Mayer, Louis B.

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MAYER, Louis B.

Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Eliezer Mayer in Minsk, Russia, 4 July 1885; family emigrated to New Brunswick, Canada, 1888. Family: Married 1) Margaret Schenberg, 1904 (marriage dissolved), two daughters; 2) Lorena Danker, 1948. Career: Helped in father's scrap business; 1904—moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to set up his own scrap business; became nickelodeon manager; 1915—moved into distribution; 1917—formed the independent Mayer Production Company in New York; 1920—opened studios in Hollywood; 1923—hired Irving Thalberg as vice president and production assistant; 1924—vice president in charge of production and general manager of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Productions with Loew and Sam Goldwyn; Thalberg became supervisor of individual film production, Mayer took charge of the west coast operation; 1931–36—president of the Motion Pictures Producers Association; 1951—left MGM. Awards: Special Academy Award, for "distinguished service to the Motion Picture industry," 1950. Died: In Hollywood, California, 29 October 1957.

Films as Executive Producer for MGM (selected list):


Greed (von Stroheim); Bread (Schertzinger); Sinners in Silk (Henley); The Arab (Ingram); He Who Gets Slapped (Sjöström); His Hour (K. Vidor); The Navigator (Keaton and Crisp); Sherlock, Jr. (Keaton)


Ben-Hur (Niblo); Cheaper to Marry (Leonard); Confessions of a Queen (Sjöström); Daddy's Gone A-Hunting (Borzage); The Denial (The Square Peg) (Henley); The Dixie Handicap (Barker); Excuse Me (Goulding); Fine Clothes (Fashions for Men) (Stahl); The Great Divide (Barker); Mare Nostrum (Ingram); The Big Parade (K. Vidor); The Merry Widow (von Stroheim); The Snob; Sally, Irene and Mary (Goulding); The Torrent (Bell); The Temptress (Stiller and Niblo); Brown of Harvard (Conway); La Bohème (K. Vidor); Go West (Keaton); Seven Chances (Keaton); The Tower of Lies (Sjöström); The Monster (West); The Unholy Three (Conway); The Masked Bride (Cabanne)


Flesh and the Devil (Brown); The Magician (Ingram); The Scarlet Letter (Sjöströmm); The Enemy (Niblo); Blarney (de Sano); Valencia (Buchowetski); Twelve Miles Out (Conway); The Road to Mandalay (Browning); The Waning Sex (Leonard); Paris (Goulding); The Barrier (Hill); Bardelys the Magnificent (K. Vidor); Upstage (Bell); The Black Bird (Browning)


The Garden of Allah (Ingram); Tess of the D'Urbervilles (Neilan); This Sporting Genius (Neilan); The Great Love (Neilan); White Shadows in the South Seas (Van Dyke);The Crowd (K. Vidor); The Student Prince (Lubitsch); Mr. Wu (Nigh); London After Midnight (The Hypnotist) (Browning); Mockery (Christensen); The Taxi Dancer (Millarde); Love (Goulding); The Unknown (Browning)


The Wind (Sjöström); Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont); Voice of the City (Mack); The Divorcee (Leonard); Let Us Be Gay (Leonard); The Kiss (Feyder); Broadway Melody (Beaumont); The Trial of Mary Dugan (Veiller); Wickedness Preferred (Henley); The Mysterious Lady (Niblo); A Lady of Chance (Leonard); Across to Singapore (Nigh); The Cameraman (Sedgwick); The Actress (Cukor); A Woman of Affairs (Brown); The Divine Woman (Sjöström)


Anna Christie (Brown); The Big House (Hill); His Glorious Night (Barrymore); Redemption (Niblo); Hallelujah (K. Vidor); The Mysterious Island (Tourneur and Hubbard); Hollywood Revue of 1929 (Reisner); Alias Jimmy Valentine (Conway); The Trail of '98 (Brown); Our Modern Maidens (Conway); Thunder (Nigh); Untamed (Conway); Dynamite (DeMille)


