The Movies Stake their Life on a Revolution....and AN EX-KING RETURNS TO POWER
From the waterfront at Saint John, Louis B. Mayer rose to be the most successful and most feared man in movies. Then he lost his throne. Now he’s bouncing back at sixty-seven as the big boss of Cinerama
IN THE remarkable new world of 3-D nothing is more remarkable than the story of Louis B. Mayer, an immigrant boy who rose from cutting up sunken ships with a blowtorch in Saint John, N.B., to become King of Hollywood; lost his sceptre, his power and all but twenty million dollars of his fortune; and then, at sixty-seven, started out to make good all over again.
Mayer abdicated two years ago as production chief of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, largest and most legendary of all the studios. His subjects even the not inconsiderable number who had feared, hated or ridiculed him—knew that so mighty a fall closed an age and might be followed by anarchy. As one nervous mourner put it, “If L. B. goes for the chop, who’s safe?”
Everybody feels better now. L. B. has returned in a suit of three-dimensional ermine as chairman of the board and production chief of the biggest didya-see-it in show business, Cinerama. As the blizzard of electronics that has pelted the motionpicture screen since the Eighteen-nineties jumps right out of the screen into the customer’s lap, the majestic white-haired exile is one short jump ahead. For almost fifty years Mayer has done as much as any other man to establish the character of American movies, for better or for worse. For better or for worse, L. B. and Cinerama have already begun to establish their character for the next fifty years.
Against the monolithic bulk of television, talkies and CinemaScope, Cinerama today is a shadow no bigger than a man’s hand. But all of Mayer’s ventures have had deceptively modest beginnings.
He arrived in Saint John in 1888, at the age of three, with his Russian parents and, at fourteen, was bossing divers and salvage gangs in his father’s shipbreaking business. Legend has it that he went down in diving suits himself. At seventeen the sturdy ambitious youth went to Boston to sell junk metal. He found a wife, Margaret Shenberg, and he found the movies. It was 1902, only six years after Edison had projected the first American program: Sea Waves, Venice Showing Gondolas, Butterfly Dance, and Kaiser Wilhelm Reviewing his Troops. (Cinerama’s first bill, more than half a century later, includes water-skiing, Venetian gondolas, a ballet, and a clan gathering in Scotland.)
ALWAYS PARTIAL TO CANADIANS, L. B. MAYER GUIDED THESE STARS TO FAME
In 1907 Mayer paid six hundred dollars for a Haverhill, Mass., flicker palace named the Gem, known to its public as “the Germ.” The boy scrubbed the joint out and rechristened it the Orpheum. To attract women patrons he rented a hand-colored French picture, The Passion Play. Mayer himself cranked the projector. “I may have been a little fast on the crank,” he said recently, “to get in an extra show.” The cops had to be called to clear traffic in front of the Orpheum. “Within two years,” he said, “I had all the other theatres in town.”
His is not the story of a subtle man. Mayer could never hide his light. He demanded that his money and might be projected before the world. By 1914, he had enough of both to command attention. In that year he offered the unprecedented sum of twenty-five thousand dollars for the New England rights to a film still in production, The Birth of a Nation. He netted one hundred thousand dollars.
Mayer now had eight theatres in his chain and couldn’t find enough pictures. He was in the position of a shooting gallery proprietor who couldn’t buy bullets. He sallied out to buy films and was soon booking pictures for all New England, merging with another string of houses that couldn’t find enough films, consolidating, bidding for pictures. He soon realized that the profits of his real-estate holdings and the flow of avid movie fans past the ticketchopper depended on capturing production—in short, on setting up a movie factory to supply his own bullets.
In a typical Mayer decision he sold out everything and headed west in 1916 with his wife, two young daughters, and an actress, Anita Stewart. Miss Stewart was the necessary raw material for entering movie-making.
Mayer founded a factory in 1918 to make films for Metro Pictures, which was owned by an eastern theatre chain, Loew’s, Inc., headed by Nicholas M. Schenck. In 1924 Schenck, Mayer and J. Robert Rubin, Loew’s lawyer, formed the first and still the largest major movie factory, Metro-GoldwynMayer, by consolidating their plants with that of Samuel Goldwyn. Mayer became plant manager, or vice-president of Loew’s Inc., in charge of production.
