Out and about with one of our closest neighbors… 🙂
Of all the studio moguls except for the Warner Brothers, Louis Burt Mayer gets the most attention, and rightly so. He presided over Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which not only bore his name, but boasted it had more stars than there are in the heavens and made “art for art’s sake.” At its peak, it was considered the pinnacle of the film industry, and at its decline left a major void. While it took a studio full of people to make MGM’s success happen, everyone had to answer to Mayer. Mayer’s influence resonates to this day, not the least of which is the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the birth of a little guy called Oscar.
Mayer was born in what is today the Ukraine on July 12, 1884, and his birth name was Lazar Meir.
Yeah, Mayer was originally Ukranian. His family emigrated to Rhode Island first, where his parents had two more children. then they all moved to St. John, New Brunswick. Lazar started calling himself Louis to fit in at school. His dad was a junk dealer, but Mayer had his sights set on bigger things.
Mayer first dipped his toe into the show business world after his dad decided to expand his junk business in Boston. His education wasn’t extensive–some sources say he left school at twelve–but Mayer made up for it with moxie. Like a lot of studio era moguls, Mayer got his start by selling show tickets, then buying and running theaters. His first acquisition was a burlesque house nicknamed the Garlic Box, and after prospering as a theater owner, Mayer pawned his wife’s wedding ring to buy the East Coast distribution rights to The Birth of A Nation.
In 1918, Mayer started his own studio, Mayer Pictures. It wasn’t exactly a huge venture, but it made enough of a splash that Marcus Loew approached Mayer about a merger, and in 1924 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was born. The merger brought together Mayer and his business partner, Irving Thalberg with the powerhouse that was Loew’s Incorporated, and they hit the ground running. MGM burst on to the film scene with He Who Gets Slapped, but it was their inherited project, Ben-Hur that set the tone for what MGM movies would be: Epic, lavish, and impossible to miss.
It’s a testament to Mayer’s drive and the American Dream that Mayer was able to go from a working class background with no influence to being someone with clout to spare. This man could make or break people in the film industry. He knew how to work the publicity in MGM’s favor, and he had connections to make what he wanted to happen, happen. That weight, combined with the high-quality product that MGM was generating, put MGM at the top of the film industry, with Warner Bros. as its only real rival.
People came to MGM eager to go to work, whether they were cast or crew. Mayer was adept at inspiring loyalty. He treated his employees like family and expected the same from them. Still, Mayer could see that the film industry needed something to incentivize the good job these people were doing, and other industry executives were likeminded. During a dinner at his Santa Monica beach house, he and his guests started brainstorming to that end, and on January 11, 1927, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed. Vanity Fair has suggested that this move was not only to keep people in the movie industry happy, but to put a good face on for the public. The late nineteen-twenties were a scandal-ridden time in Hollywood, and the film industry wanted to improve its image. Douglas Fairbanks was the Academy’s first president.
The Academy started out more as an educational venture, holding lectures on insider topics such as how to light film properly. Only those who were part of five branches of the film industry could join–actors, writers, producers, directors, and technicians. The founding members talked about giving “Awards of Merit,” but nothing came of it until 1929, when the first Academy Awards show was held on May 16 at the Roosevelt Hotel. It wasn’t broadcast, and the winners were announced three months earlier.
MGM’s involvement with the Academy didn’t stop at brainstorming. Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s art director, designed the award statuette, which, as legend has it, was first drawn on a tablecloth. The statuette originally looked like a man spearing film with a sword, but was quickly revised to what we know today, with some minor cosmetic changes over the years. The nickname, Oscar came about after Academy librarian Margaret Herrick said that the statuette reminded her of her uncle.
In a way, though, the Academy’s founding by Mayer and Company backfired soon after its inception. The stock market crashed in October of the same year as the first Oscar ceremony, and everyone was worried about their jobs, so unions became a thing anyway.
It also didn’t take long for people to surmise that the Oscars were more of a popularity contest than a real incentive, and many wanted to hedge their bets. Not much has changed, and it’s probably no coincidence that at its height, MGM won more Academy Awards than any other studio. These weren’t token Oscars, as in many cases their films were better, but having Mayer as their head may have been another point in MGM’s favor.
Sony Pictures now occupies the former MGM lot, and according to the website, Seeing Stars, the Sony Pictures Tour only mentions Mayer in passing. They used to dismiss him as a “penny-pinching slave driver,” but nowadays are slightly more obliging, at least grudgingly, when it comes to acknowledging Mayer’s lengthy and important role in the studio they now inhabit, as well as in film as a whole. That’s good, because no matter what anyone’s opinion of him is, L.B. Mayer casts one of the tallest shadows in Hollywood. Maybe Sony executives feel threatened by his shade, but there’s ultimately nothing they can do about it. Louis B. Mayer’s legacy will remain as long as people continue to revisit film history’s studio era, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lives on.