Mayer was born Lazar Mayer in the Ukraine and grew up in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada after his parents fled Russian oppression in 1886. He had a brutal childhood, raised in poverty and suffering physical and emotional abuse from his nearly-illiterate peddler father. In the early 1890s, he changed his name to Louis and fudged his birth date to reflect the more "patriotic" date of July 4, 1885. He moved to Boston in 1904 and struggled as a scrap-metal dealer until he was able to purchase a burlesque house. Although he made large sums by showing films (he made a sizable fortune off The Birth of a Nation (1915)), his early business ventures favored legitimate theater in New England. As his theater empire expanded, he had acquired and refurbished enough small movie theaters that he was able to move his business to Los Angeles and venture into movie production in 1918. Along with Samuel Goldwyn and Marcus Loew of Metro Pictures, he formed a new company called Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).
Over the next 25 years, MGM was "the Tiffany of the studios," producing more films and movie stars than any other studio in the world. Mayer became the prime creator of the enduring Hollywood of myth, home to stars like Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, and Jean Harlow. Mayer became the highest-paid man in America, one of the country's most successful horse breeders, a political force and Hollywood's leading spokesman. Both he and MGM reached their peaks at the end of World War II, and Mayer was forced out in 1951. He died of leukemia in 1957.
Born Lazar Mayer sometime between 1880-1886 (his actual birth date is unknown), he overcame a particularly brutal poverty-stricken childhood at the hands of his near-illiterate father, who moved his family to Eastern Canada to avoid Jewish persecution. The only regular trade his father undertook was as a scrap metal dealer, a highly sanitized term for scrounging bits of metal and participating in the rare windfall of stripping a shipwreck. Lazar would grow up with few fond memories of his childhood, other than an idealized vision of his mother. He was short, built like a tank and had a quick, perceptive mind. Few, if any, studio moguls suffered as much as Mayer growing up as he literally had to scratch and claw out a meager living using his wits. He moved to Boston in 1904 and became enthralled with the theatrical business; he diligently saved enough money for a theater, a burlesque house and soon afterward was alternating live shows with the latest rage, motion pictures. He courted and married Margaret Shenberg in 1904; the union would produce 2 daughters and last 43 years. Mayer slowly moved up into the ranks of the middle class and struck gold with The Birth of a Nation (1915), which he was able to acquire on a states rights basis. He came to realize the future was in film production and, alarmed at the strong arm tactics of the Edison Trust, moved his family west to Hollywoodland. Fortune smiled on Mayer when he was able to hire the disgruntled ex-Universal Pictures boy-genius, Irving Thalberg as his production manager and the two men set about creating a small but profitable venture immodestly called Louis B. Mayer Productions. Mayer, who was always hyper conscious about his image, even in the early days when he was an unknown, gave himself a patriotic birth date (July 4, 1885) and added a fictitious initial (and later turning it into a middle name) to his biography. His east Los Angeles studio specialized in low-budget turgid melodramas that were sold off to the hundreds of film exchanges around the country. Mayer was the macro-manager and Thalberg immersed himself with the minute details of film production; this relationship would remain unchanged for nearly 20 years, although their personal relationship would morph dramatically. In 1924 Mayer was approached by the legal representative of Loew's Inc., a burgeoning theatrical empire headed by Marcus Loew. The mogul was desperate for someone competent to helm his newly and uncomfortably merged film production operations, Metro Pictures and Samuel Goldwyn Pictures. Loew's vision was to supply his huge theater chain with a steady stream of quality films, but these individual companies had previously entered into two projects, Greed (1924) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) that had the potential to sink his dream. After heated negotiations regarding Irving Thalberg's position (incredibly, Marcus Loew didn't initially want him) and profit participation, a deal was cut. Louis B. Mayer's company was rolled into the Goldwyn facility, which was then state-of-the-art. Mayer and Thalberg worked furiously to assess strengths and weaknesses, hiring and firing stars and unproductive staff and simultaneously tackling the problem productions. Thalberg reigned in Erich von Stroheim's unmarketable nightmare that was still underway in the torturous Death Valley Desert. He ordered severe