Louis B. was king, but, like Louis XIII of France, he had his Richelieu. The power behind the throne was and still is a small alert strategist in the Loew skyscraper on Broadway, Nicholas M. Schenck, known as The General. For thirty-five years he has directed things from far behind the lines.
The General paid Mayer the top income in the known world, and approved his grand levées. Schenck let Mayer be thought the boss of M-G-M, a rôle not unsuited to L. B.’s expansive personality. Once a caller remarked to Schenck that Mayer’s huge stipend was higher than Schenck’s. The General waved his hand and said, “Oh, Louie likes that sort of thing.” For seven years Mayer’s personal income was the highest in the world, or at least the highest made public.
L. B. had quite a reign. He was “the most feared man in Hollywood,” said Fortune. There was a joke, “If L. B. dropped a ten-dollar bill he couldn’t afford the time to pick it up.” Mayer is a hearty man. He is a champion rumba dancer, wilting young partners like lilies. An old associate told me, “He’s incredible, indestructible. He has drive! Drive, implacable drive!”
As King of Hollywood he never stinted the panoply of power. He threw luncheons for a thousand politicians; had an outsize bungalow he used entirely as a party house. As a close friend of Herbert Hoover, he was the first personal dinner guest in the White House after Hoover’s inauguration in 1929. The world’s first commercial telephoto transmitted from the west to east coasts depicted L. B. handing a king-size make-up box to his star, Marion Davies. He signed Queen Marie of Rumania as a script writer, and turned down Hoover’s offer to become U. S. ambassador to Turkey. When his wife fell ill in Paris, Mayer summoned by air Lord Dawson of Penn, His Majesty’s physician, and Lord Horder, the doctor of the Prince of Wales. When such celebrities as George Bernard Shaw and Einstein arrived in Hollywood they were carried off to audiences with L. B. He discovered Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Mickey Rooney, and Leo the Lion.
The stars he is credited with developing make up a glittering company: Lon Chaney, Lillian Gish, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressier, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Maurice Chevalier, Luise Rainer, William Powell, Freddie Bartholomew, Jean Harlow, Hedy Lamarr, Grace Moore, Esther Williams and Van Johnson. He engaged Greer Garson on a junket to Europe in 1937. She was so little known that the American papers described her as “an Irish actor.” Mayer opened an M-G-M Bri;ish studio and brought fame to Robert Donat and Vivian Leigh.
Mayer is a wilful, overpowering man. He was a warrior king. He punched people, including the smaller Charlie Chaplin in a Los Angeles hotel lobby in 1920. Mayer sometimes resorted to the salty lingo of the Maritimes waterfront to stress a point. But he made fiercely loyal lieutenants by his policy of delegating power and backing a man who made a mistake.
A Soné for Jeanette
L. B. seldom mingled socially with the actors. His friends were bankers, industrialists and politicians. M-G-M liad two staff storytellers who imparted the scenarios to him. In 1927, when the box-office receipts fell off, he told the actors to forget their temperaments and notions of higher salaries. They could be replaced by new faces. In 1926 when Greta Garbo, recently arrived as an international idol, asked Mayer to up her salary from seven hundred and fifty to five thousand a week Variety reported: “Mayer threatened her with loss of her permit to work in the United States.” Garbo settled for twenty-five hundred.
Mayer sometimes goaded a player to higher artistic flights by calling him into his office and acting out big scenes from the script. Once he cornered Jeanette MacDonald and gave a deafening rendition of a song, then bade her go and do likewise.
Mayer’s histrionic powers are described in Picture, by Lillian Ross, perhaps the best book ever written about Hollywood. Mayer is in his cream-colored throne room, denouncing artistic movies. He mentions one of his famous Andy Hardy pictures:
“Andy’s mother is dying, and they make the picture showing Andy standing outside the door. Standing.
I told them. ‘Don’t you know that an American boy like that will get down on his hands and knees and pray?’ They listened. They brought Mickey Rooney down on his hands and knees.” Mayer leaped from his chair and crouched on the peach-colored carpet and showed how Andy Hardy had prayed. “The biggest thing in the picture!”
When the depression struck, the rH|)vies found themselves overextended financially. The west-coast manufacturers united to hold off the eastern financiers and the depression. They elected their strongest man, L. B. Mayer, as head of the Association of Motion Picture Producers. Mayer calmed the insecure studio employees by announcing that there would be no salary cuts at M-G-M, but the contest
ended in banker control over all but the Warner Brothers studio.
