Louis B. Mayer, born to an immigrant Russian Jewish family as Laza Meir, was Hollywood royalty for nearly five decades.
An aggressive businessman, who supposedly resorted to blackmail as a means to underpay Clark Gable, he ran Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the world’s most successful movie studio.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to welcome back our good pal and contributor, Hy Hollinger, who as a longtime Variety correspondent was there when Louis B. lost his job, his status, everything.
Mayer had come from harsh beginnings, working in youth in his father’s New England scrap metal business while slowly establishing himself as a regional exhibitor, then as a local movie distributor in Massachusetts.
His Hollywood relocation in 1918 brought the formation of his own production company (Mayer Pictures) which was absorbed into Metro-Goldwyn by Marcus Lowe, owner of the Loew’s theater chain. (With Loew’s permission, Louis B. later added his surname to the studio trademark.)
As the studio boss, Mayer’s production philosophy was uncomplicated and always connected to the box office dollar. I want to give the public entertainment, and thank God, it pays off, he said. Clean, American entertainment…Yes! Sentiment is the heart of America. I like Grandma Moses. I have her paintings in every room of my house. I’m not ashamed of it. This is America …Her pictures are life.
He had little regard for movie reviewers. As soon as it says the picture was made in Italy, some eighty-dollar-a-week critic writes a big rave review calling it art…I know what the audience wants. Andy Hardy. Sentimentality. What’s wrong with it? Love! Good old fashioned romance!
Mayer was rarely sentimental in negotiations with actors under MGM contract. He was avuncular to some (Kathryn Hepburn), protective to others (Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, pictured with our man above) and a hard-ass to most. In his 1965 memoir (Bulls, Balls, Bicycles and Actors), Charles Bickford referred to him as a “venomous little junk dealer.”
After Mayer dressed him down over some infraction during the making of the 1930 thriller The Sea Bat, Bickford concluded:
Of all the sons-of-bitches I have ever met, this son-of-a-bitch is the most despicable son-of-a-bitch of them all. (Their meeting concluded with Mayer calling the actor a lousy red-headed mick son of a bitch and Bickford responding, to hell with you — you posturing little ignoramus.
By the late Forties, MGM had fallen on harder times, and Mayer paid a price. He was fired in 1951 by (parent company) Loew’s boss and arch-enemy Nicholas Schenck. Production exec Dore Schary, two decades younger than Mayer and a firm believer in “message” movies of dubious box office prospects, was elevated to replace him. (After shuttling Garland out of MGM, Schary lasted five years at the helm.)
MGM was further rattled in the late Fifties when a Canadian industrialist and a big Loew’s stockholder started to throw his weight around parent company headquarters in New York.
Our man Hy was then covering the company closely for Variety, and noted in the April 3, 1957 edition of Variety that Joseph Tomlinson, the Canadian millionaire who launched the executive changes at (MGM parent) Loew’s, said he still favored the return of Louis B. Mayer to the company
When Tomlinson threatened to start a proxy fight against Loews, he listed as one of his proposals the return of Mayer as studio chief.
The proposal got nowhere. I recall standing outside the board room of MGM in the Loew’s State building on Broadway waiting for the announcement of a new president after a lengthy, brutal proxy fight, Hy recently told us.
Standing with us (Hy and reporters from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times) was the legendary movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, who was waiting for the call to once again lead MGM. That call never came.
Hy was unimpressed by the former MGM titan: What I recall is this arrogant s.o.b. standing meekly with hat in hand waiting to get his job back.
Mayer died six months later at the age of 73.