Min and Bill (Hill); Paid (Wood); A Free Soul (Brown); The Easiest Way (Conway); Way for a Sailor (Wood); Those Three French Girls (Beaumont); A Lady's Morals (Franklin); Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise (Leonard); Men of the North (Roach); Billy the Kid (K. Vidor); Madam Satan (DeMille); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (Selwyn); Trader Horn (Van Dyke); Romance (Brown); Paid (Wood); The Unholy Three (Conway); The Rogue Song (Barrymore); Good News (Grindé)


The Champ (K. Vidor); Possessed (Brown); As You Desire Me (Fitzmaurice); The Guardsman (Franklin); Private Lives (Franklin); Red-Headed Woman (Conway); Freaks (Browning); Tarzan the Ape Man (Van Dyke); The Wet Parade (Fleming); Come Clean (Horne); Inspiration (Brown); Mata Hari (Fitzmaurice); A Free Soul (Brown); The Squaw Man (DeMille); The Man in Possession (Wood); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian); New Moon (Leonard); The Secret Six (Hill)


Rasputin and the Empress (Boleslawsky); Red Dust (Fleming); Grand Hotel (Goulding); Gabriel over the White House (La Cava); Strange Interlude (Leonard); Smilin' Through (Franklin); The Music Box (Parrott)


Tugboat Annie (LeRoy); Treasure Island (Fleming); Manhattan Melodrama (Van Dyke); The Thin Man (Van Dyke); Queen Christina (Mamoulian); Dancing Lady (Leonard); Night Flight (Brown); Dinner at Eight (Cukor); Eskimo (Van Dyke); When Ladies Meet (Beaumont); The Barbarian (A Night in Cairo) (Wood); Hold Your Man (Wood); Bombshell (Fleming)


David Copperfield (Cukor); Merry Widow (Lubitsch); Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd); The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Franklin); A Wicked Woman (Brabin); The Show-Off (Riesner); Sadie McKee (Brown); Chained (Brown); The Painted Veil (Boleslawsky); Tarzan and His Mate (Gibbons); Riptide (Goulding); Viva Villa! (Conway)


China Seas (Garnett); A Tale of Two Cities (Conway); San Francisco (Van Dyke); Anna Karenina (Brown); A Night at the Opera (Wood); Libeled Lady (Conway); Rendezvous (Howard); Whipsaw (Wood); No More Ladies (E. Griffith and Cukor); Ah Wilderness (Brown)


The Great Ziegfeld (Leonard); Romeo and Juliet (Cukor); The Good Earth (Franklin); The Broadway Melody of 1936 (Del Ruth); Naughty Marietta (Van Dyke); Born to Dance (Del Ruth); Rose Marie (Van Dyke); Fury (Lang); After the Thin Man (Van Dyke); Tarzan Escapes (Thorpe)


Camille (Cukor); Captains Courageous (Fleming); Night Must Fall (Thorpe); A Family Affair (Seitz); The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (Boleslawsky); Parnell (Stahl); The Broadway Melody of 1938 (Del Ruth); Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (Green); Rosalie (Van Dyke); Maytime (Leonard); The Firefly (Leonard); A Day at the Races (Wood)


Sweethearts (Van Dyke); Young Doctor Kildare (Bucquet); Boys Town (Taurog); Mannequin (Borzage); Test Pilot (Fleming); Three Comrades (Borzage); The Crowd Roars (Thorpe); A Yank at Oxford (Conway); The Citadel (K. Vidor); Marie Antoinette (Van Dyke)


Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Ross); Ninotchka (Lubitsch); The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Thorpe); The Wizard of Oz (Fleming); Gone with the Wind (Fleming); The Women (Cukor)


