Louis B. Mayer

By: Victoria Yates

Louis Burt Mayer maintained that he was born on the 4th of July 1885 in Minsk, Belarus, although the details are contentious and uncertain even to Mayer himself. His parents, Jacob Meir and Sarah Meltzer, were Jewish and fled Russia in 1886, emigrating to New Brunswick, Canada when he was young. 

Mayer’s upbringing was hard, living in an impoverished family and suffering emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his father as well as anti-Semitic bullying at school. Mayer worked with his father at his scrap metal business until he moved to Boston in 1904 where he continued scrap metal work and odd jobs.  The money he saved up went towards his purchase of a house in Haverhill that he refurbished as a nickelodeon (a movie theatre where entrance was a nickel). The business of film distribution was still in its infancy when Mayer first bought the theatre, but the young entrepreneur proved a deft hand, owning all five theatres in Haverhill within a few years.

With his growing empire he was able to move west to Los Angeles in 1918 where he became involved with movie production.  He enlisted a popular actress of the day to star in a series of films shot at a modest studio in downtown L.A. His next big move came with an offer from Marcus Loew to join a new merger of Metro and Goldwyn, eventually forming the famous MGM brand.  Mayer served as the vice-president, heading the production side of the business.

Mayer reported to Nicholas Schenck. They apparently disliked each other intensely.

In his new role, Mayer overhauled the contract system, enabling him to control a stable of stars including some of the era’s best-known names.  He was an instrumental force in making MGM a “dream-factory” which cultivated the Hollywood myth and sold it to the world.

Mayer maintained and expanded his star count with a combination of paternal affection and, if that failed, a more heavy-handed approach which included blackmailing Clark Gable over his wife’s affair. However, his support was often seen as worth the control. After Gable drunkenly killed a pedestrian Mayer managed to have a minor executive take the heat while Gable remained faithfully on his payroll.  Despite these incidents Mayer maintained a strong sense of morality with regards to the content of his movies, attempting to shape an idealised vision of the nation with the products he sold.

Loew died in 1927, and Schenck became president of Loew's. Two years later, Schenck agreed to sell Loew's - and MGM - to William Fox. Mayer used his Washington connections to persuade the Justice Department to delay the merger on antitrust grounds. During the summer of 1929, Fox was severely injured in an auto accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash had wiped out his fortune, destroying any chance of the deal going through. Nonetheless, Schenck believed Mayer had cost him a fortune and never forgave him, causing an already frigid relationship to get even worse.

By 1936 Mayer was the highest-paid executive in America, going on to be the first person in American history to earn a million dollar salary, and his leadership of MGM made it the only studio to pay dividends during the Great Depression.  Despite their success the introduction of television altered the public taste and earnings began to drop-off. Tensions within the studio increased when three years went by without a major academy award, and Mayer was fired from his post of 27 years in 1951.

Beyond film Mayer had been actively involved in Republican Party politics, a leaning that turned to a more extreme right-wing viewpoint following his dismissal, supporting Senator Joe McCarthy and opposing Eisenhower as too moderate in 1952. His death in 1957 revealed a mean spirited will that disinherited family members, including his daughter on the grounds that her husband’s politics were too liberal.

Mayer’s life was a contradiction of values and shrewd business tactics. A complex man he nevertheless led MGM to be the most successful dream factory in Hollywood whose legacy includes some of cinema’s greatest classics, serving as a pioneer through the development of cinema from its earliest beginnings.