The Magazine

High Noon

The clash of Old and New Hollywood, Part Four.

Nov 27, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 11 • By BRIAN C. ANDERSON
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This year's Oscars reinforced for many Americans the view of Hollywood as the land of obdurate limousine liberalism. Four of the five best picture nominees were self-consciously "progressive" films: Good Night, and Good Luck (on fighting McCarthyism); eventual winner Crash (on how everyone is racist); Munich (on how fighting terror militarily just unleashes greater terror); and Brokeback Mountain (celebrating gay cowboys in love). Off screen, of course, Hollywood's elite has campaigned nonstop against the Iraq War and the Bush administration.

Yet Hollywood hasn't always been a left-wing encampment, as Scott Eyman's recent, superb biography of Louis B. Mayer showed (Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer). The mogul's mogul and a lifelong Republican, Mayer reigned over Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)--the biggest and best of the studios that built Hollywood--from its inception in 1924 until a boardroom coup forced him out in 1951. Under his direction, MGM released a steady stream of hit movies, making stars out of Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, and many others, and helping to create Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s, when as much as two-thirds of the U.S. population went to the movies weekly.

Central to MGM's success, Mayer believed, was "clean, wholesome entertainment." "Our pictures," he observed, "must show religion--love of flag and home--respect for father and mother. There are too many who look at these themes as 'unsophisticated' and lacking the 'realism' of actual life." At a time when the movies had unmatched influence over the American imagination, Mayer's MGM celebrated traditional verities. The other big studios followed its lead.

Earlier biographies saddled Mayer with the reputation of being "the devil incarnate," as Helen Hayes described him. Eyman doesn't gloss over Mayer's dark side: the thirst for vengeance, the will to power, the narcissism. But he credits Mayer's generosity, his "fervent love affair with America," and his uncanny business sense, too. Born Lazar Meir to a Jewish family in the Ukraine in the 1880s, Mayer lived the American Dream. The Mayers immigrated in the early 1890s to Saint John, New Brunswick, where young Louis worked for his father's scrap-metal business and received a derisory formal education. Though diminutive, Mayer fearlessly dove deep into the icy Bay of Fundy, seeking scraps. He later attributed his intimidating strength--occasionally unleashed on mulish filmmakers--to this harsh experience. Working as a junk dealer also made him entrepreneurial. "Out of this crucible was Louis B. Mayer formed," writes Eyman.

The movies came to Saint John in 1897, entrancing Mayer, who burned to escape. Borrowing and striving, escape he did, to Haverhill, Massachusetts, where he opened his first movie theater in 1907, proclaiming its devotion to "high-class films." The first movie he screened, The Passion Play, was a smash, and Haverhill residents got used to seeing long lines snake up to the theater doors. Soon Mayer had six movie houses, each with its own theme: one ran westerns, another romances, and so on. Shortly after becoming an American citizen, Mayer struck gold by buying the New England rights to D.W. Griffith's technologically innovative (and racist) 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. In 1918, wanting to make movies rather than show them, Mayer relocated to Los Angeles, forming Louis B. Mayer Productions. A few years later, theater owner Marcus Loew bought the successful firm and folded it into the new MGM, with Mayer appointed master of the show.

Mayer knew just what the public wanted. If he liked a screenplay, he'd exclaim: "It hit me here"--and thump his stomach. "If a story makes me cry, I know it's good. . . . I'm a sucker for humanity." Mayer had final say in what movies MGM made, and what made it into those movies. But while he guaranteed MGM movies' wholesome values, he shrewdly delegated key responsibilities to gifted deputies like the producer Irving Thalberg. More than any rival studio, MGM revolved around the "star." "A star is made," Mayer explained, "carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing." Everyman Spencer Tracy, vulnerable Judy Garland, the "shopgirl heat" of Joan Crawford (as Eyman has it)--all were MGM personas. Actors were salaried employees under long-term contracts, not free agents. Directors sometimes arrived after script and casting were finished. Working at MGM meant that you were on call six days a week, 40 weeks a year, and had zero say in what movies you did. And the studios owned the theaters, which meant that big players like MGM could freeze out independent producers and run their own movies on their own terms; disgruntled talent had nowhere else to turn.