Strike Up the Band (Berkeley); Pride and Prejudice (Leonard); Little Nellie Kelly (Taurog); The Broadway Melody of 1940 (Taurog); Northwest Passage (K. Vidor); Edison the Man (Brown); Boom Town (Conway); Waterloo Bridge (LeRoy); The Philadelphia Story (Cukor); Comrade X (K. Vidor); Strange Cargo (Borzage); I Love You Again (Van Dyke); Escape (LeRoy)


Billy the Kid (Miller); Two Faced Woman (Cukor); A Woman's Face (Cukor); Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Fleming); Blossoms in the Dust (LeRoy); Smilin' Through (Borzage); The Chocolate Soldier (Del Ruth); Babes on Broadway (Berkeley); Lady Be Good (McLeod); Ziegfeld Girl (Leonard)


Mrs. Miniver (Wyler); Woman of the Year (Stevens); Keeper of the Flame (Cukor); Her Cardboard Lover (Cukor); I Married an Angel (Van Dyke); Tarzan's New York Adventure (Thorpe); White Cargo (Thorpe); Johnny Eager (Le-Roy); Me and My Gal (Pier 13) (Walsh); Random Harvest (LeRoy)


Above Suspicion (Thorpe); Madame Curie (LeRoy); Bataan (Garnett); Stand by for Action (Cargo of Innocents) (Leonard); A Guy Named Joe (Fleming); Lassie Come Home (Wilcox); The Heavenly Body (Hall); Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli); Girl Crazy (When the Girls Meet the Boys) (Taurog); Thousands Cheer (Sidney)


Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli); Broadway Rhythm (Del Ruth); Bathing Beauty (Sidney); The Seventh Cross (Zinnemann); Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (LeRoy); The White Cliffs of Dover (Brown); Mrs. Parkington (Garnett)


Anchors Aweigh (Sidney); The Valley of Decision (Garnett); Adventure (Fleming); The Clock (Under the Clock) (Minnelli); National Velvet (Brown); Son of Lassie (Simon); They Were Expendable (Ford); The Picture of Dorian Gray (Lewin)


The Yearling (Brown); The Harvey Girls (Sidney); Till the Clouds Roll By (Whorf); Ziegfeld Follies (Minnelli); The Postman Always Rings Twice (Garnett); Lady in the Lake (Montgomery)


The Hucksters (Conway); Homecoming (LeRoy); Sea of Grass (Kazan); Cass Timberlane (Sidney); High Wall (Bernhardt); Good News (Walters); Song of Love (Brown);Merton of the Movies (Alton); Green Dolphin Street (Saville); Fiesta (Thorpe); The Unfinished Dance (Koster); Cynthia (The Rich Full Life) (Leonard)


Easter Parade (Walters); The Pirate (Minnelli); Words and Music (Taurog); Summer Holiday (Mamoulian); On an Island with You (Thorpe); Luxury Liner (Whorf); Command Decision (Wood); State of the Union (Capra); The Search (Zinnemann)


On the Town (Donen and Kelly); Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Everybody's Changing) (Berkeley); The Barkleys of Broadway (Walters); Intruder in the Dust (Brown); Adam's Rib (Cukor); Neptune's Daughter (Buzzell); That Midnight Kiss (Taurog); Any Number Can Play (LeRoy); Little Women (LeRoy)


Father of the Bride (Minnelli); Annie Get Your Gun (Sidney); Three Little Words (Thorpe); Summer Stock (If You Feel Like Singing); The Toast of New Orleans (Taurog); Two Weeks with Love (Rowland); Duchess of Idaho (Leonard); King Solomon's Mines (Bennett); To Please a Lady (Brown); The Miniver Story (Potter); A Life of Her Own (Cukor); Devil's Doorway (A. Mann); The Asphalt Jungle (Huston); Crisis (R. Brooks); Mystery Street (J. Sturges); Right Cross (J. Sturges); The Next Voice You Hear (Wellmann)

Other Films as Producer:


The Great Secret (Cabanne—serial)


Human Desire (North); Virtuous Wives; In Old Kentucky (Neilan); Midnight Romance; Mary Regan


