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

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By the mid-'30s, MGM was divided between Mayer loyalists and "Thalberg people," and by the time the strong-willed, weak-hearted Thalberg collapsed and went to Europe for treatment, he and his former mentor were no longer speaking to each other. When Thalberg returned, Mayer offered a production deal in place of his old job. An angry Thalberg threatened to leave MGM. It was at this impasse that he died at age 37. L.B. cried, sent a spectacular spray of gardenias to the funeral and, soon after, remarked to my mother, "God saw fit to take Irving away."

God wasn't L.B.'s co-pilot; he was his senior partner, reaching out to remove those who dared get in L.B.'s way. For almost 15 years, L.B. would continue to reign at MGM. With a host of prizewinning and profitable films, MGM's decline as Film Factory No. 1 was almost imperceptible. But in the postwar years, the Mayer formula of sentimental family fare and glossy romantic productions was wearing thin.

The golden years of the moguls were coming to an end too. The government forced the industry to divest its lucrative theater chains, and top stars and directors were demanding the profit participation that Mayer & Co. had always denied them. Mayer was forced to accept writer-producer Dore Schary in Thalberg's old job, and at first it seemed once again that Mayer had found the son he had always wanted. But the liberal Schary found L.B. an overbearing and stultifying influence. A bitter showdown prompted Loew's successor Nick Schenck to make a choice. To Mayer's shock, Schenck picked Schary.

After 27 years of arbitrary power, L.B. was out. Even his vaunted patriotism had now become shrill. He identified with right-wing fanatic Senator Joe McCarthy and opposed General Eisenhower as too moderate at the '52 G.O.P. convention. When Mayer died in 1957, the apostle of family values left a contentious, meanspirited will disinheriting family members, including his daughter Edith, because of her husband's liberal politics. No happy ending there. No movie-star hero to set everything right at the rosy fade-out.

Had L.B. been making his own movie, it would have been different. He knew how to turn American life into pipe dreams. But give the devil his due: this self-inflated, ruthless and cloyingly sentimental monarch presided over the most successful of all the Hollywood dream factories, leaving a legacy of classic, inimitable films that defined America's aspirations, if not its realities.

Novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg is the author of the classic tale of Hollywood, What Makes Sammy Run?

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