In 1931, M-G-M distributed profits of three million dollars. M-G-M stockholders asked General Sehenck why he had paid Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Rubin—who ran the “factory” for ten percent of the producer’s net on top of their six-figure salaries—a bonus totaling $1,748,785, more than half the dividend profits. Mayer announced a thirty-five percent cut in his own salary and put lesser employees on half pay. It reduced him to less than two thousand dollars a week, not counting the bonus, which was not reduced. By 1938 the stockholders had become so cross that they sued to recover the executive bonuses, which in that year totaled four and a half million dollars, or one third of the corporate melon. The court ordered the management to refund a half million.
In 1939 Mayer reported the largest income in the world, $1,296,503, followed by his friends J. Robert Rubin, Nicholas M. Sehenck, and William Randolph Hearst. Mayer returned to Saint John and was given the freedom of the city. He has remained warm toward his home town and has returned for several visits. Once in his boyhood he was prowling for scrap iron in John Wilson’s foundry yard, when some employees turned him over to the boss. Wilson said, “This young man is a sort of partner of mine. I told him he could help himself to anything in the yard.” Years later, when quiet John Wilson visited Hollywood, Mayer insisted on putting him up in a suite and gave him a limousine and chauffeur. Mayer’s star, Walter Pidgeon, was born a few blocks from the boss’ humble home in New Brunswick. L. B. absolved Pidgeon from his rule against mingling with actors, to yarn away on old times.
Mayer’s fondness for Canadians in pictures extended to such notables as Marie Dressier, whom he claimed as a personal discovery, to Walter Huston and Raymond Massey, and of course, to Norma Shearer, the widow of his lamented partner Thalberg. Two Canadian showmen were accorded royal receptions when they went to Hollywood — the late Walter H. Golding, manager of the Capitol theatre in Saint John, and F. G. Spencer, operator of a chain in the Maritimes, who died last year.
In 1938 Mayer, who worked fourteen hours a day, found a hobby. He invaded the sport of kings and started buying race horses like popcorn— three hundred thousand dollars’ worth at the first crack. It was said that he offered a million dollars for Man-of-War, to use at stud. He established the biggest stable in the world at his ranch at Perris, Calif.
The equine world, which had inclined to smile at the amateur’s onslaught, was startled when Mayer’s entry, Thumbs Up, won the $100,000 Santa Anita Handicap in 1945. He saddled a small filly named Busher, which in two seasons grossed $334,000, more than any female horse has ever won, and seventh among all-time money winners. When the New York turf writers named him world’s leading breeder in 1946, Mayer said: “I run my stable the way I run my studio. I built it on personalities.”
He had put about two millions into horses and the ranch, and the horses had won it back in eight years. It got so that Mayer’s horses were hissed as they were led to (he winning circle. Those annoying horseflies, the small M-G-M stockholders, were demanding to know why Sehenck was paying an employee nearly a million dollars out of the profits (in 1945) for getting rich at the track.
The General summoned Mayer to New York for a heart-to-heart talk. Mayer returned and announced, ‘T originally went into racing just to get a new interest and have something to play with pn the side. But in my desire to do my best, I soon found myself getting deeper and deeper into the racing business. I feel I must drop it in favor of motion-picture work.”
Mayer’s horse auction was the biggest in history. It took five gigantic sales to dispose of the stable of around two hundred thoroughbreds. The first day grossed over a million and a half dollars, and the grand total was five million. Mayer took home four million dollars from his hobby.
Now new cold drafts blew through the throne room, and sullen mobs milled outside the palace gates. During the war Mayer had made a film with Robert Taylor, called Song of Russia. It was an innocuous romance but four years later Mayer was called before a congressional committee to explain. Then, after the war, people could buy gas again and stopped going to the movies just because there was no place else to go. The era of multi-milliondollar pictures was closing. Mayer himself said, “The boom days are over.” Foreign governments were freezing movie profits. Then the television dragon stuck its bulbous snout into King Louis’ happy realm and ate millions of movie fans.
In 1944, according to a deposition by Mrs. Margaret Mayer, L. B. walked into their Beverly Hills mansion on the eve of their fortieth wedding anniversary, and announced, “Well, I’m leaving.” He did not return. Mrs. Mayer sued for divorce on grounds of desertion and was awarded a property settlement of three and a half million dollars, plus their huge beach house. Several years later Mayer married Mrs. Lorena Danker, the handsome fortyish widow of a talent agent.
