Film historian/author Scott Eyman delivers the definitive biography in Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer.
In recent years, it’s hard to look at someone like Louis B. Mayer and not think of him in a similar way to Harvey Weinstein. Much of this probably has to do with Bosley Crowther’s books according to the epilogue. I’m not going to say that the two of them are similar in their ways. However, Eyman’s book doesn’t really present Mayer in the same vein of what we saw in last year’s Judy. This isn’t to say that Mayer wasn’t controlling. Oh, he came off like a tyrant!
Even when it comes to the topic of Judy Garland, there aren’t that many pages devoted to the actress. But at the same time, Eyman’s writing also gives off the vibe of a man with a complex persona. Here’s a man who would leave his wife because of her hysterectomy. This was also during a time when hormones weren’t readily available.
As a family man, he could also be controlling. Both daughters would marry people in the industry. Although to be fair, Mayer helped give William Goetz his jobs at other studios. In the end, he felt abandoned when Goetz co-hosted a fundraiser for Adlai Stevenson with MGM successor Dore Schary. The damage was done. Edie Goetz wouldn’t appear at his death bed, only his funeral. Moreover, he wouldn’t even acknowledge his own granddaughter when she walked by him once with her newborn.
Mayer, like just about all of the studio moguls of his day, was a Republican. The way the book reads, he was an American first before being a Jew. When he did go to shul, it was an Orthodox shul to be closer to his father. He raised money for Jewish charities. However, he turned his back on world Jewry after World War 2 when Israel was founded. Eyman writes:
Mayer’s own feelings about Israel could be characterized as indifference mixed with distrust. Weren;’t most of the Jews leftists? What had the Jews ever done for L. B. Mayer? When S. N. Behrman, a friend of Israeli leader Chaim Weizmann’s, came to talk to him about Israel, Mayer cut him short. “What it comes to is a matter of money, isn’t it?” Behrman said that was true. Mayer refused to donate, saying, “When you give them a state, those people will just become Communists.”
The mogul was a fervent American in his eyes. Just as much as he hated Communism, he supported Senator Joseph McCarthy. I know, i know. Mayer keeps getting worse as you flip page after page. I don’t remember which page it was but at one point, Mayer speaks highly of making a film about McCarthy. This was one of the darkest times for Hollywood, which also resulted in the blacklisting of The Ten and more.
You know the moment in Thor: Ragnarok when Thor was excited to see Hulk? That was me when Billy Wilder dropped the F bomb on Mayer following a screening of Sunset Boulevard. I know. Trust me–he isn’t the only person that was willing to take a stand.
But for everything bad that is said about Louis B. Mayer, he truly was a lion of Hollywood. He was old-school in that he had a knack for picking creatives and talent. As Hollywood made its transition into the corporate era, Mayer would never have survived the transition had he been alive. He just wasn’t cut out for what was coming. After his forced resignation, MGM would enter a period of failure. In fairness, there were a few musicals that were already greenlit before he left, including An American in Paris and Singin in the Rain. Ted Turner would purchase MGM eventually and hold onto the library.
What became of MGM? Sony owns the current lot in Hollywood. It isn’t as large as in its heyday because a few other portions of the lot were sold. A shame. Moreover, many props were auctioned off, too.
Lion of Hollywood may be the definitive biography of Louis B. Mayer but there’s a feeling that just a little bit of the story is missing.