Advertisement

WHEN MGM RANKED AT THE HEAD OF THE CLASS

Having lived through the Roaring ‘30s, ‘40s and early ‘50s in Culver City (from 1933 to 1954 to be exact), I would like to add a few ghost stories to Charles Champlin’s knowing and feeling studio obituary, “Ghostly Last Roar of a Hollywood Class Act” (Calendar, June 12).

The “class ‘act’ ” was real. Not that the people who ran the place necessarily had class. Louis B. Mayer, personally, was on the crude side and a lowbrow. Nor did he want to have class. But he wanted to produce it--and did. He was convinced that with class you could make more money and more lastingly than without.

Mayer’s general manager, the tough-minded, roughnecked, soft-hearted Eddie Mannix, had been a bouncer. Oh, he could still be that in MGM’s heyday, when it was time to fire a Mario Lanza or a Judy Garland! But in his crusty manner he was also capable of discussing subtleties with producers, directors, writers, artists. They respected him because he had horse sense and was without pretense.

You didn’t need a contract to keep MGM to its word. Sam Goldwyn’s line that in this industry an orally pledged word isn’t worth the paper it’s written on did not fit Metro. An example: Once a star, Garbo never had a contract. Her deal was an understanding between casting wizard Benny Thau and herself. He once asked me to explain to her that if she would cut her salary by almost a third, she would earn exactly the same amount per picture (in a lower tax bracket) and MGM would enjoy the savings.

Advertisement

I declined because I didn’t wish to discuss money matters with her nor would I have been good at it. But I promised to bring her to his office (no mean feat!). She came and saw at once, and he conquered. The transaction took 10 minutes and nothing but a handshake sealed it.

Joe Cohn, one of Hollywood’s most efficient and imaginative production managers, wasn’t born in Bloomsbury, didn’t study at the Sorbonne and hadn’t learned his manners at Newport, R.I. Yet his instincts, his mind and his acquired taste equipped him for one of the most delicate tasks in film making: to keep that slippery balance between economy and quality. In a way, by performing it, he epitomized MGM’s specialty.

In other words, he was very “class-conscious” and at the same time ruled his realm with an iron hand. And a realm it was: his army of hands, the huge stages, the vast back lot, the locations all over the world, the budgets, mammoth and shoestring. But once agreement was reached in his office between the creative and the administrative contingent, everyone was held mercilessly to it. And you shot the script .

I remember, when shooting the trapeze episode of “The Story of Three Loves,” I became fascinated with the way the stunt doubles coached Kirk Douglas and Pier Angeli. I persuaded my producer, Sidney Franklin, for me to improvise scenes--that were not in the script!--in which Kirk would coach Pier in the same manner. But knowing the studio policy, we decided to proceed on the Q.T. It didn’t take more than 10 minutes before I had visitors on the set. They multiplied menacingly until I was surrounded by a phalanx of finks, managers and executives. I was forced to explain what I was doing before I could continue doing it. I was allowed to (because I could explain it). Class scored another victory.

Advertisement

Flops and misbehaviors were forgiven. No one was as good as his last picture. It was the aggregate that counted. And absolute loyalty to the esprit de corps. “We’re all croupiers in a high-rolling, crooked game,” the writer Sam Hoffenstein used to say. “As long as we’re keeping our mouths shuts, we can be sure of our generous rake-off.”

I was once accused--unjustly--of violating the esprit de corps and summoned before a tribunal that included every MGM mogul. Besmirching the flag was the charge, by bringing Lillian Ross, the New Yorker’s investigative reporter, on the lot. (Irwin Shaw dubbed her “the mistress of the invented quotation.”) Not only that, I was accused of abetting her expose of MGM’s civil war behind my Civil War production, “The Red Badge of Courage.”

What several of my judges obviously resented was that they had made jackasses of themselves in her interviews with them, while I, a reader of the New Yorker, had been more careful. It wasn’t difficult for me to clear myself, since I hadn’t the power to bring any newspaper person on the lot, and nothing that appeared in the New Yorker hadn’t been presented to her on a silver platter by every fawning executive concerned.

In 1951, Mayer lost MGM’s civil war ostensibly to the man he had himself made prime minister, Dore Schary. After John Huston’s and my little civil war, which Mayer had opposed with all the vehemence at his disposal, Mayer exited. Schary was now free to preside unhampered over the decline and fall. His first effort on that via dolorosa was to fritter away the fruits of the battle he had just won: He ruined the commercial failure “The Red Badge of Courage” artistically. From then on, “class” at MGM would be really and merely an act.

