During the summer of , 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 even if the Justice Department had lifted its objections.
Nonetheless, Schenck believed Mayer had cost him a fortune and never forgave him, causing an already frigid relationship to get even worse. Mayer was searching for someone to help him manage his small, but dynamic and fast-growing studio.
At that first meeting, Thalberg made an immediate positive impression on Mayer, writes biographer Roland Flamini. Later that evening, after Thalberg had left, Mayer told the studio's attorney, Edwin Loeb, to let Thalberg know that if he wanted to work for Mayer, he would be treated like a son.
Although their personalities were in many ways opposite, Mayer being more outspoken and nearly twice the younger man's age, Thalberg was hired as vice president in charge of production at Louis B. Mayer Productions. Years later, Mayer's daughter, Irene Mayer Selznick , found it hard to believe that anyone "so boyish could be so important. Mayer's company subsequently merged with two others to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer MGM , with the year-old Thalberg made part-owner and accorded the same position as vice president in charge of production.
Three years after the merger, MGM became the most successful studio in Hollywood. Mayer and Thalberg were a brilliant team that worked well together. They relied on each other, and neither operated unilaterally. Thalberg, eventually called the "boy wonder", took charge of all MGM productions. Director Joseph Newman said that their skills complemented each other well, with Thalberg having a great story mind, and Mayer having superior business acumen.
They shared a guiding philosophy, to make the best motion pictures they could at any cost, even if it meant reshooting the entire picture. That goal began with their early silent films, when stars such as Greta Garbo , Mayer's discovery, acted on lush settings with spectacular camera work. Although they initially got along well, their relationship frayed over philosophical differences. Thalberg preferred literary works over the crowd-pleasers Mayer wanted.
He ousted Thalberg as production chief in , while Thalberg was recovering from a heart attack, and replaced him with producer David O. His death came as a shock to Mayer and everyone at MGM and the other studios. All the studios observed five minutes of silence, while MGM closed its studio for the entire day. Thalberg Memorial Award , given to producers to recognize their exceptional careers, now considered one of the most prestigious awards in the Hollywood film industry.
After Thalberg died, many in Hollywood expected Mayer to "stumble and fall. Newman saw the studio start to change for the worse. However, MGM under Mayer's leadership continued to produce successful movies. Mayer was made head of production as well as studio chief. For the next ten years, MGM grew and thrived. Garbo laughed in Ninotchka , Goodbye, Mr. Chips won an Oscar, and was nominated for seven, and Hedy Lamarr , another of Mayer's personal discoveries, made her film debut.
Mayer became the first person in American history to earn a million-dollar salary. In his overall management skills, Mayer was considered a great executive, someone who could have run General Motors equally as well as a large studio like MGM, said producer Joseph L. Hearst, 20 years Mayer's senior, affectionately referred to Mayer as "son" and they became good friends. What Mayer couldn't do on his own, he hired the best talent he could find to do for him.
Mayer's temper was widely known, but most people knew that his sudden bursts of anger faded quickly. With those working underneath him, he was usually patient and preferred to leave department heads alone, and would fire executives if they failed to produce successful films over a long period.
At its peak in the s, MGM employed six thousand people, had three entrances, and covered acres in Culver City , California, outside of Los Angeles. Power was supplied by an in-house electrical plant which could light a town of 25, Mayer helped create what is termed the "star system". At one point he explained the process he went through in creating a star:. 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 a 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. When hiring new actors, he typically wanted them to agree to stay with the studio for either three or seven years, during which time they would become one of the MGM "family.
He respected intelligence and talent overall, said manager Joe Cohn: "One time he said to me, 'Never be afraid of hiring a fellow smarter than you are. You'll only learn from them. Mayer took pride in his ability to hire good people, and once hired, he left them alone to do their job without interference. That policy held true whether the person was a producer, a department head or simply a janitor.
When meeting a new employee, he always told them to come to him personally for help with any problems. Some, like Barbara Stanwyck , considered this attitude to be "pompous" however, since he used his position to meddle into people's lives.
Others, such as actor Edward G. Robinson , after his first meeting Mayer, said "I found him to be a man of truth Behind his gutta-percha face and roly-poly figure, it was evident there was a man of steel—but well-mannered steel.
He wanted to know. He was the devil's advocate. He would prod you and question you and suck you dry of any knowledge. His attitude and conversational style was both professional and animated, sometimes "theatrical", observed June Caldwell, Eddie Mannix 's secretary. And he would listen You could work with him.
With MGM's film output as high as one film each week, he never panicked over a bad picture. If somebody suggested canceling a movie and cutting the studio's losses, when a film had consistent production problems, Mayer would typically refuse. Although he didn't read full scripts, if he was given the framework of a story, he could assemble the pieces needed to see if it could be a successful film.
Occasionally, when producers, directors, writers or actors were deadlocked over how to handle a problem in a film, he would mediate. On Rosalie , for instance, when Nelson Eddy refused to sing a song he thought was too melodramatic, its songwriter, Cole Porter , went to Mayer and played it for him. Mayer was moved to tears by the song, and told Eddy to sing it.
Mayer cry," Porter later told friends. With regard to any technical issues with productions, Mayer left the details and solutions to MGM's engineers. He, though, like other top film executives and Hollywood stars in the s and early s, was often too quick to dismiss news of inventions and major innovations on the horizon that might profoundly change the movie industry or possibly challenge in the future the growing dominance of films in the realm of American entertainment.
Peering into the industry's future, Louis B. Television, color, and wide film he dismissed as promising no important influence on motion pictures. Television, according to the M-G-M chieftain, is impractical from the standpoint of any association with motion pictures. In taking this attitude he stressed the rapidity at which images must be transmitted in television and pointed out that satisfactory results cannot be obtained with this requirement.
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