Film Director Mervyn LeRoy Dead at 86
Oscar-winning producer-director Mervyn LeRoy, the one-time San Francisco newsboy who set the tone of Hollywood movie making for 40 years with such films as “Little Caesar,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Quo Vadis” and “Gypsy"--and co-founded Hollywood Park race track--died Sunday at his home in Beverly Hills.
He was 86, and members of the family said heart ailments had kept him bedridden for the last six months.
“Mervyn went peacefully, in his sleep,” said Kitty LeRoy, his wife of 41 years. “His heart just gave way. He was dead when I came to wake him at 8 a.m. It was a good kind of death after a good kind of life.
‘Good and Sweet Man’
“None of us could have wanted anything better for a good and sweet man. . . .”
In addition to his wife, he leaves a daughter, Linda Jacklow, a son, Warner LeRoy, and five grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.
One of the most successful products of the pre-World War II studio system, LeRoy’s career was a reflection of the strengths of that system--while betraying almost none of its weaknesses.
He had been a full-fledged director at First National (later Warner Bros.) for only three years when his handling of “Little Caesar” and “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” boosted Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni to stardom--and set the tone of fast-paced toughness that dominated Warners’ products for a decade.
Later, at MGM, he presided over a series of lush, romantic vehicles that enhanced the careers of such stars as Vivien Leigh and Greer Garson, while displaying a total mastery of such diverse forms as musicals, historical spectaculars, action films and even children’s fantasy.
He won an Oscar in 1942 for directing “Random Harvest,” received an honorary Oscar three years later for producing a short subject, “The House I Live In,” and was selected for the Irving Thalberg Memorial career achievement award in 1975.
“And through it all,” studio mogul Jack Warner told a magazine interviewer in the 1960s, “he never seemed to have a box-office disaster. Maybe one or two that didn’t do as well as they might--but no disasters. And mixed in there, several of the biggest winners of all time.
“Add the fact that you can’t find anyone in town to call him a son of a bitch--and you’ve got a real giant.
“There’s nobody like him and never will be. . . .”
In addition, LeRoy helped found the Hollywood Turf Club--which built Hollywood Park--five decades ago and served for three decades as president of the corporation that controlled the race track.
It was LeRoy who introduced Ronald Reagan to then-actress Nancy Davis. In a statement issued Sunday by the White House, the President and Mrs. Reagan called him “a special part of our lives.
“It was he who introduced us. And he was always a precious friend,” the statement said. “Mervyn LeRoy was one of the pillars of the entertainment industry, responsible for some of the finest motion pictures ever. He was one of the greatest directors and producers of all time, knowing exactly how a scene should be and knowing just what to say to get his actors to make it right.”
“He had a touch that was like no other,” Lane Curtiz said in a 1981 appreciation. “The name ‘Mervyn LeRoy’ on the film meant that your intellect was not likely to be assaulted and your sense of fitness would emerge intact. There was an essential rightness about all that he did.
“You knew the film he made would be as decent and elegant as the man himself.”
However, his beginnings were not elegant at all.
Born Oct. 15, 1900, in San Francisco, LeRoy was the son of prosperous importer-exporter Harry Levy, whose business was wiped out in the earthquake and fire of 1906.
“My father broke his heart trying to build it all back,” LeRoy recalled in later years, “and when he died in 1910, it was root hog or die. I went to work selling newspapers on the street and completed my schooling at that level.
“But I was lucky--the place I picked out to sell the papers (and had to fight someone just about every other day to keep) was in front of the Alcazar Theater. Talking to people there and listening to things that were said, I got the idea that there might be a better way to make a buck, so I entered the amateur-night contest.”
His winning impersonation of Charlie Chaplin got him started on a vaudeville career as part of an act called “Two Kids and a Piano,” which ended far short of the Palace. He wound up stranded in New York.
“But I liked the work a lot better than selling papers,” he said, “and I decided to stay in show business.”