But the real victor--or rather loser--was, of course, L.B.'s lifelong nemesis, the mightiest of MGM moguls, Nicholas B. Schenck, head of Loews Inc., MGM’s parent company.

Champlin is wise to date the beginning of MGM’s demise with L.B.'s exit. But its seeds were planted earlier, with the exit of the man whom Champlin more than rightly accords equal importance: Irving Thalberg. I mention him so late in my account because by the time I joined the studio, he was already a legend and no longer head of production. (Heading an independent unit, he was at the time responsible for such MGM classics as “The Good Earth,” “Camille,” “A Night at the Opera” and “Mutiny on the Bounty.”) There had, then, been a civil war, too, that time with Mayer as Pyrrhic victor.

Thalberg, though no better educated than the others and of similarly humble origins, did have class. He was born with it. And that explains the paradox that such a “classless society” so consistently turned out so much of it. He imbued his fellow Culver Citizens with it, at first demanding it, then getting it in collaboration, then, having been dethroned, still inspiring it by his presence and example. Dead at the age of 36, his legacy proved so enduring that it took people years to become aware of the rot that had set in.

Mayer couldn’t run a studio and knew it. Yet he never wanted to be outshone by another Thalberg. The only one he would have accepted and who was up to the challenge was his son-in-law, David Selznick. But Selznick didn’t want to be a son-in-law.

Advertisement

Thalberg had genius. He was the statesman of the movies, as good in the long run (and runs) as he was in a pinch. Perhaps Mayer’s greatest accomplishment was that, long before Thalberg, barely out of his teens, had the opportunity to show all his faculties, he smelled them and chose him as his sidekick. The one thing he didn’t foresee was that Irving Thalberg was no sidekick.

An anecdote might serve better to understand this illusive man than trying to analyze him: Mayer shows him the silent “Ben-Hur,” the most expensive film to date (1924), which he inherited from the Goldwyn Co. (which the bearer of that name had long left). It was shot in Italy and is considered unreleasable. To Mayer’s chagrin, Thalberg confirms this judgment after the lights go on.

“In this form,” Thalberg adds. Mayer’s mood brightens: “You mean it’s salvageable?” Thalberg nods. “How much would it cost?” “How much did it cost until now?” Thalberg asks. “Two million,” is the answer. “It would cost two million,” says Thalberg.

Mayer is beside himself. Has Irving lost his mind? Is he joking? Throwing so much good money after bad? Going back to Italy where you don’t know. . . . “It can be done right here,” Thalberg interrupts him calmly.

“But why the hell should it cost so much money? What do you want to do with this picture?” “Remake it,” Thalberg says. “It’s worth it.” He obviously convinced Mayer, for the picture was rewritten, recast and reshot in toto by another director in Culver City, bringing the final cost to $4 million. “Ben-Hur” grossed $8 million when it was released in 1925.

Thus the pattern of MGM’s operation was set. Pictures were not “finished” until they were finished, i.e., in their best possible form.

Who decided when that stage was reached? One voice: Irving Thalberg’s. He was dubbed the “Czar of all the Rushes,” but almost never looked at them. He usually waited for the first preview and would then make his decisions. Writers, directors were replaceable, but paid extremely well for their heartbreak. MGM was never a “director’s studio.” Today, MGM’s most imposing building is named after Thalberg, though in his lifetime that name never appeared on celluloid.

The studio was known for its producers: Hunt Stromberg, Bernie Hyman, Lawrence Weingarten, and others. From their directors, MGM expected a high degree of competence and usually got it. And the studio drew some of the best writers in the world. . . .

Advertisement

I was having lunch at the Beverly Hills Brown Derby with the Hungarian playwright Melchior Lengyel. He spoke almost no English and his German was full of Carpathian crags. I did, however, make out enough to grasp that he proposed a film for Garbo to play a humorless Bolshevik realist living in Paris as a spy, who would become infatuated with a decadent Parisian sentimentalist. She teaches him that his sophisticated advances are quite unnecessary, suggesting a more straightforward way to bed. He not only makes love to her, but makes her laugh (this for her first time) and finally his capitalistic wife.

I was entranced. I persuaded Garbo. I persuaded Bernie Hyman to approve the making of the film. A day later, Lengyel walked out of MGM with a check for $20,000--the only thing up to that point written on “Ninotchka.”


Advertisement