'Lion of Hollywood' is the definitive biography of Louis B Mayer, the chief of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer - MGM - the biggest and most successful film studio of Hollywood's Golden Age. An immigrant from tsarist Russia, Mayer began in the film business as an exhibitor but soon migrated to where the action and the power were, Hollywood. Through sheer force of energy and foresight, he turned his own modest studio into MGM, where he became the most powerful man in Hollywood, bending the film business to his will. He made legendary films, including the fabulous MGM musicals, and he made iconic stars: Garbo, Gable, Garland and dozens of others. Whilst publicly promoting family values to America, he used his influence to place federal judges on the bench, pay off elected officials, cover up his stars' indiscretions, and on occasion, arrange marriages for gay stars. Mayer rose from his impoverished childhood to become at one time the highest-paid executive in America. Despite his power and money, Mayer suffered some significant losses. He was estranged from his daughter Edie and divorced his wife, ending his life alienated from most of his family. His chief assistant, Irving Thalberg, was his closest business partner, but they quarreled frequently, and Thalberg's early death left Mayer without his most trusted associate. As Mayer grew older, his politics became increasingly reactionary, and he found himself politically isolated within Hollywood's small conservative community. 'Lion of Hollywood' is a three-dimensional biography of a figure often caricatured and vilified as the paragon of the studio system. Mayer could be arrogant and tyrannical, but under his leadership MGM made such unforgettable films as 'The Big Parade', 'Ninotchka', 'The Wizard of Oz', 'Meet Me in St. Louis' and 'An American in Paris'.
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US-based Scott Eyman is a film historian and journalist and author of seven previous books about film, including, 'Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford'.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In the summer of 1944, when he looked out his window on the third floor of the Thalberg Building, Louis B. Mayer saw a studio -- his studio -- that covered 167 acres. Lot 1 encompassed seventy-two acres, housed all the thirty soundstages, office buildings, and dressing rooms, the seven warehouses crammed with furniture, props, and draperies. Lot 2 consisted of thirty-seven acres of permanent exterior sets, including the town of Carvel, home of the Hardy family, and the great Victorian street from Meet Me in St. Louis. Here was the house where David Copperfield lived, there the street where Marie Antoinette rolled to the guillotine.
Lots 3, 4, and 5 were used for outdoor settings -- the jungle and rivers that provided the backdrop for Tarzan, much of Trader Horn, the zoo that provided the animals, including the lion that heralded each and every Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film. Connecting everything was thirteen miles of paved road.
In periods of peak production, which was most of the time, the studio had six thousand employees and three entrances to accommodate them -- the gate between Corinthian columns on Washington Boulevard; another one farther down Ince Way; and a crew gate on Culver Boulevard, where the workers punched time clocks.
MGM owned forty cameras and sixty sound machines. Thirty-three actors were officially designated stars, seventy-two actors were considered featured players, and twenty-six directors were under contract. "Anywhere from sixteen to eighteen pictures were being shot at one time," remembered actress Ann Rutherford. "They were either shooting or preparing to shoot on every soundstage....You could stick your nose into any rehearsal hall or soundstage, and it was just teeming with life."
The studio had its own dentist, its own chiropractor, its own foundry. It made its own paint, its own rubber molds. There were shops where old cars could be fabricated and assembled; electric, glass, and plastic shops. If a prop could not be found in the vast warehouse, it could be made overnight, or purchased; the studio spent $1 million a year buying props.
About 2,700 people ate in the commissary every day, while the research department answered about five hundred questions daily. The studio's laboratory printed 150 million feet of release prints every year. Power was supplied by an in-house electrical plant, which was of sufficient size to light a town of 25,000.
MGM maintained a police force of fifty officers, with four captains, two plainclothesmen, an inspector, and a chief -- a force larger than that of Culver City itself. Each member of the MGM police was trained to recognize all contract players and to salute each star.
The MGM police had a slightly different mandate than most police forces. Part of their job was protecting the studio's assets from the public, but they also had to protect those assets from themselves. No matter what an MGM actor did, police chief Whitey Hendry had to beat the local police to the scene, where publicity chief Howard Strickling would make arrangements to keep the story out of the papers. To do this, the studio had paid informants in every local police department.
Twenty years earlier, when Mayer had moved onto what was then the Goldwyn lot, the studio had consisted of forty acres, five stages, six cameras, six stars, a half-dozen directors, and six hundred employees. In the intervening years, Louis B. Mayer and his lieutenants built a company that was regarded by the public and his peers alike as the pinnacle of the industry.
"It was the studio in this town," said screenwriter Bernard Gordon. "When I came out here in 1939, I drove by MGM and I thought to myself, 'By God, that's Hollywood.' No other studio compared, and Mayer was the boss. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Mayer!"
Each studio had its own specific ambience, and MGM's was a luxury that was a synonym for quality. The songwriter Harry Warren used to have a stock story about the difference between Metro and the competition: "At Warner Brothers, you come in the gate at seven in the morning. The guards on the walls keep their guns aimed at you. At 7:05, Hal Wallis calls out, 'Have you written that song yet?'