edits - some said butchered - and gave it a truncated release. For the Italian-based production of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), they fired the director, scrapped the existing Italian footage and ultimately opted to bring the production back to Los Angeles at tremendous expense. Although it attracted huge crowds, an unfavorable contract with the stage producers and weighed down by the staggering negative cost, prevented profitability. They put the best face on these two inherited "prestige" pictures and vowed to never allow anything like this to happen again (although troubled homegrown productions such as The Mysterious Island (1929) and Trader Horn (1931) would cause alarm). With Marcus Loew's deep pockets, these early nightmares were brushed aside and Metro-Goldwyn Pictures (Mayer's name would soon be added) set out to produce its own original productions, beginning with He Who Gets Slapped (1924), a property acquired from Broadway and produced as a Lon Chaney vehicle. The studio would quickly surpass Universal Pictures as the world's premier studio and establish itself as the pinnacle of the major studios. Its first truly home-grown monster hit, The Big Parade (1925) grossed $15 million on a $250,000 investment, becoming the studio's single most profitable production for the next 14 years (the film was such a shocking success that Mayer felt compelled to force it's director King Vidor out of his profit participation contract). Mayer faced his first real test of power when Marcus Loew unexpectedly died in 1926. Loew's hand-picked replacement was Nicholas Schenck and it wasn't an ideal relationship. While Mayer's success and massive stock holdings assured his position out in Hollywood, the distrust the two men harbored for each other was only exacerbated by an underhanded attempt Nicholas Schenck made to sell the studio to Fox in 1929. The move was thwarted by Mayer's political connections in Washington D.C. In the fall of 1927, the studio capitalized on the domestic demise of Pathe and entered into a distribution and financing deal with independent producer Hal Roach to distribute his popular "Our Gang," "Laurel & Hardy" shorts and occasional features; this deal would remain in effect until Mayer became alarmed at Roach's dealings with Benito Mussolini in 1937 (Mayer would eventually buy the "Our Gang" series from Hal Roach in 1937 where it would continue with ever-decreasing returns into 1944). MGM was extremely slow to adapt to talkies, probably in consideration of parent Loew's monumental task of converting it's theater empire over to sound, along with the early technical battle between competing sound-on-film and the unwieldy sound-on-disc formats. Thalberg crafted a system of producing crowd-pleasing films around the teaming of a trio of popular stars, with Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer (Thalberg's wife), or Myrna Loy competing for the interchangeable affections of Clark Gable, William Powell, Robert Montgomery &/or Spencer Tracy (substitute Franchot Tone, James Stewart, Cary Grant as the decade wore on) with occasional galaxy productions like Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933) that became remarkable hits. The rift between Mayer and Thalberg occurred in early 1934 after Schenck awarded Thalberg a particularly large incentive bonus to remain with MGM after suffering a heart attack. Mayer was insulted over both the amount and the fact that he, as Thalberg's ostensible superior, wasn't consulted. After a year's recuperation in Europe, Irving Thalberg returned to the studio only to find that Mayer had revamped the various production units, diminishing his power and to some degree, authority. In the reduced capacity of a unit production manager, Thalberg still had the ability to green-light productions and continued to score hits. Mayer reveled in his status and enjoyed pulling the strings of his stars' personal lives (he intervened in Van Johnson and Keenan Wynn's marital triangle, detrimentally manipulated Judy Garland's health and personal life and for decades kept Robert Taylor's salary the lowest of any major Hollywood star). He was a master of reading peoples' weaknesses and capitalizing on them while still maintaining a veneer of paternalism. If necessary, he'd beg, threaten, cry and scream as if on cue in order to get his way; many considered him to be the best actor on the lot. Irving Thalberg's 1936 death didn't cause Mayer to miss a step and with his other established unit producers, guided MGM through increased profitability and cunning business moves, culminating with the stunning deal to obtain the distribution rights for Gone with the Wind (1939), which otherwise would've been distributed by United Artists. Demonstrating that his son-in-law's blood wasn't thicker than water, he capitalized on David O. Selznick's desperation not once but twice: formerly for the use of Clark Gable and a relatively minor production loan and in the latter, outright