A cousin who had already switched from vaudeville to the movies--whose name was Jesse L. Lasky--staked LeRoy to a rail ticket from New York to Hollywood and put him to work in the costume department of a studio called Famous Players-Lasky (later to be known as Paramount). LeRoy spent the next few months trying to make up his mind about whether he liked the town and the business.
“I decided I did,” he said. “But I also decided I was in the wrong job.”
LeRoy used a talent for inventing gags to break out of the costume department. He was soon inventing funny bits for Colleen Moore, who was instrumental in getting him his first feature directing assignment from First National, a 1928 effort called “No Place to Go,” starring Lloyd Hughes and Mary Astor.
“It wasn’t the greatest motion picture of all time,” he said, “but it wasn’t the worst, either, and I went on the payroll permanently.”
Minor efforts such as “Flying Romeos,” “Harold Teen” and “Hot Stuff” kept him occupied and enabled him to learn his craft during the next few years. First National slowly promoted him to more important pictures, such as “Oh, Kay!” and “Broadway Babies.”
But the gangster era that was just beginning to make a major impact on the public consciousness and the opening years of the Great Depression combined to offer an opportunity that LeRoy seized with a picture that had originally been scheduled as a “programmer"--a low-budget exercise intended more to keep movie theaters running and film cameras turning than to make a statement in the world.
“But I saw the script we had could be something else,” LeRoy said. “And I saw that the man cast in the lead could be a major force. So, I directed it that way.”
‘Little Caesar” Was Key
The result was “Little Caesar,” which set box-office records across the country and established its star--and its director--as leaders in the film world.
The following year, after turning out a number of films such as “Five Star Final” and “Three on a Match,” LeRoy scored again with “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.”
It was also hailed as a major innovation in film technique. At the end, leading man Paul Muni’s girlfriend cries after him, “How do you live?” and his fading voice replies--from absolute blackness--"I steal!”
“But the blackness was an accident,” LeRoy said later. “A fuse blew while the camera was rolling, but the blackout ending was so effective I kept it instead of the slow fade that was in the script.”
LeRoy was also at pains to deny one of Hollywood’s most enduring myths--the story of how Lana Turner was discovered while she sipped a soda at Schwab’s drugstore.
“Not true at all,” LeRoy said. “She was in high school when Zeppo Marx, one of the Marx brothers, who was an agent at the time, brought her in to see me. The minute I saw her, I knew she would be a sensation on film, and I signed her for the first picture I could lay my hands on.”
It turned out to be something called, “They Won’t Forget,” and no one in Hollywood ever did--except that the facts, as usual, got lost amid press-agent hype.
As the years passed, LeRoy’s fluency in and grasp of all film forms was shown in directing such diverse efforts as “Tugboat Annie,” “Anthony Adverse,” “Three Men on a Horse,” “Waterloo Bridge,” “Johnny Eager,” “Random Harvest,” “Madam Curie,” “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” “Without Reservations,” “Little Women,” “Quo Vadis,” “Million Dollar Mermaid,” and “Mister Roberts.”
He also produced--but did not direct--"The Wizard of Oz” and “At the Circus” in the late 1930s, and was both producer and director for “The Bad Seed,” “No Time for Sergeants,” “Home Before Dark,” “A Majority of One,” “The FBI Story” and “Gypsy.”
His final picture was “Moment to Moment” in 1966, but he was also credited with assisting John Wayne in making “The Green Berets” in 1968.
“But it wasn’t the end of my life,” he said a decade later. “Yes, Virginia--there is life after movie making. I proved it because I had to. I certainly wasn’t going to lie down and die just because I had made all the movies I wanted to make.
“There was a lot still to do.”
One of the things to do was go to the race track.
LeRoy had been a breeder and racer of thoroughbred horses “since the first moment that I could afford to own a piece of one of them,” and had already been president of Hollywood Park for a decade when he retired from film making. He continued as president for another 20 years--and became president emeritus in 1985.
