Greatest Dead Angelenos #12: Louis B. Mayer first glance, it would seem that we have Eliezer Mier – the once and future L.B. Mayer, son of an immigrant scrap metal salesman – to thank for helping plant the seeds of what has become today’s publicity hogging, hit-and-run driving, coke-sniffing celebutards.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

Mayer got into the movie business by starting a chain of successful theaters in New England, while in California, cattle was still being herded down the ditch that would someday become Sunset Boulevard. In those early days of film, the most successful exhibitioners were the biggest entertainers, and L.B. was known for his showmanship.

Mayer got his biggest break when fellow theater magnate (and owner of Metro and Goldwyn Picture studios) Marcus Loew needed someone to take care of his west-coast operations. He scooped up Mayer’s fledgling motion picture production company and shipped L.B., Harry Rapf, and Irving Thalberg off to California and Goldwyn’s Culver City studios.

As heads of production, Thalberg (at age 25) and Rapf pretty much established the way MGM would do business for the next forty years. As head of studio operations Mayer was the boss, and continued to do business the way he had always done it. Thalberg preferred more intellectual, literary fare, while Mayer wanted to emphasize style over substance. “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” he said.

Mayer’s schtick was in the spectacle of things; even MGM’s B-movies were packed with above-average production value. He prized the celebrity above all else, reigning in the likes of Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Joan Crawford, and Judy Garland. Other studios were doing it too, cashing in on the “star system”, but no one kept their assets in line like L.B. He knew that his contract stars were business investments, and should Ms. Garland or Mr. Gable go out to buy a loaf of bread, they had better look like they just stepped off the screen. It was that kind of control (often exerted with equal parts fatherly love and a strict regiment of uppers and downers) and business acumen that made movies and movie stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age so mysterious and wonderful to the public (and prompted our obsession with them).

His downfall came in 1951 at the hands of his old rival and Lowes boss Nick Schenck and MGM production honcho Dore Schary (another great dead Angeleno). L.B. had blown a lot of money on his pretty pictures, and word got back to Schenck that **gasp** people wanted a little bit of substance with their heaping helping of style (you think annoying remakes and sequels are new ? Mayer was the king of sequels). He tried to stage a boardroom coup, but was summarily sacked after 35 years with the company.

But Mayer wasn’t just the second “M” in MGM. He owned several champion thoroughbred racehorses, was active in politics as the state chairman of the California Republican Party. He was stubborn and prolific, and with his devotion to the sacred movie-going experience, it was Mayer who put the gold in Hollywood’s Golden Age. It’s kind of ironic, considering his moral and political and spiritual convictions (you could say he was in a “red state” of mind), that L.B.’s legacy would (de)evolve into what we now know as modern day Hollywood. But then again, maybe the reason the movie industry with its pseudo-stars is so effed up these days is because folks like Mayer aren’t around anymore to keep all the twits in line.

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2 thoughts on “Greatest Dead Angelenos #12: Louis B. Mayer”

  1. Wasn’t he the one that something to the affect of “If you can’t make it good, make it big”?

  2. I dunno. I actually had a hard time finding quotes attributed to him. I have some good books on the studio system – Dore Schary’s autobiography “Heyday” has a lot of good stories about L.B., but unfortunately, I didn’t have that tome handy when I was writing the piece.

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