ownership of the film when David O. Selznick fell into dire financial straits after World War II. This deal would prove to be a boon to MGM for decades to come. While MGM prospered during the war years, it would rapidly become obvious that Mayer fell seriously out of touch with changing post-war tastes. While there are several Depression-era examples of MGM films that deviated wildly from Mayer's traditional values (The Big House (1930), Possessed (1931), The Beast of the City (1932), even the The Thin Man (1934)), he stood defiant against the tide of film noir and so-called "message pictures" in the following decade. Mayer seemed far more comfortable signing off on lavish musicals and dramas promoting women capable of projecting qualities he personally admired (Greer Garson is a classic example) than chasing current cinematic trends. Like the other major studios, MGM could masterfully play out a profitable film series, but it seemed that the studio's inability to generate (or possibly muster the enthusiasm for) replacements for the long-running "Andy Hardy" and "Doctor Gillespie" films coincided with Mayer's refusal to embrace change after the war. He also rejected television outright (admittedly, so did almost every other major studio, with the exceptions of Paramount and Columbia); in retrospect, a serious financial error. By mid-1947 MGM had slipped considerably from it's ranking among the major studios and by the next year would be surpassed by Paramount and Columbia with the men in New York examining Mayer's every move. Mayer found himself confronted with his last great professional challenge in the re-appearance of Dore Schary in 1948; he'd been connected with MGM off and on since the early 1930's as a screen writer but had came and went, disgusted by studio politics and his perennial nemesis, producer Harry Rapf. Schary, who had impressed Nicholas Schenck in a chance meeting aboard a train, had just left RKO in similar disgust over Howard Hughes's erratic behavior, was the very antithesis of Louis B. Mayer: he was a college-educated liberal and, most alarmingly, he had the ear of Nick Schenck at a time when MGM was faltering. Schary's affection for "message pictures" sickened Mayer but his nemesis' stock rose considerably with the hit Battleground (1949) which was produced over Mayer's objections (Howard Hughes had previously rejected it for RKO), and being proven wrong never sat well with the aging mogul. In truth, Dore Schary's track record was choppy at best, but he seemed to remain in Loew's favor despite himself. Schary scored another big hit with the gritty classic The Asphalt Jungle (1950), which was again produced over Mayer's loud protests. On a personal note, Mayer was divorced and remarried in 1948 to Warner Bros. contract actress Lorena Layson [1907-1985], who was a mere 2 weeks older than his daughter Irene) and gained considerable notoriety as a stellar horse breeder. His working relationship with Dore Schary continued to erode. By the early summer of 1951, things came to a head during the production of The Red Badge of Courage (1951), yet another film made over Mayer's earlier veto. Always hyper-sensitive to any perceived slight, Mayer appealed directly to Nicholas Schenck, who overruled his decision for the final time. Mayer then tested Nicholas Schenck by resigning, likely expecting a refusal and an apology. It didn't happen and the unthinkable occurred: L.B. Mayer was out. At the time of his resignation (or ouster, depending upon the story), Mayer was still heavily involved in production details related to the lavish Italian epic, Quo Vadis (1951) (ironically produced at the same Italian studio that Hal Roach had intended to use under the RAM - "Roach And Mussolini" organization). Ironically, Mayer's instincts were ultimately proven correct. Schary's civil war film, regarded as a minor classic today, bombed badly while the public paid millions to see Mayer's Christians thrown to the lions. Although he was a multi-millionaire, Mayer made a miserable retiree. He was wholly unsuited for the "new" Hollywood of the 1950's: independent production. The combination of advancing age and having effectively plotted industry strategy for nearly 30 years effectively precluded reinventing himself as an independent producer. Mayer spent the next five years dabbling in real estate, granting occasional interviews decrying the modern state of the American movie business and closely observing his vaulted former studio fall into an irreversible decline in the face of television (which he continued to despise) and the Supreme Court's decision to force theater divestment, which eventually devastated his old studio after his forced departure. Mayer contracted leukemia and died in 1957.IMDb Mini Biography By: Jack Backstreet
|Lorena Layson||(4 December 1948 - 29 October 1957) (his death)|
|Margaret Shenberg||(14 June 1904 - 28 April 1947) (divorced) 2 children|
Appears as a character in the musical play, "In Hell With Harlow".