Mayer has two daughters by his first marriage—Edith, wife of William Goetz, a top executive at Twentieth Century-Fox Films, and Irene, former wife of David 0. Selznick, the man who made Gone With the Wind. Irene has her father’s drive. After her divorce she struck out for dangerous territory, the Broadway stage, and almost immediately landed p big hit with her production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
By 1948 the Hollywood motto was economy. It was no longer possible to spend a studio to success. There were some titanic sinkings, notably the three-million-dollar loss on Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman. Young fellows who made hard-hitting pictures on small budgets were in demand. One of them was Dore Schary, a former M-G-M writer, who was running the R-K-0 studios. Schary was a big hard-driving producer, using small budgets, headline-catching plots, and even a cautious talk of art. When Hollywood heard that Schary had left R-K-0 to become M-G-M’s executive producer under Mayer, the town said that Schenck had forced a pretender on King Louis. Actually Mayer had hired Schary. The new man insisted on a unique loyalty clause in his contract: that he could quit any time Louis B. Mayer was replaced as head of the studio.
But the throne was tottering. Mayer declared to the assembled company salesmen, “I will remain head of this studio as long as Nicholas M. Schenck remains head of this company.” In midsummer of 1949 his contract was about to expire. Before he hurried east to meet The General, Mayer issued a blast against sex and crime pictures and said that movie scripts had to be cleaned up. “Crime pictures are nothing but a great criminal college for
our youth,” he thundered. “Our pictures must show religion, love of our flag and home, respect for father and mother.”
In New York Schenck announced that L. B. had been signed to a new five-year contract as production chief. Mayer cocked his crown at a jaunty angle and announced the discovery of a new star, a tenor from Philadelphia named Mario Lanza. “Here is Clark Gable with a voice!” cried Mayer. Lanza’s pictures soon became tremendous money-winners. Then Lanza developed a temperament, something Mayer had forbidden actors years before. The singer refused one part after another, was suspended without pay and prevented from accepting fabulous television contracts. Mayer said no M-G-M contract players might appear on TV. In 1951, the soft drink parlors of Hollywood again seethed with the word that Mayer and Schenck were at odds. Box-office receipts were at a new low.
This time there was no face-saving. Mayer’s era was over. He resigned with the consolation of a thirty-five-thousand-dollar pension and two and three quarter million dollars for waiving his percentage on future earnings of the thousand movies he had made in twenty-seven years. The King of the Movies was through. He had perhaps twenty million dollars as a reward for his contribution to the industry. He was succeeded by Schary, who did not invoke the loyalty clause in his contract.
The Biggest Doo-hickey of All
At sixty-six Mayer started all over. The big money flashed again. Although he did not have a factory, he bought screen stories, including the Broadway musical, Paint Your Wagon (for two hundred thousand). He bought business buildings and started an investment-loan company with his sonin-law, Goetz. He began to rebuild his racing stable. But the rebuilding of his place in movies represented a clean break with the past.
Mayer’s new connection, Cinerama, utilizes three cameras simultaneously, shooting a panorama, which is then projected on a wide concave screen.
The Broadway theatre in New York, first to install the fifty-thousand-dollar Cinerama rig, has not had an empty seat since the roller coaster went up. The gold rush is on to equip more theatres, beginning in Chicago and Los Angeles, and later to reach Toronto and Montreal. Mayer guesses that two hundred theatres will have Cinerama within the next three years.
Many old hands in show business doubt that Cinerama can check the slide of the movie business. They wonder what kind of story pictures Mayer will make after the novelty wears off. Will the nerves of the audience hold up for two hours of a typical Mayer production, in which Robert Taylor’s frown is fifty feet wide and you can hear him panting from six directions?
The odd thing about his Cinerama venture is that L. B. never went for novelties. When the first part-talkie, The Jazz Singer, astonished the fans in 1927, Mayer predicted sound films would never hurt silent pictures. Other studios innovated color and cartoons, and some are now buying into television rather than perish in empty cinemas. Mayer has been the standpatter. Now he is in charge of the big doo-hickey, the first man on the giant roller coaster. You will do well to fasten seat belts and hold on to your hats, ladies and gentlemen. There is a lot of showmanship in the old boy yet. *