Harriet and the Piper (Bracken); The Inferior Sex


The Child Thou Gavest Me (Retribution) (Stahl); Her Mad Bargain (Carewe); The Invisible Fear (Carewe); Playthings of Destiny (Carewe); Sowing the Wind (Carewe)


The Dangerous Age (Stahl); One Clear Call (Stahl); The Song of Life (Stahl); Her Kingdom of Desire (Neilan)


The Famous Mrs. Fair (Niblo); The Eternal Struggle (The Man Thou Gavest Me; The Master of Woman) (Barker); Hearts Aflame (Barker); Pleasure Mad (Barker); Strangers of the Night (Niblo); The Wanters (Stahl)


Thy Name Is Woman (Niblo)


On MAYER: books—

Ross, Lillian, Picture, New York, 1952.

Crowther, Bosley, Hollywood Rajah, New York, 1960.

Marx, Sam, Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints, London, 1975.

Eames, John Douglas, The MGM Story, New York, 1976.

Carey, Gary, All the Stars in Heaven, London, 1981.

Gabler, Neal, An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, New York, 1988.

Brownstein, Ronald, The Powder and the Glitter, New York, 1990.

Altman, Diana, Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer & the Origins of the Studio System, Carol Publishing, 1992.

Higham, Charles, Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M. & the Secret Hollywood, New York, 1994.

Tygiel, Jules, The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks & Scandal During the Roaring Twenties, Collingdale, 1998.

On MAYER: articles—

Photoplay (New York), vol. 44, no. 3, August 1933.

Theater Arts, vol. 35, no. 9, September 1951.

Sight and Sound (London), vol. 22, no. 4, April/June 1953.

Obituary in Times (London), 30 October 1957.

Obituary in Motion Picture Herald, vol. 209, no. 5, 2 November 1957.

Time (New York), 4 April 1960.

Sight and Sound (London), vol. 45, no. 3, Summer 1976.

Giles, D., "The Ghost of Thalberg: MGM 1946–1951," in Velvet Light Trap (Austin), Spring 1978.

Berg, A. Scott, "Louis B. Mayer: MGM's Archetypal Studio Head at Home," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1990.

Film and TV Technician, no. 544, February 1991.

Thompson, David, "Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, MGM and the Secret Hollywood," in New Republic, 12 April 1993.

Rickman, Gregg, "Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the Origins of the Studio System," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1993.

Gordon, Alex, "J for Jewish: Motion Pictures with Jewish Connections," in Sight and Sound (London), March 1997.

Niderost, E., "The Ultimate Mogul: Louis B. Mayer," in Classic Images (Muscatine), May 1997.

Schulberg, Budd, "Lion of Hollywood—Louis B. Mayer," in Time, 7 December 1998.

* * *

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with its internationally famous symbol of a roaring "Leo the Lion," surely represented the most famous of the Hollywood studios of the 1930s and 1940s. The studio executive in charge of the 52 feature films and hundreds of short subjects that emerged annually from that filmmaking empire was Louis B. Mayer. During those glorious years MGM had a complete movie factory with 27 sound stages on a 168-acre Culver City, California lot. MGM's laboratories could process 150,000 feet of film each day, and its property rooms contained more than 15,000 items to be used in movie after movie. It fed the films produced directly to Loew's theaters, its parent company.

MGM's method of film production reflected Mayer's conservative business philosophy. During the Great Depression, the studio publicly projected an image as the Tiffany of studios: a high class, elegant operation. Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer headlined in a series of high-gloss, sophisticated melodramas, guaranteed to project positively with even the most jaded movie fan.

But Mayer covered all his bets, making a wide variety of feature films, many of which we would hardly classify as "high class." Consider that in MGM's best years, the early 1930s, the studio's star who most often was ranked highest in popularity polls was none other than 61-year-old, gruff Marie Dressler. Dressler played an older woman with a heart of gold in Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie, two hits of the period, and brought MGM far more money than Garbo or Shearer.

