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 great films, including the fabulous MGM musicals, and he made great stars: Garbo, Gable, Garland, and dozens of others. Through the enormously successful Andy Hardy series, Mayer purveyed family values to America. At the same time, he used his influence to place a federal judge on the bench, pay off local 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 had two daughters: Irene, who married David O. Selznick, and Edie, who married producer William Goetz. He would eventually fall out with Edie and divorce his wife, Margaret, 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. Film historian Scott Eyman interviewed more than 150 people and researched some previously unavailable archives to write this major new biography of a man who defined an industry and an era.
Anyone who's heard one of the legions of tales about obstinate Hollywood founding father Mayer's tyranny over his stars (and the entire studio system) won't be surprised to learn Mayer grew up selling scrap machinery in the eastern Canadian port town of Saint John: "Junk dealing itself made [Mayer] endlessly resourceful and opportunistic," Eyman (Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford) writes in this meticulous and engaging biography. But because Mayer (1885-1957) was a Russian Jew selling scrap metal and was looked down upon by many, he developed his "almost feral belligerence" early on. That ruthlessness may explain his unprecedented consolidation of power once he arrived in Los Angeles in 1918, but not his genius for packaging and selling the nascent and suspicious medium of film to audiences. Mayer's maudlin sentimentality about American values and the virtues of family life (despite major womanizing) surfaced in most of the films he oversaw at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer--and in what he did to get them made. Mayer's "mania for quality" drove MGM to the top of Hollywood's studio system, while his melodramatic fainting spells and crying jags would frequently induce fellow executives or stars to relent. Eyman's extensive knowledge of old Hollywood, his scrupulous research and his refusal to indict the often-pilloried Mayer make this biography an often revelatory delight. Agent, Fran Collin. (May)
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Simon & Schuster
April 17, 2005
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Excerpt from Lion of Hollywood by Scott Eyman
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.