The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer
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.
Harry Aitken was a dervish of deals, and he couldn’t keep his figures straight. At various times, he reported that Mayer had paid either $25,000 plus 10 percent of the gross, or $50,000 plus half the net. Associate producer Roy Aitken reported that Mayer, in concert with one Daniel Stoneham, offered $50,000 for the New England rights to the picture (Birth of a Nation), half up front, with a 50-50 profit split once his costs had been recouped. He was consistent about one thing only— Mayer never sent him a dime of any percentage monies.
Mayer’s own version of the deal, as he recalled it ten years later for Lillian Gish, was that “I pawned everything I owned—my house, my insurance, even my wife’s wedding ring— just to get the New England states’ rights. Since then, everything’s been very pleasant. If it hadn’t been for D. W. Griffith, The Birth and you, I’d still be in Haverhill.” The figure he remembered paying was $55,000. Actually, the deal seems to have been far more clear-cut than the Aitkens claimed.
Mayer formed a company called Master Photoplays—he owned 25 percent of it and paid $50,000 down against 10 percent of the net after Mayer paid off his investment. Boston was excluded from Mayers territory until September 12, as the Aitkens had that area for themselves until then. In his first year of handling the film, Mayer sent Epoch $15,000 for their 10 percent of the profits. The year after that, he paid only $1,500. Mayer always said that his company made a million dollars off the picture, 25 percent of which was his, indicating he radically underpaid Epoch. However much Mayer ended up with, it was the foundation of his fortune—and his future.
One of their employees was a woman named Mary Gish, who ran a candy stand. Her two daughters, Lillian and Dorothy, learned to ride horses at Paradise Park. Years later, Lillian Gish would become one of the signature stars of the company L. B. Mayer would run for Marcus Loew and Nick Schenck. In 1910, the Schenck brothers purchased Palisades Park in New Jersey, across the Hudson from Upper Manhattan, where Nick built an elaborate roller coaster called the Red Devil. After it was constructed, nobody wanted to go on it because it was thought to be unsafe, so Nick went on it himself, and the ride became one of the most popular at the park.
In July, Niblo had a brainstorm: “After having a long talk with Miss Lillian Gish, and showing her the MARY and JOSEPH episode on the screen, I am sure that she could be induced to play MARY if you would care to do this entire episode over again. It would not take over two weeks because we could still use the long shots that we have and put her in the close-ups.” Mayer and company decided, just this once, to simplify their lives. The footage of Betty Bronson as Mary was retained.
Mayer wasn’t in creative competition with writers, as Thalberg, in some sense, was. One of L.B. s few dictums about writers was that no original author of a play or novel should be hired to adapt that property into a movie, because they would be too rigid. But writers are by nature spiky and often disreputable, which drove Mayer crazy. “Some of these writers are getting drunk,” he complained to Thalberg, “and they have three-hour lunches in the Derby. We ought to put our foot down!”
“No, Louis, they’re signed for 52 weeks,” he replied. “If I get 42 weeks a year out of them, that’s fine with me. It’s worth it. Let them alone, they’re doing fine.”
Lillian Gish was welcomed to the studio with a banner across Washington Boulevard that proclaimed LILLIAN GISH IS NOW AN MGM STAR. Bands played, flowers were strewn, beaming executives welcomed her. Gish was going to be paid a great deal of money— $800,000 for six pictures, with an option for a seventh. Mayer granted her consultation rights on stories, directors, and cast. There was no morals clause, nor were there any requirements for publicity or promotional appearances.
For La Boheme, Gish’s first MGM picture, she was given the studio’s hottest leading man, John Gilbert, fresh from the smash hit of The Big Parade. King Vidor did his usual dramatically subtle but visually dynamic job and the picture showed a profit of $377,000.
When Gish told Mayer she wanted to make The Scarlet Letter as her second MGM picture, Mayer leapt to his feet and responded with a virtuoso monologue that Gish could still recall fifty years later with perfect pitch and inflection.
“You? You? You? In a story like that? Miss Gish, would you feel comfortable making a motion picture about such a woman like Hester? How are we going to show that on the screen without running into the censors? We can’t show you and that minister just holding hands and staring into each other’s eyes. This isn’t Way Down East! Motion pictures have grown up. This is the twenties, not D. W. Griffith! Audiences have grown up! They want a real love scene, especially since they know the book, as you say. They know a baby’s going to come of this lovemaking! How do you propose to show that?”
Gish suggested that titles might come in handy for touchy transitions, but Mayer wasn’t having any. “Titles? They can get words from the book. We make pictures, not titles. Today’s crowd wants women to act like women, not like little innocent school girls. How do you think the churches are going to take this film? Do you think they’ll recommend it? They’ll think that Lillian Gish has betrayed their trust!”
