The MGM Girls Behind The Velvet Courtain – 1983

The MGM Girls Behind The Velvet Courtain – 1983

Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown

Louis B. Mayer had a talent for taking hopeful young actresses and turning them into the glamorous movie queens that audiences associated with his MGM studios. Few in those audiences realized that those carefully created, pampered stars were the most bullied women in Hollywood. The MGM Girls raises the velvet curtain and shows the real story of life on the movie lot that Hedy Lamarr called “heaven and hell all contained in five acres.”

The Irving Thalberg building on the MGM

Interviewing for this book began in the fall of 1978 with a wide ranging session with one of the earliest MGM Girls, Lillian Gish. Interviews followed with Debbie Reynolds, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, the late Dore Schary (the former MGM production chief, who submitted to eight hours of interviews), Jane Powell, George Gukor, silent film expert and author Kevin Brownlow, Kathryn Grayson, MGM archivist Dore Freeman, Henry Rogers (founder and head of the large Rogers and Gowan public relations network), John Springer (former publicist for Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Grawford), former MGM publicist Esme Ghandlee, Harriet Parsons (daughter of Hollywood’s foremost gossip columnist, Louella Parsons), columnists Dorothy Manners and Dorothy Treloar, Vincent Minnelli, Gonnie Francis, and Lana Turner. Of particular help were the interviews conducted by Los Angeles Times arts editor Gharles Ghamplin as part of his cable show, ”Gharles Ghamplin On the Film Scene.”

Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM
Louis B. Mayer MGM 1944 WM

Daddy’s little girls

It seemed so easy, as easy as getting quick cash from a loan shark. For years, as long as Joan did as Mayer wished, her own road was paved with the yellow bricks Judy Garland would sing about later. Then, when the good roles began going to other actresses, Mayer humiliated her by reminding her how often MGM had come to her rescue. Even big stars, some of them with immortal names, were subject to this form of creative blackmail. Nobody knew this better than Lillian Gish, who had been greeted at MGM with a glorious reception after she finally bowed to Mayer’s entreaties and signed a term contract with the studio. She was probably the most respected screen actress in the world at the time. Having been film pioneer D. W. Griffith’s favorite actress, Lillian’s face was known on sight after her starring roles in The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, Way Down East, Orphans of the Storm, and a dozen others.

1927 MGM - Press retouched photo - Lillian Gish
1927 MGM – Press retouched photo – Lillian Gish

When she arrived at MGM, she found that the greater suburban neighborhood around the MGM lot had been converted into one huge celebration of her arrival. Banners stretched between buildings, portraits of Lillian in her most famous roles were plastered on the side of buildings, and a wagon full of roses awaited her at the studio gates. But Lillian felt a slight chill as the welcome became even more hysterical. ”Looking at it all, I said a silent prayer that they would be equally warm in farewell.” Her premonitions weren’t unfounded. While she was making La Boheme, a series of sinister threats were made against the actress, although they were kept hidden from her.

Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927
Irving G. Thalberg, Lillian Gish, Louis B. Mayer 1927

“I was vaguely aware of a strange behavior of almost everyone in the house,” Lillian said later. “The Irish chauffeur disappeared overnight and a new man took his place.” (Though she didn’t know it, he was a policeman.) The affair had started with a threat over the telephone that was intercepted by Lillian’s secretary. The secretary took a taxi to MGM and tried to get in to see Mayer.

“Sorry,” said Mayer’s receptionist.

“Look,” said Lillian’s secretary. “This concerns the safety of Miss Gish, and, since you’re paying money to her, I should think Mr. Mayer would be interested.”

Even after she was admitted to the great one’s office, it took her half an hour to interest him. “Then it seemed to dawn on him that there was considerable money wrapped up in the  picture. Then he called the police. About halfway through her contract with MGM, Mayer decided that Lillian should star in a million-dollar film based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Lillian was on the set of another film when a page ran up to her and said, “Mr. Mayer wants you right now!”

“But I’m not through here,” Lillian protested.

“He said right now!”

Mayer barely greeted the actress. Then he shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk at her. “Sign these. We need it done right now.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.
The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) – Thalberg and Lillian at MGM. He wanted to arrange a scandal for her. — with Lillian Gish.

Lillian pointed out that her attorney had always refused to allow her to sign anything until he’d had a chance to study it. Mayer’s face turned red. “I want to take you off salary until we have a property for you,” he yelled. Lillian remained calm. “Look, Mr. Mayer, you’ve had plenty of time to find a film for me to do, and, I must repeat, I can’t sign anything until my attorney studies it.”

