Sunday, July 04, 2010

In Memoriam: Louis B. Mayer

Would it surprise anyone to learn that one of the foremost merchants of the American Dream was a scrap metal dealer from Minsk, who came to Hollywood by way of Saint John, New Brunswick, and was born on this of all days?

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWhile such a revelation might startle only a few of the most naive people today, back in the Thirties and Forties it might have been quite a shock indeed; yet Louis B. Mayer was just such a man.

Mayer's imprint upon the American film industry is indelible. He is generally credited with the expansion of the star system (if not its creation, which can better be credited to the Biograph Studios, who created the first movie star*). While chairman of MGM - he was the second M - the studio's slogan boasted 'more stars than there are in the Heavens', which was not entirely hyperbolic. Most of MGM's movies from that era did not have casts so much as constellations; even the supporting artists and extras were famous at MGM.

Mayer was the first studio head to earn more than a million dollars a year, which he did beginning in 1936; he made MGM so profitable, even during the Great Depression, that the studio was the only one to pay its shareholders dividends in every year of the 1930s. And to think it all started from the Gem Theatre, a dilapidated burlesque house in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which Mayer renovated and opened as the Orpheum in November 1907.

Mayer was also instrumental in the establishment of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, along with its annual reacharound festival known as the Oscars; he died in October 1957, just as the studio system in which he so fervently believed was beginning to crumble.

*The delightfully named Florence Lawrence.

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