One of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS)
Was highest paid American business executive throughout the 1930s.
Was lampooned by author/MGM writer Aldous Huxley in "Ape and Essence," in which Huxley's character Lou is purported to have denied Jesus Christ a pay raise.
Uncle of producer Jack Cummings.
Uncle of production manager Al Shenberg.
Inducted into the Haverhill [Massachusetts] Citizens Hall of Fame.
Brother of Ida Mayer Cummings.
Father of Irene Mayer Selznick.
Father-in-law of producer David O. Selznick
Mayer, according to Peter Hays' 1991 book "When the Lion Roars," idealized his mother. He was her favorite son, and she was the main influence on his life. She died in 1913, and Mayer kept a picture of her over his bed the rest of his life. With his mother an icon in his eyes, Mayer revered the concept of motherhood. When director Erich von Stroheim expressed the opinion to Mayer that all women were whores, Mayer asked him if he thought of his own mother that way, and then punched him in the face. Mayer told screenwriter Frances Marion, at their first meeting, that she should never write anything that would embarrass Mayer's own wife and two daughters. He told her, "I worship good women, honorable men and saintly mothers."
A self-made man who rose from his apprenticeship at his father's scrap metal business in Canada to become the highest paid corporate executive in the U.S., Mayer was not above changing the particulars of his biography. Born in Imperial Russia in Vilna (in what is now Lithuania), Mayer later claimed his birthplace was Minsk (in what is now Belarus), or a village located between the two cities. He changed the year of his birth from 1882 to 1885 (the latter being the date on his tomb), and after being naturalized as an American citizen, he decided that he would celebrate his birthday on the Fourth of July (the exact date of his birth was uncertain, though he knew he had been born in the summer). He added a "B." as his middle initial to give his name more "dignity", and said that it stood for "Burt" or "Burton."
Was the father-in-law of producer/studio boss William Goetz (1903-1969), married to Mayer's daughter Edith (Mrs. William Goetz). As one of the initial investors in Darryl F. Zanuck's fledgling Twentieth Century Pictures (which would soon merge with ailing Fox), Mayer insisted that his son-in-law be hired so as to get him out of MGM. Goetz served as executive vice president of Twentieth Century-Fox, heading the studio during Darryl F. Zanuck's leave of absence to serve in the military in 1942. Zanuck, fearful of his underling's ambitions, forced him out of the company upon his return in 1943. Ironically both Mayer and Zanuck felt that Goetz was decidedly unimaginative and a mediocre film executive. That same year Goetz formed International Pictures, which merged with Universal in 1946. Goetz would go on to become one of the most successful movie moguls in the post-TV era.
He was a master manipulator, and it was generally acknowledged that of all the great actors on the lot--the Barrymores, Spencer Tracy, Lon Chaney, Greta Garbo--Mayer was the best. He was not above--or beneath--crying, begging, threatening, charming or cursing (often within the same conversation) anyone out on the lot if it meant getting his way. When Robert Taylor tried to hit him up for a raise, Mayer advised the young man to work hard, respect his elders, and in due time he'd get everything he deserved. He hugged Taylor, cried a little and walked him to the door. Asked if he got his raise, the now tearful Taylor is said to have answered, "No, but I found a father." Taylor remained a good company man--and one of the most underpaid top actors on the lot--and enjoyed a 25-year career with the studio.