The MGM chief leaped to his feet, screaming, “If you don’t do as I say, I can ruin you!”

Lillian slowly put on her gloves, grasped her handbag, and stood face-to-face with Hollywood’s most powerful mogul. “This is the second time you’ve said that to me, Mr. Mayer. I’m sure you can ruin me. But I will not sign anything without the advice of my attorney.”

Through mutual agreement, Lillian’s contract was not renewed. The defenders of Mayer, and there have been many, claim that his imperious ways developed only after years of corrupting, absolute power.

Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose.jpg
The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain – Louis-B-Mayer-1943-characteristic-pose

But Not on the First Date!

The problem started with Lillian Gish, the star of stars in the monumental silent pictures of D. W. Griffith. She had been hired through a process that offered her MGM’s first million-dollar contract. Unfortunately, it guaranteed her approval of everything from the lace on her underwear to the use of her lips. When she arrived at the Culver City lot she found a banner soaring above MGM and across two streets, Lillian Gish is now an MGM star, said the banner under which paraded bands, a cart of roses, and lines of executives to greet her. Since it was her choice, she selected the tragic La Boheme for her first production, with the studio’s top-line director King Vidor to guide her. Lillian, pampered and convinced of her invincibility by D. W. Griffith, introduced a few bizarre practices to the lot—including full rehearsal. There were some grumbles until Vidor told Mayer that Lillian’s system was helping them bring in the picture under budget and ahead of schedule.

Then “the affair of the kiss” began, almost bringing the picture down with it. As the lover of the doomed heroine, Mimi, MGM had of course provided the dashing John Gilbert, a man whose reputation was based on a sexy walk, a perfect body, languid eyes, and an ability to kiss equaled only by Valentino.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)5

Vidor was leisurely plotting an outdoor scene one afternoon when Lillian walked up with her script. ”Look at this, Mr. Vidor, there’s a kiss and an embrace planned during these scenes. Now that is simply not right. Rodolphe [Gilbert] will demonstrate the powerful love he bears for Mimi if he doesn’t embrace her at all—and he certainly shouldn’t kiss her.”

Lillian Gish John Gilbert Gino Corrado (rear) La Boheme

Known as ”the great lover of the silent screen,” John Gilbert was incensed and ran to Mayer’s office. “This is a love story … a love story! Does she realize that?”

“What are you talking about?” Mayer asked.

“Lillian refuses to kiss me.”

“What?” Mayer yelled.

“You heard me. She says the audience will believe our love more poignantly if we don’t even touch,” Gilbert said.

”Leave it to me,” said Mayer. Through a series of negotiations that would have strained a secretary of state, Mayer convinced Lillian that John Gilbert’s career might truly be hurt if he simply mooned around making eyes at Mimi. And after three days of love scenes, Vidor managed to coax the actress closer and closer to John’s embraces. He was achieving about one usable kiss every eight hours.

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish (La Boheme)

On the way home, Lillian complained to her chauffeur: ”Oh, dear, I’ve got to go through another day of kissing John Gilbert.” Protestations aside, Lillian must have been doing something right: John Gilbert proposed to her twice before they wrapped up filming. Lillian Gish never truly became a major box office star for Metro, but she added greatly to its prestige. And there was one more all-out battle for a Gish kiss. This time she was filming the American classic “The Scarlet Letter” which gave her the type of long-suffering scenes she did  best.

The Scarlet Letter Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson
The Scarlet Letter – Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson

Of course the film had to graphically show how Gish, as Hester, became pregnant and was forever forced to wear the adulteress’ A. She pleaded, she trekked to Mayer’s office three times, she offered her own versions of the script, and, grasping at straws, suggested that it be explained in the titles that ran before the scenes in the still silent movies.

Hester Prynne - My Wedding Ring - The Scarlet Letter

“No, absolutely not,” Mayer told Thalberg, who was now overseeing the Gish vehicles. “Irving, the way Lillian is working her way through these love scenes, the audience is going to think that the ‘scarlet letter A’ stands for abstinence.”

The Movies Mr. Griffith and Me (03 1969) - The Scarlet Letter 1926 — with Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish5.

Lillian never really threw her lips into those MGM pictures, but she did given them a sensuality that has endured long after the great wet kisses of Mae Murray, Pola Negri, and Gloria Swanson—the busiest lips of the twenties.

Peter Harry Brown & Pamela Ann Brown – 1983

The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain
The MGM girls : behind the velvet curtain

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