Indeed Mayer's MGM studio-factory employed a vast array of stars. In the 1930s, he set up a series of Tarzan jungle adventures with Johnny Weissmuller, slapstick comedies with Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and the satire and burlesque of the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Year-in, year-out through the two decades of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy represented Mayer's most long-lived stars, two rugged males essaying roles which many took to define the ideal American male.

During the 1940s, Mayer went on to sponsor a certain glossy brand of Technicolor musical. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) with Judy Garland (and directed by her then husband Vincente Minnelli), Easter Parade with Garland and Fred Astaire, and the innovative On the Town, starring Gene Kelly and co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, offered widely engaging films, and attracted large audiences. But Technicolor musicals cost a great deal, and thus never did make much in the way of pure profit. In the 1940s Mayer contributed more to the Loew's bottom line with the low-budget B Dr. Kildare and Hardy family series. Our Gang comedy shorts also made millions for Loew's. In the 1940s the studio also developed the popular Tom and Jerry cartoon series.

Mayer prospered during the 1930s and into 1940s. Nonetheless, while larger than life to the moviegoing public on a daily basis and from a purely business perspective, he always knew he worked for a division of a larger multinational corporate enterprise, Loew's, Inc. Loew's management, led by Nicholas M. Schenck who was based in New York City, had hired Mayer as part of the 1924 merger that had created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Indeed, prior to the merger, Mayer had produced his own films, a corpus now long forgotten.

Schenck kept Mayer as MGM studio chief as long as Mayer did well. But with the arid days of the late 1940s and into the television era of the 1950s, MGM began a financial slide downhill. Mayer was blamed for the red ink, and as an employee, not top executive, was blamed for the debacle and summarily kicked out. Mayer thus did not end his career at MGM but working for a rival, helping Cinerama crack the widescreen movie market during the 1950s.

—Douglas Gomery

Louis Burt Mayer

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Louis Burt Mayer

Louis B. Mayer (1885-1957) was one of Hollywood's original "moguls," a movie house pioneer who helped found one of the film industry's most prominent studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. From 1924 until 1951, Mayer ruled over a vast film empire, producing a string of classic hits and discovering countless stars. Mayer never strayed from a promise he made early in his career to create what he called "decent, wholesome pictures" the whole family could enjoy.

Louis Burt Mayer was born Eliezer Mayer in Minsk, Russia, on July 4, 1885. The product of a working-class Jewish family, he moved with his parents and two brothers in 1888, first to New York, then to St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. There, Mayer's mother peddled chickens door to door, while his father worked as a dealer in scrap metal. Upon completing grade school, Louis briefly joined his father's business before moving to Boston in 1904 to start his own junk enterprise. That same year he married Margaret Shenberg, the daughter of a kosher butcher.

Entered Film Business

Mayer's arrival in Boston coincided with the nickelodeon craze that was sweeping the nation. Intrigued by the commercial potential of these "flickers," Mayer began a side business buying up and renovating rundown nickelodeon arcades, starting with The Gem in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1907. The huge crowds that turned out that Christmas season to see Pathe's hand-tinted Passion Play convinced Mayer for all time of the mass appeal of wholesome family entertainment. Promising to show "only pictures that I won't be ashamed to have my children see" in his refurbished auditoriums, Mayer turned a tidy profit and was able to leave the junk business entirely. He formed a partnership with Nat Gordon, another theater owner, and began acquiring movie houses all over New England. Within seven years, the two men had assembled the region's largest theater chain.

Mayer's next goal was to acquire distribution rights to the films themselves. His first foray into this arena was an overwhelming success. Without having seen it, Mayer paid filmmaker D.W. Griffith $25,000 for exclusive northeast distribution rights for Griffith's Civil War epic Birth of a Nation (1915). At the time, it was the highest bid ever made for the exhibition of a single film. The arrangement eventually netted Mayer more than $100,000.

