Friday, December 18, 2015

Louis B. Mayer

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, back in the day, boasted that they had "more stars than there are in heaven," and they weren't far from wrong. More than any other studio from the Old Hollywood era, perhaps, MGM epitomized the glamour and the spectacle of American movies, and the crafting of stars was a huge part of their success.

There's a quote attributed to MGM head Louis B. Mayer - the second "M" in "MGM" - that I find quite illuminating:
The idea of a star being born is bush-wah. A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was face. If someone looked good to me, I'd have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest. . . . We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting.
We've always been obsessed with stars, for various reasons. For some of us, like myself, it's about talent, the ability a certain actor has to immerse him- or herself in a character and make us believe this fictitious person is real, with a life and a worldview and a personality that exists beyond the borders of the movie screen. When I see Barbara Stanwyck stand up to someone, it's thrilling for me because the force of her personality informs the character she inhabits in a way that's exciting, that makes her seem powerful. When Jack Lemmon stumbles embarrassingly through a conversation, I find it endearing because he comes across like an ordinary guy, with the same kinds of hangups as anybody else, even when he does things that are selfish and unwise. 

At the same time, however, there are some stars whom I just love to look at on a big screen, no explanation necessary - and I think that's what lies at the heart of what made the MGM star system under Mayer such a success.

MGM was formed in 1924 as the merger of three different production houses by businessman Marcus Loew, including Louis B. Mayer Pictures. Mayer became head of the studio, with his number two man from Mayer Pictures, Irving Thalberg, as vice president in charge of production.

Going back to Mayer's quote at the top: I'm reminded of what I once said about Greta Garbo, one of MGM's biggest stars - that her appeal rested largely with her on-screen persona, her mesmerizing face. I had said that I didn't think she was that outstanding an actress, but it didn't matter because of her presence, the way she came across in front of the camera.

Her story makes for a good example of how Mayer and Thalberg created stars. The Swedish Garbo had studied acting in Stockholm, and Mayer had seen her in a film while he was in Berlin (though some accounts say he saw the film before coming to Berlin). Supposedly, he took one look at her, and based on her eyes, was convinced he could make a star out of her. In 1925, Garbo came out to Hollywood and Thalberg gave her a screen test, which she passed with flying colors. Garbo's look was shaped and refined, and she was given roles that crafted her as an exotic woman of the world. She didn't like it much in the beginning, but it turned her into a superstar. It sounds like the cliche story of stardom, but even cliches have a basis in fact.

History records that Mayer had a tendency to try and control an actor's off-screen life as well, like a surrogate father, only with an eye towards protecting their reps as stars, and therefore, his investment in them. Some MGM stars, like Joan Crawford, were okay with this, while others, like Elizabeth Taylor, weren't. 

I doubt I would like such meddling, however well-intentioned. To me it sounds like going beyond the bounds of what a proper business relationship should be. Doing things like signing morality clauses in their contracts hardly prevented some actors from behaving badly, anyway. I can understand the motivation behind the meddling, but I think it's asking too much to expect other human beings to behave the way you want them to. It's no wonder that stars at other studios, like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, sued to get out of their contracts.

Oh, by the way, did you know that Mayer co-created the Oscars as a way to prevent actors and filmmakers from unionizing? I can't really say I'm surprised - it was, after all, one more means to control the careers of his stars. It's so easy to forget sometimes why they call it show business.

Thalberg died suddenly in 1936, but Mayer was able to soldier on, even through the World War 2 years. After the war, though, times got tight for the studio, and eventually Mayer stepped down as head in 1951. He died of leukemia six years later. While the industry today is less reliant on star power than it once was, many of the MGM stars from the Golden Age that we continue to revere today became who they were, in part, because of Mayer.

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur   Edward G. Robinson
Rita Moreno   Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Fred Astaire   Cecil B. DeMille

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