Gish asked if Mayer would let her make it if she could get around the obviously dicey story problems, and Mayer said yes. In due time, Gish received cautious approvals, so the talk turned to who could play Dimmesdale. Gish told her biographer Albert Bigelow Paine that by this time, “I had faith” in Mayer. “I think I have found the minister for your Scarlet Letter,” he told her one day. He told Gish to go into one of the projection rooms and look at Gosta Berling.
There was a young actor named Lars Hanson in the film, and Mayer thought he might be right for Dimmesdale. “If you like Hanson for the part, we’ll bring him over,” he concluded. She did; they did. Thalberg selected Victor Seastrom to direct.
The Scarlet Letter flowed; Seastrom shot the film in less than two months. Lars Hanson didn’t speak English and played all his scenes in Swedish while Gish and Henry B. Walthall spoke only English, but Hanson’s emotional power and sense of character overcame the language difference. At the end of one dramatic scene, the crew spontaneously applauded; when the picture was completed, Thalberg said, “We have done a good job,” which was about as emotional as he ever got. Seastrom was given a bonus—not the usual $5,000, but $10,000. Seastrom’s The Scarlet Letter remains the best screen version of the novel. The acting is so intense you can practically hear the voices, and Hendrik Sartov’s camera gives the story a lyricism all the other versions lack. In spite of the stark, still ending, The Scarlet Letter made a profit of $296,000, but sniper fire erupted from magazines like Photoplay, which said “Lillian Gish wears the red letter of sin with her stock virginal sweetness.” Aileen Pringle, who was star ring at MGM contemporaneously with Gish, believed that Mayer was unhappy with Gish’s choices in material and was using Photoplay editor James Quirk as a surrogate.
“Mayer didn’t get the returns he thought Lillian Gish was capable of bringing in,” Pringle told Stuart Oderman. “But he didn’t want to look like the evil man. He let Photoplay do the job. Then he could call in Lillian and show her what was being written about her. Movies have always been about money.” He was similarly uneasy about Victor Seastrom s The Wind, with Lillian Gish killing a would-be rapist. Seastrom shot the picture in the spring of 1927, at his usual efficient pace, on location in the Mojave Desert.
Seastrom remembered a particularly grim preview of the picture. When it was over, none of the MGM officials said a word to him beyond, “Good night, Victor.” To the end of his life, Seastrom remembered the horrible feeling of this experience. “It comes sometimes still to me in the middle of the night.”
As Gish recalled, Thalberg told her, “We have a very artistic film,” which she knew was a criticism. In Gish s telling, Thalberg explained that a preview audience hadn’t liked the ending, in which Gish’s character was driven insane by the omnipresent winds and wandered out into the storm to die.
“Mr. Mayer heard about the reactions and he rushed us into a happy ending,” Gish said years later. “Mr. Thalberg kept saying how artistic the film was, and Mr. Mayer kept shaking his head, repeating over and over like a broken record, ‘Ghange the ending. Ghange the ending. Ghange the ending.'”
That, at least, was Gish’s version; the historical record says something quite different. In fact, Gish was reciting the ending of the novel, which was never in any version of the script and was never shot. The studio clearly was nervous about the picture, not releasing it for a full year, in November of 1928. By that time, sound was a roaring freight train obliterating the softer music of silent movies, and The Wind was an orphan film.
The provisionally happy ending didn’t help—the film lost $87,000, anyway. Lillian Gish had made The Scarlet Letter, La Boheme, Annie Laurie, The Enemy, and The Wind for MGM. The cumulative result for the five pictures— three financial successes and two failures (Annie Laurie and The Wind)— was $418,000 in profits. But after the successive failures of Annie Laurie and The Wind, the relationship between Gish and the studio cooled off. They had a serious argument over time off, then Thalberg asked her to cut her salary, offering her 15 percent of the gross after the studio had recouped its costs in an attempt to placate her. As always, MGM played hardball: “They all point to the harm they could do me by putting me out in bad pictures,” Gish wrote to her lawyer, “which, of course, is only too true. They also tell me that it would do them no harm, as they are so organized that they would go on just the same, but that I would suffer irreparable loss.”
By October 1927, with The Wind finished but the studio postponing its release, Gish was writing that “I hardly think that I will continue with Metro. Theirs is such a large organization that I feel they haven’t the room or the time for me.” Shortly afterward, MGM let the greatest film actress of her generation go—not because her films didn’t make money, but because they didn’t make enough. Gish was “difficult” and single-minded about her work, which was more important to her than the MGM method.
‘Business is not an exact science.’
Louis B. Mayer