Louis B. Mayer, Merchant of Dreams – by Charles Higham (1993)

Merchant of Dreams

Louis B. Mayer, M.G.M., and the Secret Hollywood


  • Copyright © 1993 by Charles Higham
  • DONALD I. FINE, INC. New York

1914 – 1917

Mayer had discovered that his fellow Mason, D. W. Griffith, had created a masterpiece in his new motion picture The Birth of a Nation. He was determined to be its sole distributor in New England. The film portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as avenging angels, treated blacks patronizingly and exhibited a simpleminded view of the issues of the Civil War. But it was a triumph of cinematic construction and execution, and it promised to make colossal sums of money. Just seven days after Metro was formed, the trade papers reviewed the picture in terms which could only be encouraging to any exhibitor.

Mayer contacted the film’s backers and made an across-the-board deal for regional distribution. With the lawyer David Stoneman, his old friend the rug merchant Colman Levin, jewelers and paper-bag manufacturers, and even his secretary, who gave her life savings of $1,000, he scraped up part of the money by selling (he told Lillian Gish years later) or pawning everything he owned, including Margaret’s jewelry, cleaning out his savings and borrowing from his brothers and sister. He made a down payment of $20,000 on a $50,000 guarantee against a remittance of ten percent of the net profits received from local bookings. It took chutzpah to embark on this venture; there were threats of demonstrations against the picture in New England, but Mayer knew that this controversy would further enhance people’s desire to see it. He was busy dealing with the NAACP, headed in Boston by Moorfield Storey, which was bombarding virtually every home and office in the city with pamphlets condemning the picture. He traveled restlessly between his home in Brookline, his new offices at 60 Church Street in Boston, his apartment at Riverside Drive and his offices on Times Square, trying to deal with a hundred matters at once.

Mayer made at least $500,000 on the film. By late summer of 1915, several stars were under contract to Metro, most notably Quality Pictures’ Francis X. Bushman, who had begun his career as a sculptor’s model. In March 1912, Motion Picture Story magazine had named Bushman, then twenty-eight, the most popular screen actor in America. Vain, extravagant, this Adonis rejoiced in driving hand-tooled touring cars with gold door handles, his monogram inscribed in gold plates on the doors. He owned Bush Manor, a thirty-room mansion on 115 acres of gardens in Maryland. He had racing stables, kennels and a large collection of birds.

1924 – 1925

April 14 was a day of celebration. Twenty-eight-year-old Lillian Gish, arguably the greatest screen actress of her day, was given a lavish welcome at the studio. Mayer arranged for her to be greeted with flags and multicolored bunting; he and the other executives, Thalberg, Harry Rapf, Eddie Mannix and a new addition, thirty-year-old supervisor Hunt Stromberg, personally welcomed her. Her contract called for a total of $800,000 to be paid to her. She would have the right to select directors, stories and script writers; if she disapproved of costumes, she was permitted to reject them.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1925

Such an arrangement was unique in Louis B. Mayer’s career, but, quite apart from Lillian Gish’s enormous power at the box office, he had never forgotten the fact that The Birth of a Nation, in which she had so admirably starred, had been the foundation of his personal fortune. Indeed, when she had visited Los Angeles the previous winter for the West Coast premiere of her film Romola, Mayer greeted her at the station with a reminder that she had played a crucial role in putting him on the motion picture map.

Lillian Gish and her lawyer Max Steuer – the Duell trial in 1925

She was much troubled at the time; an unscrupulous lawyer, Charles H. Duell, was suing her, claiming he had an exclusive contract for her services. On April 2, Judge Julian W. Mack of the Superior Court of New York had dismissed Duell’s claims following a harrowing court hearing, and had him arrested on a charge of perjury. The next few months would be marked by further hearings, which would seriously affect Miss Gish’s sense of well-being. But, made of finest steel under her delicate Victorian surface, Miss Gish, at last, would triumph.

John Gilbert, Lillian Gish and director King Vidor on set for La Boheme

Shortly before Miss Garbo arrived in Hollywood, Lillian Gish was hard at work on King Vidor’s next picture, La Boheme, based more on the stories by Henri Murger than on Puccini’s popular opera. There was trouble from the beginning. Miss Gish, who had selected Vidor as her director after seeing The Big Parade, insisted on principles of work that were quite foreign to the director. When she announced that she expected to rehearse the film in full, Vidor, puzzled, since he was not directing a stage play, mocked up some scenery with Cedric Gibbons for her to act against. She looked at it aghast and announced that she would only rehearse out of doors, on the studio lawn. With tourists, actors and personnel watching in astonishment, she mimed her way through the scenes, playing to invisible props, including a dressing table, a truckle bed, a window and a wall. Vidor was bewildered; he couldn’t understand what she was doing. Finally, he talked her into working indoors.