"At Metro, the birds sing. The grass is green. Everybody smokes a pipe and has the Book-of-the-Month under his arm. Nobody works at Metro. You watch the flowers grow."
For the audience, MGM was predominantly a means of escape. In the 1930s, MGM came to symbolize an alternate reality from the drabness and squalor of the worldwide Depression, an escape into a dreamworld of Park Avenue swells. During World War II, MGM movies were serving simultaneously as escape and rallying cry -- Mrs. Miniver rallied support for England and, by implication, the internationalist cause, while the home front was bolstered by The Human Comedy and Andy Hardy.
For audiences at home and abroad, MGM was Hollywood at its most Hollywood in the best sense of the word, proved by the fact that MGM grosses were reliably leagues ahead of its competitors' and had been since the company was formed in 1924.
The year before, in 1943, MGM had released thirty-five pictures, among them The Human Comedy, DuBarry Was a Lady, Girl Crazy, A Guy Named Joe, Bataan, Lassie Come Home, and a full roster of programmers. In 1944, Mayer was riding herd on a group of pictures that included Meet Me in St. Louis, Gaslight, National Velvet, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and The White Cliffs of Dover. Although there was a war on -- actually, because there was a war on -- profits for the MGM division of Loew's, Inc. for 1944-45 (the financial year ran June to July) would be an astonishing $22.4 million on a gross of $98.1 million, compared to $14.5 million in profits for Paramount, $10.9 million for Fox, $3.4 million for Universal.
Within the industry, when Paramount or RKO made a particularly good picture, it would be said that "it was of MGM quality"; at a sneak preview, when the MGM logo of a roaring lion appeared, there would be a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.
Singer Tony Martin asserted that "Being...at MGM was the movie equivalent of being a pitcher on the New York Yankees -- you were first-class, everybody knew you were first-class and there was no reason not to be grateful for having the privilege."
"Warner Brothers had its stock company, sure," said Ann Rutherford, "but who wanted to rub elbows with Guy Kibbee and Hugh Herbert, bless their hearts?...Most of the contract people at MGM stayed and stayed and stayed. Why? Because the studio looked after them. Warner Brothers wouldn't -- they were always spanking somebody or selling them down the river. From the time you were signed at MGM you just felt you were in God's hands."
"It was almost feudal in the way it was so self-contained," remembered actress Janet Leigh. "Everything was grown inside. It was a complete city. There were doctors and dentists, there were people to teach you acting and singing and dancing. There were people to help you with your finances. You could live there. And the people were like family, because everybody was under contract, not just the actors and producers, but the electricians. If I finished one picture, I might find a different crew on the next one, but the one after that would probably have the same crew from the first picture. You had a sense of being surrounded by friendly, familiar faces; you had great continuity."
"MGM functioned like General Motors," remembered actor Ricardo Montalban. "It was run with such efficiency that it was a marvel. It was done by teamwork; they could project the product, and the product was not any individual movie, it was the actor. They created a persona that they thought the public would like; they tailor-made the publicity to create a persona throughout the world. It was amazing."
The key to the smooth running of this machine was detail, a sense of the overall that kept employees functioning whether they were working on a picture or not. An actor who wasn't assigned to a picture was still expected to be exercising, attending acting, dance, music, or speech classes, working in screen tests with prospective talent, promoting the studio's releases, or slipping into a tux to fill an empty chair at a studio dinner.
And none of this vast, smooth-running organization mattered as much as it ordinarily would have that summer of 1944. Louis B. Mayer, sitting in his office with white leather walls, a custom-designed wraparound desk, and an adjoining soundproof telephone room where he could consult with New York a half-dozen times a day, had a serious problem: He believed that his most popular young leading man was homosexual.
This issue had arisen before, when MGM had to finesse the fact that two of its top stars, William Haines and Ramon Novarro, were gay, but that had been more than fifteen years ago. The movie business had expanded exponentially since then -- weekly movie attendance had increased by a third, from 65 million in 1928 to 85 million in 1944. Now, there was more at stake.
Van Johnson had been handed the job of replacing Lew Ayres in the Dr. Kildare movies, then landed a supporting part in The Human Comedy. The fan mail had perked up, and the fan magazines were avid for interviews and photographs.
Johnson was an engaging personality, a competent actor. And he was an ex-chorus boy who was, claimed one MGM employee, "notorious on Broadway." Mayer knew it was only a question of time until MGM's money would have to be used to buy somebody's silence. The studio had done that be-fore, with William Haines, an experience Mayer had vowed he would never repeat.
For Louis B. Mayer, homosexuality was not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. As with many people of his time, Mayer believed that homosexuality was a psychological aberration that could be successfully treated -- especially by a good woman. As Mayer's suspicions about Johnson grew, he ordered every available, beautiful woman on the lot thrown at the young actor in an effort to establish his heterosexual bona fide...
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