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The recasting of Louis B. Mayer

Kevin Thomas is a film critic for The Times.

IN his later years, Robert M.W. Vogel -- longtime director of international production and publicity for MGM, co-founder of the motion picture academy’s foreign-language Oscar category and stalwart of that academy branch until his death in 1996 -- dreamed of gathering all the survivors of the studio’s golden era to collaborate on a book that would show the world that Louis B. Mayer, the studio’s legendary head, was not the monster depicted in Bosley Crowther’s “Hollywood Rajah.” That book, published a mere three years after Mayer’s death in 1957, largely defined Mayer as a vulgar tyrant, and so he has been portrayed ever since.

At long last, with noted film historian Scott Eyman’s mesmerizing “Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer,” the leading Hollywood mogul who presided over the most glamorous studio of all has received a balanced, insightful and comprehensive biography that Vogel surely would have appreciated.

Mayer, an Eastern European immigrant, was born and raised in poverty. With only a scant education and less than handsome looks, he nevertheless possessed a personality of overwhelming force and charisma. He was also famous for his tantrums and emotional displays. (Esther Williams has said that “he was the best actor on the lot.”) But time and again Eyman discovers that while Mayer’s emotions may have lurked just beneath the surface, he let loose the fireworks for the most part only when he believed they would do him the most good.

Helen Hayes called Mayer “the most evil man I have ever dealt with in my life” yet also said of MGM that "[i]t was the great film studio of the world -- not just of America, or of Hollywood, but of the world.” The deeply paternalistic Mayer could inspire the greatest loyalty and respect in his many employees, from high-level executives like Vogel to the most humble workers; they may have cherished him most for his many kindnesses. Eyman shows us Mayer as a human being, a man in which everything except physical stature was writ large: He was ferociously driven and daring, a genius at gauging public taste, a tremendous discoverer of talent, a master of persuasion and a visionary of passion and imagination with a deeply ingrained sense of responsibility to audiences.

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Through exhaustive, carefully weighed research and more than 150 interviews with those who worked for or knew Mayer, Eyman convinces the reader that Mayer’s prodigious gifts outweighed his flaws. He does this the hard way, not by trying to downplay Mayer’s ruthlessness (which was doubtlessly inherent and arguably an essential trait in all studio moguls) or his appetite for revenge (which could at times be dismayingly petty) but by marshaling a vast amount of evidence that in Mayer the good trumped the bad.

Eyman is especially skilled at revealing how childhood shaped the man. One of Mayer’s daughters remarked, “Only God knows where the Mayer came from"; the family name might have been Baer or Meir. According to Mayer’s father, his son, originally named Lazar, was born in Dumier, a town in Ukraine about 25 miles north of Kiev, on July 12, 1884. Mayer would change the date to a slightly later and more patriotic July 4, 1885. Fleeing Russian oppression of its Jews, the Mayers, with their young son and two older daughters, escaped in 1886 to England and moved on to the U.S. the following year. By the early 1890s, the family had settled in Saint John, New Brunswick, and Lazar’s name had become Louis.

Louis B. Mayer would have a brutal childhood, suffering physical and emotional abuse from his peddler father, who resented having a son more industrious and hardworking than he was. Yet Louis was blessed with a loving mother, whom he worshiped. As a boy, he became an indefatigable scrap-metal dealer, even diving into the Bay of Fundy for scrap metal, to which activity he attributed his barrel chest. But when the movies came to Saint John in 1897, they unleashed the dreamer in him. On Jan. 3, 1904, he moved to Boston and by June had married Margaret Shenberg, the daughter of a kosher butcher and cantor. After a stint as a Brooklyn junk dealer, he returned to Boston and was nearing the end of his rope when a friend who owned a nickelodeon told him of a burlesque theater for sale in the nearby mill town of Haverhill.

Mayer found his metier as a movie exhibitor, and his rise was swift, driven by his belief in the necessity of spending money to make money and his confidence that what he liked on the screen his audiences would also like. He understood that others craved the kind of escape he did and from the start believed in the importance of quality and class. He acquired more theaters, handsomely refurbishing them all, branched out into distribution (the basis of his wealth would be his purchase of the New England rights to “The Birth of a Nation”), ventured into production and in 1918 moved his small company to Los Angeles. Six years later, it became part of a new company to be called Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Samuel Goldwyn had already departed, and theater magnate Marcus Loew of Metro Pictures, who held the controlling interest, selected Mayer to become general manager and vice president. Mayer insisted that his gifted associate Irving Thalberg be named head of production instead of Loew’s son Arthur. Sadly, the Mayer-Thalberg father-son relationship would deteriorate over the years, along with Thalberg’s health. Without deprecating Thalberg’s many talents, Eyman dispels the simplistic notion that Thalberg was the creative genius and Mayer’s strength lay primarily in management. Mayer seemingly was willing to spend more money in the name of quality than Thalberg, whom Mayer found to be personally “money-mad” -- a trait that, if true, may have reflected Thalberg’s awareness of his mortality. (He died in 1936, at age 37.)

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Over the next 25 years, Mayer would create “the Tiffany of the studios” with “more stars than there are in heaven.” In establishing the ultimate dream factory in Culver City, he became the prime creator of the enduring Hollywood of myth, home to stars like Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, all of whom remain indelible icons of the screen. Mayer would face down considerable and varied challenges throughout his tenure. Right at the start, he and Thalberg had to rescue two enormous extravagances from Goldwyn: Erich von Stroheim’s 10-hour “Greed” and the trouble-plagued “Ben-Hur,” which was shooting in Italy. To this day, film lovers lament that Thalberg didn’t take pains to save the vast amount of footage that was cut, but in the mid-'20s hardly anyone thought of the value of film preservation.