Early Days in Hollywood

Having conquered exhibition and distribution, Mayer next moved into production. He joined the Alco Company (later Metro Pictures) in New York City, but was dissatisfied with the type of films the company was producing. He left Alco in 1917, moved to Los Angeles, and formed his own production house, The Mayer Company. The new company produced numerous romantic melodramas, many featuring starlet Anita Stewart. In 1923, Mayer hired Universal's Irving Thalberg as his production chief. The following year, at the instigation of Metro head Marcus Loew, Mayer merged his company with Metro Pictures and The Goldwyn Company and became West Coast head of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Thalberg was named production supervisor. The Big Parade (1926) and Ben-hur (1926) were among their early projects for the studio.

Mayer ran MGM with a ruthless efficiency. With wise use of resources and a strong promotional apparatus (including the slavish devotion of the Hearst newspapers), Mayer kept the studio profitable throughout the lean years of the 1930s. He discovered many of the era's top stars and got many others to swear an oath of fealty to the studio. Together with Thalberg, he helped launch the careers of such performers as Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, and Charles Laughton, along with numerous writers, directors, and producers. One of Mayer's personal "discoveries," Greta Garbo, went on to become a legendary Hollywood icon. The assemblage of talent paid off in the form of a string of classic features, including the first "talkie," 1927's The Jazz Singer, and such hits as Grand Hotel (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Camille (1936).

The MGM Style

While Mayer thought of himself primarily as a businessman, and professed not to have any interest in motion pictures as an art form, he did exert enormous influence over the style and content of MGM films. "He likes vast, glittering sets," wrote Henry F. Pringle in a profile of Mayer published in The New Yorker. "He approves of gorgeous gowns, pretty girls, lingerie sequences, and expensive assignations." Escapist musicals, sumptuous costume dramas, and screwball comedies accounted for the bulk of MGM's output under Mayer's aegis, a reflection of his earlier pledge to produce only those pictures his children could see. Mayer's creative influence reached its apex with the Andy Hardy series, a string of hits starring Mickey Rooney that were as successful as they were saccharine. To its critics, MGM's output during Mayer's reign was formulaic pap, but to Mayer it was just the kind of wholesome family entertainment Depression-era audiences wanted.

Influential Figure

Few at MGM saw fit to argue with success, and for many of his 27 years there, Mayer was the highest-paid individual in the country. His annual salary, including bonuses, exceeded $1.25 million, a princely sum for the time. As his bankbook swelled, so did Mayer's influence-both inside and outside the film community. He took a leadership role within the movie industry, helping to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. A staunch conservative, Mayer also became active in politics, at one point serving as state chairman of the California Republican Party. He formed a close personal friendship with President Herbert Hoover, who offered him the post of U.S. ambassador to Turkey in 1929. The mogul wisely declined. In 1934, Mayer threw the weight of his considerable influence behind California gubernatorial candidate Frank F. Merriam, in his campaign against muckraking author Upton Sinclair. Mayer produced a series of faux "newsreels" for Merriam (featuring paid actors) that were widely credited with swinging the election in favor of the Republican.

Though feared and respected, Mayer was little loved by his colleagues in Hollywood. Hot-tempered and imperious, Mayer made numerous enemies during his career. He was quick to punish those who did not accede to his wishes. When Clark Gable went to Mayer to ask for a raise, for example, Mayer threatened to tell Gable's wife about the actor's affair with Joan Crawford. Gable settled for a much lower figure than he originally requested. Others saw their careers cut off because of some perceived or actual slight to the great mogul. On at least one occasion, retribution was physical. Mayer reportedly struck one of MGM's biggest silent film stars, John Gilbert, for disparaging remarks Gilbert made about co-star Mae Murray.

