Louis B. Mayer would make a great character in a movie — but definitely not the kind of high-gloss, reassuring movie in which MGM specialized during his 27-year reign. Jack Nicholson could capture Mayer’s “pit-bull aggressiveness mixed with a placating neediness,” as Scott Eyman cogently puts it, in a brutally frank independent film that would gleefully show this moralistic purveyor of all-American values divorcing his wife of 40 years for the sin of being dull, arranging a sham marriage to cover up a rising young star’s homosexuality or faking a heart attack to get a recalcitrant producer to do his bidding. Back then, Mayer would have been screaming that this wasn’t a picture “you can take your mother and your children to see” and reminding his upstart contract director that the mass audience wants beautiful people in wholesome stories.
Neither “beautiful” nor “wholesome” is among adjectives that spring to mind in connection with Mayer. He comes across in many Hollywood memoirs, and in Bosley Crowther’s scathing 1960 biography, as a monstrous hypocrite whose fatherly mask never wholly concealed his drive for absolute power over his employees. (His two daughters weren’t crazy about his domineering ways, either.)
Veteran film historian and biographer Eyman takes a more nuanced view in this well written and astute book. He’s heard all the nasty stories — and retells many of them — but the author acknowledges Mayer’s loyalty as well as his vindictiveness, his personal generosity and his sharp financial dealings, the charm he poured on when he wasn’t throwing temper tantrums.
As Eyman promises in his prologue, the Louis B. Mayer who emerges here is “less like an absurd comic heavy in a movie, more like a human being.”
What really interests us about this particular human being is his pivotal role in creating the system under which Hollywood thrived for decades, and Eyman informatively connects Mayer’s individual odyssey with the growth of the movie industry. In 1907, this 23-year-old son of impoverished Jewish immigrants left the scrap-metal trade to lease a rundown vaudeville house in Haverill, Mass., and turn it into “the home of refined amusement devoted to … moving pictures.” It was essentially the same approach that would later make MGM the industry’s most profitable studio: Spend money to make money, offer classy entertainment for the whole family, and (after Mayer got to MGM in 1924) control every aspect of the process, from the script to the stars’ personal lives.
Only when television supplanted the movies as primary purveyor of showbiz comfort food did Mayer’s intuitive understanding of public taste falter, enabling longtime enemy Nicholas Schenck, head of parent company Loews Inc., to oust him in 1951. Mayer died six years later; without a studio to run, a man who loved movies more than he ever loved any woman (except maybe his mother) and didn’t have much to live for.
Eyman’s lengthy narrative could have been more rigorously edited; it includes some mini-biographies of well-known industry figures and well-worn anecdotes that aren’t really essential.
Still, even the most familiar material benefits from the author’s shrewd insights and stinging asides. About Katharine Hepburn’s romance with Spencer Tracy, he acidly remarks, “More treacle has been spilled than anything since Abelard and Heloise.” Commenting on film historians’ tendency to simplistically tag Mayer as “evil,” he suggests this adjective “should probably be reserved for people who herded Jews into boxcars.” Mayer merely herded his employees — technicians, writers and directors as well as actors — into lucrative, long-term careers.
He certainly wasn’t a nice guy, but he was a fascinating man who transformed Hollywood into the American Dream factory it remains today.