The father of two daughters, Mayer originally thought of production chief Irving Thalberg as a son, but Thalberg's ambitions and his view of himself as the man behind the success of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer eventually brought them into conflict. After Thalberg's first heart-attack forced the young executive to take a long vacation, Mayer introduced a producer system he likened to a college of cardinals to replace Thalberg as central producer. When Thalberg returned to MGM, he became just an ordinary producer, albeit one who had first choice on projects and MGM resources, including its stars, due to his closeness to 'Nicholas Schenck', the president of MGM corporate parent Loews's Inc. Schenck, who was the true power and ultimate arbiter at the studio, usually backed up Thalberg. Some Hollywood observers believe that Mayer was relieved by Thalberg's untimely death, though he professed a great deal of grief publicly and likely was saddened by his former mentor's demise as Thalberg had been instrumental in building MGM into the greatest studio in Hollywood and the world.
During his career at MGM, Mayer only answered to two men: Marcus Loew--who died on Sept 25, 1927--and his replacement at MGM parent Loew's Inc., Nicholas Schenck. It was an uncomfortable relationship for both men. Schenck inherently understood Mayer's value as a the head of MGM but resented his price. The two men would fight bitterly over the years over business matters, with Schenck repeatedly planting spies (including E.J. Mannix who soon became a Mayer loyalist) to monitor Mayer's business dealings.
Lived at 332 St. Cloud Road in Bel Air (Mayer's original home has been torn down).
Last words (spoken to Howard Strickling on Oct. 28, 1957): "Nothing matters! Don't let them worry you. Nothing matters!" L.B. was hallucinating under a morphine drip.
Salary as head of MGM in 1937, $1,300,000.
Katharine Hepburn wrote in her autobiography, "L. B. Mayer was a shrewd man with enormous understanding of an artist. He was not stupid, not crude. He was a very sensible fellow, and extremely honest. In all my dealings with Mayer, I can say that he was the most honest person I ever dealt with in my life.".
Portrayed by Harold Gould in The Silent Lovers (1980) (TV), Howard Da Silva in Mommie Dearest (1981), Al Waxman in Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001) (TV), Stanley DeSantis in The Aviator (2004), etc.
Active in Republican Party politics, serving as the vice chairman of the Republican Party of California from 1931 to 1932 and as its state chairman between 1932 and 1933.
Brother of J.G. Mayer.
Sidney Skolsky wrote that the joke on the MGM lot was that "L.B." Mayer stood for "Lionel Barrymore" Mayer because he was the "best actor" on the lot in things he did to persuade people, including melodramatically fainting and crying.
Founder of Louis B. Mayer Productions.
President of Anita Stewart Productions, formed to make pictures for Anita Stewart in 1918. It dissolved in 1920.
Production executive for John M. Stahl Productions, formed in 1921, in 1922.
I want to make beautiful pictures about beautiful people.
Be smart, but never show it.
The sign of a clever auteur is to achieve the illusion that there is a sole individual responsible for magnificent creations that require thousands of people to accomplish.
[in March 1925 issue of "The Motion Picture Director"] When a picture is screened it is largely a reflection of the mind that directed it. If it is a failure the cause of that failure can often be traced directly to the man with the megaphone. I will also state that many screen successes are almost entirely due to directorial ability.
[in the March 1925 issue of "The Motion Picture Director"] Of the many artists who help to make up the finished film none is more important than the director. He can always improve a story . . . He is largely responsible for the acting of his cast and there are hundreds of little details of picture making that are entirely within his hands.
[when told that television would be a serious competitor to the film industry] That's a lot of crap. Our position has never been more secure. Who in hell is going to look at those pigmy screens?
If a story makes me cry, I know it's good.
[In October 1937 "Photoplay"] Hollywood brings the world to the United States and the United States to the world. This interchange - of writing brains, talent, music, traditions - is important to world peace. It is equally important to good entertainment which knows no geography and has no international boundary lines.
If it's an MGM film, it has to LOOK like an MGM film.
[To Billy Wilder on his production of _Sunset Boulevard (1950)_] You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.
There's only one way to succeed in this business. Step on those guys. Gouge their eyes out. Trample on them. Kick them in the balls. You'll be a smash.
Wherever I go there are girls who want to become actresses. I have a sixth sense for it. She would follow me into my stateroom if I snapped my fingers, and stay all night. Just for a bit role in any picture. But I am not interested in fast affairs. I am interested in 'relationships'. I am a human being. I need warmth - like an orchid.
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