Dan Quayle would have loved Louis B. Mayer, a man for whom the words family values had real meaning. Motherhood, the Stars and Stripes and God were equal parts of a lifelong strategy that would establish Metro Goldwyn Mayer as the industry's dominant film factory, from the silent era through the talkies revolution. While the other early moguls were simply trying to make the best movies they could, young Mayer was an ideologue intent on using the power of the new medium to exert what he considered the proper moral influence on the American public.
Mayer went West in 1918, just after the first wave of Hollywood pioneers. He had been on the move since his threadbare family left its Cossack-ridden Ukrainian village in the late 1880s and a few years later settled in St. John, New Brunswick. There his father Jacob Mayer struggled as a junkman. Little Louie, half starved, battled anti-Semitic bullies and helped his father--whom he despised as much as he adored his mother. Escaping St. John in his late teens, he moved on to Boston, where he discovered the Nickelodeon, the embryo of the moving-picture business. Quick to seize his opportunities in the young business of film distribution, Mayer earned a breakthrough $500,000 by putting up $50,000 for a lopsided 90% of the New England ticket sales on the first movie blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation. Now ready to produce his own pictures, he inveigled a popular actress, Anita Stewart, into breaking her contract with Vitagraph, and in 1918-19 starred her in a series of teary films at the modest studio leased from the Selig Zoo in downtown Los Angeles, where my father B.P. Schulberg joined him in the now vanished Mayer-Schulberg Studio in 1920.
A major step up for Mayer was entertainment tycoon Marcus Loew's reaching out to him as commanding officer of a new company merging Metro and Goldwyn, with Mayer soon adding his big M to the mix. He raised the contract system to a state of the art, using it to rule over a stable of stars who were legally bound to the company for years. In L.B.'s studio, with frail, dedicated lieutenant Irving Thalberg at his side, L.B. worked hard to project himself as a father figure to his extended family of stars, directors and producers.
He was the master manipulator, and it was generally acknowledged that of all the great actors on the lot--the Barrymores, Spencer Tracy, Lon Chaney, Garbo--L.B. was No. 1. When Robert Taylor tried to hit him up for a raise, L.B. advised the young man to work hard, respect his elders, and in due time he'd get everything he deserved. L.B. hugged him, cried a little and walked him to the door. Asked, "Did you get your raise?" the now tearful Taylor is said to have answered, "No, but I found a father."
There were ways to get to him. When ingenue Ann Rutherford asked for a supplement to her modest salary in the highly profitable Andy Hardy series, L.B. began his familiar ploy. Then Rutherford took out her little bank book, showed him her meager savings and said she had promised her mother a house. Mother was the magic word. L.B. embraced her, but chastely; down his cheeks came the obligatory tears; and Rutherford left with her raise.