The story of Louise B Mayer is the story of Old Hollywood and it’s Golden Age. He and the other players of his era shaped the industry from it’s inception and used the studio system to control and create stars. It was a very different time both socially and culturally. Under Mayer’s days as head of the big studio MGM we had huge stars like Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, created films like Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and some of the most popular musicals like Meet Me In Saint Louis and Singin In The Rain. But he was a man who was as loved as he was hated, a man whose life contained mystery and sometimes outright dishonesty, and a man who had such a strong hold on what was made at his studio’s that it was said that “Mayer’s view of America became America’s view of itself.”
My history of Mayer is taken from Merchant Of Dreams: Louis B Mayer, MGM and the Secret Hollywood by Charles Higham. It’s an exhaustive biography and one well worth a read if you love stories of Hollywood or if you love movie history. I think this book is fairly even handed, though there are some stories that you’ll find in places like Hollywood Babylon that you won’t find here.
Louis B Mayer was actually born in the Ukraine in about 1884, as Lazar Meir. Like so much of his history, he changed his name, his birth date, and often made a story of his childhood as being tougher than it was, or at least faslifying part of it. But he was a hard worker and bought into cinemas before moving up the chain and making some really interesting deals as head of MGM. His story is a real American Dream success story. But sometimes the deals he made and his practices flirted with tax evasion and the illegal.
Studios controlled what was made back in these days, and Louis had a strong sense of values. He made sure that while his films were entertaining, that they also adhered to his sense of moral virtue. Marriage and mothers were sacred, and he didn’t allow the bad guys to get away with being bad. MGM stories were safe, but in his own life, he was not always so moral and it has been rumoured that he had at least flirtations with some of his actresses.
Mayer had two daughters, Irene and Edie, whose lives he controlled, and who were quite turbulent as adults, marrying against his wishes and falling out with him and each other at different times. Both of them married into movie families.
Mayer loved his mother, and often hauled his actor’s into his office to tell them to phone their mothers. He took a paternal role with his actor’s which for some was too intense and controlling and for others felt kind and warm. He was a man who loved to be in control and felt that he knew what was best for people, and sometimes he did. Other times he did not.
The Studio System
Hollywood was a very different place and worked on the studio system model, which meant that the studio owned the actors, directors and writers and paid them a regular wage. They were not allowed to work for other studios and had very little agency or power. The studios also owned the cinemas, and dictated what could be watched at them. They controlled the lives of the people that worked for them, and created stars giving the public a backstory for them, and hiding their less acceptable traits or mistakes. The studio could make or break you.