His first marriage, to actress Edna Murphy, and second, to Doris Warner, daughter of Warner Bros. President Harry Warner, both ended in divorce. He was married to the former Kitty Spiegel in 1946.
“It’s a good thing I wasn’t writing a script for my life,” he told a reporter in 1981, during a joint tribute from the racing and film communities. “I was always pretty inventive . . . but I couldn’t have come up with anything as satisfactory as the way it really worked out.”
MERVYN LeROY’S FILMS Films directed by Mervyn LeRoy included: “No Place to Go,” First National, 1927. “Flying Romeos,” First National, 1928. “Harold Teen,” First National, 1928. “Oh Kay!,” First National, 1928. “Naughty Baby,” First National, 1929. “Hot Stuff,” First National, 1929. “Broadway Babies,” First National, 1929. “Little Johnny Jones,” First National, 1929. “Playing Around,” First National, 1929. “Showgirl in Hollywood,” First National, 1930. “Numbered Men,” First National, 1930. “Top Speed,” First National, 1930. “Little Caesar,” First National, 1931. “Gentleman’s Fate,” First National, 1931. “Too Young to Marry,” First National, 1931. “Broad Minded,” First National, 1931. “Five Star Final,” First National, 1931. “Local Boy Makes Good,” First National, 1931. “Tonight or Never,” United Artists, 1931. “High Pressure,” Warner Bros., 1932. “Two Seconds,” First National, 1932. “Big City Blues,” Warner Bros., 1932. “Three on a Match,” First National, 1932. “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” Warner Bros., 1932. “Hard to Handle,” Warner Bros., 1933. “Elmer the Great,” First National, 1933. “Gold Diggers of 1933,” Warner Bros., 1933. “Tugboat Annie,” MGM, 1933. “The World Changes,” First National, 1933. “Hi, Nellie!” Warner Bros., 1934. “Heat Lightning,” Warner Bros., 1934. “Happiness Ahead,” First National, 1934. “Sweet Adeline,” Warner Bros., 1935. “Oil for the Lamps of China,” Warner Bros., 1935. “Page Miss Glory,” Warner Bros., 1935. “I Found Stella Parish,” First National, 1935. “Anthony Adverse,” Warner Bros., 1936. “Three Men on a Horse,” First National, 1936. “The King and the Chorus Girl,” Warner Bros., 1937. “They Won’t Forget,” Warner Bros., 1937. “Fools for Scandal,” Warner Bros., 1938. “Waterloo Bridge,” MGM, 1940. “Escape,” MGM, 1940. “Blossoms in the Dust,” MGM, 1941. “Unholy Partners,” MGM, 1941. “Johnny Eager,” MGM, 1941. “Random Harvest,” MGM, 1942. “Madame Curie,” MGM, 1943. “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” MGM, 1944. “Without Reservations,” RKO Radio, 1946. “Homecoming,” MGM, 1948. “Little Women,” MGM, 1949. “Any Number Can Play,” MGM, 1949. “East Side, West Side,” MGM, 1950. “Quo Vadis,” MGM, 1951. “Lovely to Look At,” MGM, 1952. “Million Dollar Mermaid,” MGM, 1952. “Latin Lovers,” MGM, 1953. “Rose Marie,” MGM, 1954. “Strange Lady in Town,” Warner Bros., 1955. “Mister Roberts,” co-directed with John Ford, Warner Bros., 1955. “The Bad Seed,” Warner Bros., 1956. “Toward the Unknown,” Warner Bros., 1956. “No Time for Sergeants,” Warner Bros., 1958. “Home Before Dark,” Warner Bros., 1958. “The FBI Story,” Warner Bros., 1959. “Wake Me When It’s Over,” 20th Century-Fox, 1960. “The Devil at 4 O’Clock,” Columbia, 1961. “A Majority of One,” Warner Bros., 1962. “Gypsy,” Warner Bros., 1962. “Mary, Mary,” Warner Bros., 1963. “Moment to Moment,” Universal, 1966.