King Vidor Lillian Gish and filming team La Boheme

Mayer and Thalberg backed him in this. They also supported him when he argued with her about the sort of portrait lighting she wanted, with long, static close-ups. Miss Gish also demanded the use of panchromatic film, which had never been handled by the studio before. She objected to Erte’s calico dresses for the impoverished heroine Mimi, insisting on using old, worn silk and running up the clothes herself at home. She clashed with Cedric Gibbons, demanding a sordid attic in place of the lavish house he had wanted for Mimi. The worst problem was John Gilbert, cast as Mimi’s lover in the picture. He began writing her love letters; he tried to kiss her behind the scenes, when she declined to allow kissing sequences in the film. Mayer overrode her decision; he added kissing scenes later. Locked in her court struggle with Duell, who was claiming, to be her fiance, Miss Gish did not want a scandal and refused to date Gilbert. To make matters more complicated, King Vidor also tried to seduce her, but she was unattainable always. Mayer was fascinated by Miss Gish’s devotion to her work. She made no complaint when, in one sequence, actors playing Paris street revelers tossed her over their heads like a rag doll. In order to give complete realism to her death scene, she starved herself for three days. She stuffed cotton in her mouth to give the impression of puffy, unhealthy cheeks; when she passed away, she seemed already to be a ghost. Mayer, who never applauded at a preview, wept and clapped and embraced Miss Gish when he saw the finished film in the screening room. Until the advent of Marie Dressier, she was his favorite actress: the embodiment of his dream of innocent, ideal womanhood.

LA BOHEME, Renee Adoree, Lillian Gish, 1926 – the last scene

Miss Gish was among the stars present on October 1, 1925, to see the long-delayed shooting of the Ben-Hur chariot race. For days before, J. J. Cohn and Eddie Mannix had tested the course by driving their own chariots around, almost turning them over as they negotiated the curves. Not only did virtually every player on the M.G.M. lot dress up in Roman costume to join the throng on the Cedric Gibbons set, but Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Mrs. Fred Niblo (Enid Bennett) and John and Lionel Barrymore were there.

1925 – 1926

Mayer was in many ways still a young boy at heart, for all his ruthless capacity to weed out weak sisters from the studio operation, and his temperamental inability to deal with unreliability, bad temper and bad manners. Because his emotions were open and untrammeled he could reach out to the hearts of his performers, and they could reach out to him. Actors like John Gilbert and Mae Murray were the prodigal children. Lillian Gish, of course, satisfied him, though she had less rapport with him than with Irving Thalberg, because of his well-lettered sensibility and middle-brow intellect. Following La Boheme, she had wanted to start immediately with a version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s controversial novel The Scarlet Letter, the story of a minister who commits adultery with a beautiful woman. Mayer informed her that the book was blacklisted by members of organizations protective of public decency.

THE SCARLET LETTER, Lillian Gish (hands clasped front left), Victor Sjostrom (aka Victor Seastrom) (hand in pocket front right) with the crew on-set, 1926

Miss Gish, with her customary boldness, wrote to each and every organization he named, insisting that this classic work should be brought to the screen. They responded immediately, telling Miss Gish that they trusted her to handle the material. Mayer at once agreed, and allowed Miss Gish to import from Sweden Lars Hanson, who had costarred with Garbo in The Saga of Gosta Bjerling, for the leading role opposite her. Mayer agreed with Miss Gish that Victor Sjostrom should direct the film.

Lillian Gish, Mrs. Robinson (Gish) and Dorothy after Mother had a stroke – press photo taken on the roof top of their apartment in NY

Just before the picture ended, Miss Gish’s mother suffered a stroke in London. Mayer was moved to tears, remembering his mother’s final illness and the desperate rush he had had to get to Canada in time. He agreed that Miss Gish should go, and the picture was completed in seventy-two hours of nonstop shooting. So tight was the schedule that Miss Gish had to catch the train, after an all-night shoot, still dressed as Hester Prynne. It is typical of Mayer’s extraordinary consideration for this great star that he insisted on seeing her off, with Thalberg and Harry Rapf, at the Pasadena station. Her mother recovered, and Miss Gish returned. Her protracted lawsuit with Charles Duell continued; Duell blackmailed Miss Gish and threatened her life, but she still managed to do pickup shots. When The Scarlet Letter opened in August, it was an immediate success, one of the finest pictures M.G.M. ever made.

ANNIE LAURIE, Norman Kerry (links), Lillian Gish (Mitte), Direktor John S. Robertson, am Set, 1927

There was also yet another argument involving Lillian Gish, who demanded that Norman Kerry should act opposite her in her new film, Annie Laurie. Mayer wanted an unknown youth called Peter Norris, just out of the University of Southern California, to play the role. Miss Gish was adamant that she would accept no one but Kerry, and she complained about the script, despite the fact that she herself had approved it. Finally, she won her point, and Kerry was cast. But the film was a failure, and she would never discuss it afterward.

1927 – 1928

There were setbacks during the shooting of Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind in 120 degrees of heat in the Mojave Desert. Mayer was unable to visit the site; he sent Irving Thalberg in his place. Playing a pioneer woman, the star, Lillian Gish, was shown with the force of nine airplane propellers driving sand in her face and hair; Thalberg cruelly added sawdust. He insisted on smoke pots, the cinders of which burned off Miss Gish’s eyelashes and scarred her hands. Herself a perfectionist, the actress put up with everything. Mayer did not like the movie when he saw the daily rushes, predicting doom for it and for the star. He turned out to be correct commercially, because the movie was too depressing, but he was shortsighted artistically, because The Wind turned out to be one of the masterpieces of the screen.

Director Victor Sjostrom, cameraman and Lillian – backstage The Wind
Merchant of dreams

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