'Lion of Hollywood': MGM Founder's Long Shadow

Day to Day book critic David Kipen reviews Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman, a new biography of the former co-founder and executive of the MGM movie studio.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

(Soundbite of lion)

BRAND: That's the MGM lion. Hollywood has always attracted larger-than-life characters, and one of the largest was the mogul Louis B. Mayer, the man behind the lion. For our Wednesday book segment, critic David Kipen has this review of a new biography.

DAVID KIPEN reporting:

"The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer" is a smart, thoughtfully researched biography that starts with L.B. asking a woman if she'd mind terribly divorcing one actor and marrying another, and it just gets weirder from there. What can you do with a mogul whose favorite word was `wholesome,' yet who divorced his first wife to dally with starlets, who hated communism but ran his studio like an overgrown worker's paradise, whose symbol was a roaring lion but whose personality came closer to that of a greedy little boy adoring his mother and throwing tantrums and spending money like there was no tomorrow right up until the bankers bounced him out?

Author Scott Eyman distills the essence of Mayer here with all his contradictions intact. If they don't make them like "Singin' in the Rain" or "An American in Paris" anymore, it's partly because they don't make them like Mayer, either. He was born poor in 1885 in a small Ukrainian town, a day's ride from Chernobyl, and died in Los Angeles in 1957 after uttering what may be the most out-of-character last words anybody ever spoke. `Don't let them worry you,' he told a studio hand at his hospital bedside. `Nothing matters.' Yet Mayer was a man to whom everything mattered. He'd break into tears to get his way and had regular heart attacks that fooled himself more than they did anybody else. His perfectionism was only surpassed by his paternalism, the sense of himself as a benevolent paterfamilias single-handedly ruling his Culver City domain because he alone knew what was best for everybody.

What made it all work was his tremendous eye for talent and managerial skills that Eyman astutely compares to those of a much bigger monster, Henry Ford. Were MGM's movies all worth the aggravation Mayer put himself and his employees through to make them? With the exception of the musicals and pictures like "Ninotchka" and "The Wizard of Oz" from 1939, that year when Hollywood could inexplicably do no wrong, Eyman's well-argued conclusion is that, no, it wasn't usually worth it.

Warner Bros. pictures were more realistic; United Artists', more ambitious; Fox's, better written. But as the purest expression of America's aspirations from the jazz age through the Depression, World War II and the paranoid prosperity of the postwar years, MGM under L.B. Mayer had no peer. Leo the Lion's motto was `Ars gratia artis,' arts for art's sake, but `art for America's sake' would have come a lot closer to the truth.

L.B. was venal enough to slap a dishonest motto on every product he made but emotional enough to believe every word. Art never justified itself in Mayer's eyes. It needed an audience, and for 30 years, Mayer was the first audience every MGM picture had to satisfy. If he was something of an endearing hypocrite, as Eyman shows in this thoroughly enjoyable book, well, he was nothing if not consistent about it.

BRAND: The book is "The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer." David Kipen is also the book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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