Louis B. Mayer – Encyclopedia of U.S. History

Louis B. Mayer was a cofounder of the Hollywood movie studio MetroGoldwyn-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
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