LOUIS B. MAYER: Lion Of Hollywood

His MGM was a film factory, with stars as assembly-line workers and a hit formula: chaste romance, apple pie and Andy Hardy

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 3)

Mayer was building a roster of household names that almost lived up to MGM's slogan, "More stars than there are in heaven": Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Lana Turner, the Marx Brothers, Ava Gardner and, of course, Garbo, L.B.'s personal discovery.

He kept them in line with hand holding and falling to his knees in tears, but if that failed, he'd reverse field, as he did with Gable. When Gable was getting $1,000 a week and wanted $5,000, L.B. blackmailed him by threatening to reveal to Gable's wife Ria his affair with Crawford. Both knew Gable was worth $12,000, but he settled for $2,000. The indentured servitude had its benefits, though, for the kind of power that L.B. wielded on the studio lot extended to local politics. When a drunken Gable hit and killed a pedestrian near Hollywood Boulevard, L.B. sent Gable into hiding and then conspired with the local D.A. to have a minor executive take the rap in return for staying on the payroll for life at a higher salary. A pliant press hushed the story.

While L.B.'s moral code was complicated, his zeal was not. When his biggest star at the time, Jack Gilbert, used the word whore in reference to his co-star Mae Murray, and then--gasp--about his own mother, the president of MGM rushed from around his desk and knocked down his million-dollar meal ticket.

Having learned not to say "ain't" or use double negatives or drop his Gs, a more polished L.B. found a new role model in Herbert Hoover. He worked so effectively for Hoover that he dared hope he might be the new President's choice as ambassador to England. An ambassadorship to Turkey was dangled, but Mayer chose to oversee his studio's triumphant transition from silence to sound: "Garbo Talks!" The Mayers did claim the privilege of being Hoover's first guests at the White House. From then on L.B. felt free to phone the President, and frequently did, to make suggestions for running the government.

Meanwhile he was cashing in on his conviction that morality sold. With films like the Andy Hardy series, featuring teenage star Mickey Rooney, sage father Judge Hardy (Lewis Stone) and charming mother (Fay Holden), Mayer was defining American society according to his fantasies. He took his responsibility for American values so seriously that when Rooney, a precocious womanizer and partygoer, got out of hand, L.B. was overheard screaming at him, "You're Andy Hardy! You're the United States! You're Stars and Stripes! You're a symbol! Behave yourself!"

But as praise and profits soared, a conflict was building between Mayer and his brilliant production chief Thalberg. An intense perfectionist who never lost his schoolboy looks, Thalberg oversaw MGM's record-breaking hits: The Big Parade, Ben Hur, Anna Christie, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Wizard of Oz. Thalberg was increasingly resistant to playing Andy to Mayer's Judge Hardy. By 1936, Mayer was the highest-salaried executive in America, breaking the million-dollar barrier. Thalberg felt entitled to an equal share. For his part, L.B. had begun to resent the prevailing opinion that Thalberg was the genius behind MGM's achievements, and Mayer the engineer who kept the plant humming.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3