The boss who built MGM's dream factory

'LB' left a harsh past to entertain millions

Louis B. Mayer is one of those larger-than-life Hollywood legends - à la Marilyn Monroe or Jimmy Dean - so familiar we think we know him. Yet surprisingly, unlike the many movie stars he minted during his quarter century at the helm of MGM's star factory (Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, etc.), the life of the man known simply as "LB" has not been minutely scrutinized in countless tell-alls and exposés.

Rather, according to celebrity biographer Scott Eyman, the popular image of Mayer is an unfair cartoon - a vulgar bully who defined America's dream factory for the world but crushed the careers of those who crossed him, from starlets to fellow producers.

This distortion, he says, is largely based on a 1960 biography, commissioned by Mayer's estranged daughter, Edie, whom he disowned in his will.

Eyman aims to turn this cartoon into a flesh-and-blood titan of movie history in "Lion of Hollywood." The 596-page doorstop tome is a meticulous collection of anecdotes, historical detail, and movie history. It does much to fill in the colors and texture of the man Esther Williams once called God, and producer Joseph Mankiewicz dubbed one of the desperate men of film, much like the early gold rush prospectors, "ready at any moment to go for each other's throats."

Much of the material is familiar - we already know that Hollywood was founded by Jewish immigrants, refugees from turn-of-the-century pogroms in Russia. Mayer began his entertainment career in 1907, when he turned his back on his scrap-metal business at the age of 23, invested in a ramshackle theater in Haverhill, Mass., and set out to create "a home of refined amusement." Bent on escaping his family's poverty as well as the deeply ethnic nature of his Jewish heritage, Mayer went on to create the MGM image of a wholesome, lily-white America.

"Mayer fervently believed movies were not a reflection of life, but an escape from life," writes Eyman. "He believed in beauty, glamour, the star system and materialism."

The narrative is packed with telling details, some more significant than others. Mayer once objected to a scene in which Andy Hardy refuses his mother's cooking: "What kind of unnatural son would do that to his mother?" This is interesting because, in Eyman's view, the only woman LB ever truly loved was his mother.

We get a sense of the scope of his real genius for when to scrimp and when to spend: At one moment, he could dress down an actress for grabbing a cab when she could have taken the bus, then turn around and greenlight another half million dollars for the final balletic sequence in "An American in Paris," because he knew the movie needed it.

But do we really have to know how the Los Angeles Zoo was born? (OK ... from animals donated by the studio that preceded MGM.) And we probably don't have to know the intimate details (including their dating habits) of nearly all the supporting characters, from Keenan and Evie Wynn to Lana Turner, Clark Gable, and, well, you get the picture.

Eyman laces Mayer's story with many straightforward and compelling accounts of some of the mogul's biggest achievements (besides the overarching saga of MGM, the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), as well as some of his silliest (faking a dead faint to get his way) and saddest moments (the death of his mother). These all make for a page-turning read. The weaknesses of this impressive book are like L.B. Mayer himself - it could have benefited greatly from a judicious edit.

Gloria Goodale is a staff writer covering arts and entertainment from Los Angeles.

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