Still other stars benefited from Mayer's largesse. Ann Rutherford, an MGM ingenue of the 1930s and 1940s, once successfully extracted a raise from the sentimental Mayer by lamenting her inability to buy a house for her aged mother. Perhaps Mayer recognized in her plea one of his own favorite tactics, using charm to gain his objective. Actor Robert Taylor fell victim to Mayer's charms when, upon asking for his raise, the weepy mogul hugged him and advised him to work hard and respect his elders and in due time he would get all that he deserved. Clark Gable had Mayer to thank for his freedom after the intoxicated star struck and killed a pedestrian with his car. Mayer reportedly convinced the district attorney to blame the homicide on a minor MGM executive (who was rewarded with a lucrative lifetime salary by the studio in exchange for his cooperation).

Decline of Influence

Some may have questioned Mayer's methods, but not many dared complain too loudly while he was still at the top of the heap. Mayer reigned as the most powerful man in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. At that point, his influence began to wane. Inexorably, MGM began to lose its edge in the studio wars. Mayer's top lieutenant, Irving Thalberg, died in 1936, leaving MGM bereft of visionary leadership. Public taste began to turn against the wholesome escapist that Mayer favored. With few hits to back up Mayer's bluster, patience started running thin with the studio chief's despotic style.

In 1951, MGM's East Coast executives ousted Mayer after a brief power struggle. A defiant Mayer issued a statement denying he was through in Hollywood. But Mayer never returned to his former position of influence. He became an adviser for the Cinerama group, and spent his last years relentlessly lobbying stockholders of MGM's parent company, Loew's Inc., to overthrow the studio's management team. His efforts proved unsuccessful. He contracted leukemia and died in Los Angeles on October 29, 1957.

That Mayer was widely reviled in the Hollywood of his time as a crass, cruel vulgarian does not diminish one whit from his influence on the history of film. In fact, it was precisely his willingness to use his immense power in the pursuit of his vision of family entertainment that made him the prototypical Hollywood mogul.

Further Reading

Altman, Diana, Hollywood East: Louis B. Mayer and the Origins of the Studio System Birch Lane Press, 1992.

Crowther, Bosley Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer Holt, 1960.

Higham, Charles Merchant of Dreams: Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood Dell, 1994.

Thomson, David A Biographical Dictionary of Film Knopf, 1994. □

Mayer, Louis B.

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Louis B. Mayer

Louis B. Mayer was a cofounder of the Hollywood movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. For thirty years, he was the most powerful man in the motion picture industry.

Escapes Russia

Born Eliezer Meir to a Jewish family in Minsk, Russia, in 1885, Mayer emigrated to Canada as a young boy and attended school there. He changed his first name to Louis. In 1904, Mayer moved to Boston, Massachusetts , where he discovered nickelodeons, early movie theaters that charged five cents for admission. There he developed his love for moving pictures.

Recognizing a smart business investment when he saw one, Mayer opened his first movie theater on November 28, 1907, in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Within three years, he had the largest theater chain in New England. In 1916, with a business partner, he created Metro Pictures Corporation, a talent booking agency, in New York City. Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles, California , and founded a production company, Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. In 1920, Marcus Loew (1870–1927), of the Loew's theater chain, bought Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures (founded by Samuel Goldwyn [1882–1974]). In 1924, a merger of those two companies with Mayer's resulted in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios.

Studio of stars

MGM became the number one studio of its time. Actors who wanted to become stars knew they had to find their way into MGM. The studio worked on an exclusive contract basis. This meant that an actor agreed to work only on MGM films for a specific number of years. The studio was responsible for marketing its stable of actors, and they were expected to behave according to Mayer's personal values and beliefs. He became known as the father of MGM, and he personally took care of many of the actors’ needs as long as he felt they deserved the help.

MGM's slogan was “More stars than there are in heaven,” and in fact the list of names he made famous backs up that claim. Elizabeth Taylor (1932–), Clark Gable (1901–1960), Judy Garland (1922–1969), and many others were “owned” by MGM, and they became household names because of it.

Power in different forms

In 1929, President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33) tempted Mayer with an ambassadorship to Turkey, but Mayer declined so that he could oversee the studio's transition from silent films to “talkies.” He and Hoover had developed a strong friendship over the years, and throughout Hoover's presidency Mayer would phone the White House with suggestions on how to manage the government.