Eyman generates real suspense as he relates how Mayer, with daring and decisiveness, moved to gain control of the vast sinkhole that “Ben-Hur” had become, replacing star and director and eventually re-shooting most of it in Culver City. Eyman is hard on replacement director Fred Niblo and his methods, or lack of same, but “Ben-Hur” remains an eminently watchable silent classic. One of the nastiest legends surrounding Mayer concerns “Ben-Hur” costar Francis X. Bushman, whose valet is said to have inadvertently slighted Mayer, causing the mogul to have Bushman blackballed for years. Mayer apparently did do just that, but Eyman has discovered that just as the fledgling MGM was struggling not to collapse under the weight of “Ben-Hur,” Bushman, harried by alimony payments, demanded a $1,000-a-week raise and got it because production was too far along to replace him (much to Mayer’s enduring fury). There were those Mayer could forgive, but Mae Murrray, like Bushman, would not be forgiven when she fell on hard times, because Mayer could not overlook the trouble she had caused during the making of “The Merry Widow.” Yet Mayer also never forgot a kindness, and for years he, like Cecil B. DeMille, saw that various faded silent stars were kept employed.

“Lion of Hollywood” effortlessly broadens its scope to depict how MGM operated and illuminates its leading personalities behind and in front of the camera. Along with a roster of powerful producers, MGM was blessed by a great chief art director, Cedric Gibbons; a great costume designer, Adrian; and a great studio publicist, Howard Strickling, a high school dropout but an unforgettable master of noblesse oblige, a quality he instilled both in the studio’s stars and his splendid staff. Strickling, who is said to have discreetly handled more than one case of manslaughter and most likely a murder as well, was renowned as Hollywood’s best keeper of secrets.

A Victorian father, Mayer was often at odds with his formidable and talented daughter Irene and his initially more complacent daughter Edith. Both resented deeply his refusal to allow them to attend college. Irene, who married and divorced David O. Selznick (Selznick had been forced to let MGM distribute “Gone With the Wind” in return for the services of Gable as Rhett Butler), struck out on her own as a Broadway producer, launching, among other plays, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” During the Boston tryout, Mayer told Irene that the play was great, that it was going to be a smash hit and not just an artistic success, but told its director, Elia Kazan, that the play needed a little rewriting to indicate that Stella and Stanley could live happily ever after, once that awful, marriage-wrecking Blanche was carted off to an institution. After her dreams of becoming an actress were thwarted by her father, Edith married producer William Goetz, whom Mayer helped launch, and enjoyed a long career as the queen of Hollywood society but had a permanent falling-out with her father when her husband became a leading Hollywood Democrat.

Like many public figures of his era, Mayer preached the sanctity of marriage and family in speeches and on the screen, but after 30 years of marriage to a now ailing wife, Mayer in middle age developed a series of crushes on a number of his contract players and indulged in various discreetly arranged affairs. He eventually divorced Margaret, causing him lasting guilt, and in 1948 married Lorena Danker, an attractive and much younger widow.

The downside of Mayer’s great instinct for glamorous, popular entertainment was that producer-heavy MGM was inhospitable to top-tier directors, and Eyman argues that Clarence Brown (who became one of Mayer’s closest friends), George Cukor and King Vidor were for years the only directors within MGM’s elaborate studio system able to function as more than “craftsmen who moved actors and cameras around.” Yet Mayer, opposed to “artistic” films, was so adamant that Vidor’s “The Crowd” (1928), one of the greatest of all silent films, not get the first best-picture Oscar that the award went instead to Paramount’s “Wings.” It’s a still enjoyable World War I movie but is not in the league of “The Crowd,” which dealt honestly yet poetically with the lives of an ordinary man -- “one of the crowd” -- and his wife. So much for the famous MGM motto: “Ars Gratia Artis” -- art for the sake of art.

For Mayer, the star came first, followed by the producer, writer and director, a ranking guaranteed to produce greater entertainment than art. Mayer was unafraid of spending more to make something better, and rafts of writers might be assigned to the same picture. Arguably the most provocative assessment in Eyman’s book is that "[t]here are some indelibly great scenes in MGM films of the 1930s” -- one of his examples is the hilarious exchange between Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow at the end of “Dinner at Eight” -- “but they’re peaks amidst a lot of flatlands.” Eyman rightly points out that MGM’s beloved musicals, produced in Arthur Freed’s unit, are its greatest artistic legacy. Indeed, one of Mayer’s last decisions (typical of his best instincts) was to insist that no matter what the expense, “An American in Paris” would have its glorious ballet sequence.

Mayer became the highest-paid man in America, one of the country’s most successful horse breeders, a political force and Hollywood’s leading spokesman. He reached his peak, along with that of his studio, at the end of World War II. For more than 20 years, though, he had been an employee of Loew’s Inc.; its head, Nicholas Schenk, apparently jealous of Mayer’s fame and always cost-conscious, was finally able to force him out, replacing him in 1951 with Mayer’s aide, the inadequate Dore Schary. Mayer was at a loss and miserable, sustained only by a hope for a return to power. Cruelly, when the offer to replace Schenck came at last, Mayer was already dying of the leukemia that would claim his life in 1957. *

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