind of power that he wielded.
    —-

    Mayer – I’d bet dollars to donuts (or kroner til smultringer) that the mogul in the Coen Brothers _Barton Fink_ was based on Mayer.

  2. Mayer seems to have been a patriarch type of leader. He wasn’t an asshole as such, and could even be very generous, but he was primarily the great patriarch of the MGM family, and how he treated you depended mostly on whether you were part of that family or not. So the important thing was that you were loyal. And then you’d have a home for life. Otherwise, you were cast out in the darkness, and did his best to make sure you “never work in this town again”.

    He had a reaction similar to what you mention to Billy Wilder’s 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard. Not “hey, this is a great movie”, but “how could he!”

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