In keeping with Mayer's vision, MGM produced movies that celebrated the American dream: family, wholesome values, hope. He expected his employees to lead lives that upheld the values of the movies in which they starred. When Mickey Rooney (1920–), the star of MGM's successful Andy Hardy series of movies, made the front pages for his partying and womanizing, Mayer took Rooney to task. According to Time magazine, Mayer was overheard screaming at the actor, “You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re Stars and Stripes! You're a symbol! Behave yourself!”

Trouble brewing

As studio profits skyrocketed, tensions increased between Mayer and his production chief, Irving Thalberg (1899–1936). Thalberg had produced some of MGM's box-office giants, including The Wizard of Oz and Ben Hur. By 1936, Mayer was the highest-paid executive in America, making more than $1 million annually. Thalberg felt he ought to receive an equal amount because it was his perfectionism and dedication to each movie that made money for the studio.

Mayer resented the fact that many people considered Thalberg the mastermind behind MGM's achievements. The studio itself was divided between Mayer and Thalberg supporters. Thalberg, who had suffered from heart problems, died at the age of thirty-seven. Despite the rift that had grown between them, Mayer mourned his colleague.

Fifteen years under Mayer's direction had earned MGM the nickname of Film Factory No. 1. However, its popularity began to ebb as America entered the post–World War II (1939–45) years. The moviegoing public no longer wanted sentimentality and romance. Mayer seemed unable, and perhaps unwilling, to move the studio in a different direction.

A new era

Stars and directors began to demand their share of profits for each film—a benefit MGM had never allowed. Dore Schary (1905–1980), a writer and producer hired by Mayer to fill Thalberg's spot, found Mayer to be overbearing and outdated in his ideas. A fierce argument between the two men forced president Nicholas Schenck (1881–1969) to choose between them. Schenck chose Schary; after twenty-seven years, Mayer was out at MGM.

Angry and disillusioned, Mayer retired from public life. He died in 1957.

Mayer, Louis Burt

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MAYER, LOUIS BURT (1885–1957), U.S. motion picture executive. Born in Russia, he was taken to Canada at the age of two. In 1907 Mayer bought a burlesque theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts, began showing films there, and soon owned all the theaters in the city. Moving to Hollywood in 1918, he formed the Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation, which merged to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924, with Mayer as vice president in charge of production. His bold use of talent and his gift for understanding public taste made mgm enormously successful. He made The Merry Widow in 1925, and he turned the early Goldwyn production of Ben Hur (1927) into one of the greatest of silent pictures. A string of moneymaking successes included The Good Earth (1932), the Andy Hardy series, and Treasure Island (1950).

Mayer was a great exponent of the star system. In addition to "finding" Greta Garbo and Greer Garson, he helped to establish such stars as Norma Shearer, Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford, and Clark Gable. The powerful "L.B.," as he was called, liked films with children and presented such child stars as Jackie Cooper, Mickey Rooney, Peter Lawford, Judy Garland, and Elizabeth Taylor. He also knew how to find managerial talent. At mgm, where he remained a power until 1951, he had a series of brilliant production men, from Irving Thalberg to Dore Schary. For seven years he was the highest paid executive in the United States. From 1931 to 1936, he was president of the Association of Motion Picture Producers.


B. Crowther, Hollywood Rajah (1960); Current Biography Yearbook 1958 (1958); New York Times (Oct. 30, 1957), 29; (Nov. 1, 1957), 27; G. Jessel, Elegy In Manhattan (1961), 103–6.

[Harvey A. Cooper]

Mayer, Louis B.

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Mayer, Louis B. Burt (1885–1957) US film executive. Mayer founded a film production company in 1917, and became vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1924. During the 1930s and 1940s, he was the most powerful magnate in Hollywood.

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Louis Burt Mayer

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