I was anxiously awaiting the publication of this book, and it was well worth the wait. Finally a book about the much maligned Louis B. Mayer that is balanced and objective.
While the book primarily is devoted to telling the story of how Mayer went from dealing in scrap metal to running the classiest movie studio in Hollywood (o.k., Culver City) and then describing Mayer's eventual fall from grace, a wide cast of characters fills out Mayer's story. This book relates commonly circulated stories as well as some new ones. However, Eyman meticulously has researched his subject and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions by evaluating the validity of some of these stories which would be considered questionable.
Eyman also provides his reader with an exacting description of the dynamics that came into play while Mayer was running a large movie studio as well as the dynamics within his own family.
The list of those people Eyman interviewed while writing this book is mind-boggling. Many of his interviewees have died since he began this book which makes a lot of the information provided in this book even more significant.
This book was long overdue and I am glad the author took this project on while there were still enough people alive who could provide first hand information about the subject.
I am hoping that I don't have to wait too long for Mr. Eyman's next book.
on June 29, 2006
What distinguishes this book about Louis B. Mayer, the fearsome and legendary Hollywood mogul of the classic MGM era, is that it's far more than a biography. I was tempted into reading not by a fascination with Mayer (though I came to be fascinated once I began reading) but by the author's, Scott Eyman, previous books about Hollywood and the studio system. His knowledge and understanding of movie-making back in the Golden Age of Hollywood are outstanding, nuanced and multi-faceted. "Lion of Hollywood" is so much more than just an insightful biography of a complicated man -- Eyman's expansive book is also about the ins-and-outs MGM, from the business practices to the personalities, and how Mayer forged American cinema because he was the head of the greatest movie studio in Hollywood, therefore the greatest movie studio in the world.
There is a lot of well-researched information and carefully argued hypotheses of Mayer's personality and home-life, and while Eyman is full of understanding for his subject, he never lets Mayer off the hook for his hypocrises or cruelties. He didn't write this book to redeem Mayer into a "good man" -- he wrote this book to properly give Mayer the place in movie history he deserves. When he and the other moguls arrived, L.A. and Hollywood consisted of orange groves and dirt streets. Mayer didn't build Hollywood with his hands, he did it with his massive will, guile, business acumen and cunning understanding of mass entertainment. What comes through in the book is not what a nice man Mayer was, but what a *great* man he was. Flawed and venal, yes. Brilliant and complicated, also yes.
It's easy to look back at the movie moguls, with their terrible reputations for crushing actors and directors, their womanizing and vulgar ways, and condemn them as "what's wrong with Hollywood". But without them, without Mayer, Hollywood as we knew it wouldn't have existed. They set up and ran the studio system that nurtured such stars as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Gene Kelly. Mayer was a major reason American movies are the hallmark of mass entertainment all throughout the world today, and it wasn't because he was a great artist himself. He was that very rarest of beings: a businessman who understands, recognizes and nurtures talent in others. He was instrumental in setting up the Academy Awards because he instinctively got that actors and directors would almost prefer the prestige of awards over money. He was a dedicated Republican but hired Communists, Socialists, lefties of all stripes -- and said so to the McCarthy witch hunts -- because political affiliation had nothing to do with talent. He covered up murders, hushed up scandals, arranged marriages for gay stars: anything to keep the machine of movie-making well-oiled.
Mayer knew movies and he knew his audience -- he prided himself on being the "average movie-goer" -- and he was a savvy enough businessman to know that you have to spend a dollar to make a dollar and ten cents. He was a man of many contradictions, especially in his personal life, and an emotional ogre, not someone I would like to sit down to dinner with, but I finished the book absolutely convinced of Eyman's overall theme: that Louis B. Mayer did a lot for the movies, perhaps more to build the glittering empire known as "Hollywood", than any other man or woman.
on April 19, 2005
You can always rely on Scott Eyman for a readable, well-researched and even-handed bio. This is no exception: it's fascinating to see L.B. Mayer not as the monster so many have painted him, but as a well-rounded human being.
Eyman also gives his readers credit for intelligence and judgment: he repeats the questionable stories (John Gilbert hitting Mayer; Mayer cheating Marie Dressler out of money), but then cites his sources and lets us make up our minds as to how legitimate these stories are.
No doubt Mr. Eyman is taking a well-deserved breather after this book, but I al already anxiously awaiting his next project.
How and when did so many great Americans get thrown into the dust bin of history? We really need hero courses in our schools to provide kids with information on these grand, legendary figures. Instead, we work to undermine what little hero worship there is. John D. Rockefeller is one such figure, Teddy Roosevelt another. No doubt, one could come up with a dozen such creators of new worlds, but instead they are belittled and destroyed by neglect. Louis b. Mayer has his detractors and no doubt deserves them, but the man we are talking about created one of the greatest arts institutions in the world. Unlike the founders of theatres and ballet companies, however, this great institution will last forever, or certainly as long as the great movies he produced can be preserved. The studio itself is long gone, of course, but through Turner we learn the films themselves will survive. This is a well-written, well-documented biography of one of America's titans of industry. His flaws are great, but in the end we must acknowledge the result of this man's devotion to great film making and admit that if he was flawed so are we.
on October 12, 2005
I couldn't put it down. What an incredible journey into the years of building the famous movie studios from their beginnings as nicolodeons right up to the razzle-dazzle of the 40's and 50's! To read about Louis B. Mayer and the amazing people he drew in around him, is to read about the minds behind the images that so profoundly affected all of us growing up in America in the last century--whether we realized it or not. As a story of one immigrant's rise from abject poverty to fame and influence that few people ever acheive, Mayer's unstoppability wakes you up and inspires you to get to work on making your own dreams come true.
on July 31, 2015
This is not just simply a fair and balanced character portrait of a controversial dream factory titan. It's also a poignant historical good old days time machine trip that celebrates the class and glamour and the power and glory of old Hollywood. Through the poverty stoked tunnel vision of a naturalized Canadian immigrant scrap metal salesman whose refurbishment of a run down New England theater ultimately led to his becoming the foremost substantive taste arbiter of classic American cinema, it's a sweeping epic tale of rare drive and fate fortunate circumstance.
With his start benefiting from local gentry who donated their time to help in showplace real estate renovation, after he built up enough movie house capital to move out west into production, the Loew's theater chain conglomerate combined Metro, his modest but profitable East LA operation and the Goldwyn Culver City lot into an iconic triumvirate monolith that would come to dominate the Hollywood golden age from the mid 1920s to the late 1940s, a quaint celluloid window of timeless quality that spanned from the silent era to talkies to the advent of the studio system.
The power Louis B. wielded was as king of beasts in the Hollywood jungle who could make or break careers at will. Despite a reputation for manipulative histrionics, for generations as Tinseltown ring leader of A list royalty, he flourished because he had a romance with movies that overshadowed his control freak wrath as a little big shot. Yet it was all a ruse to build the brand name since during his tenure his stature was beholden to Loew's chairman nemesis Nick Schenck and stock holders in New York who could vote him out if and when profits waned.
Nevertheless, after sickly second in command wunderkind Thalberg passed on and the Great Depression intervened in a hostile Fox takeover, in the wake of the shakeup Mayer found himself PC family value morale master of the biggest major studio on earth and chief architect of the most prolific star lineup and film library ever assembled in movieland. Mayer was the pioneer king of good will picture escapism and his life story stars as the host of our nostalgic yearning that misses old school media that mattered vs. the new corporate bean count focus groups of millennial mediocrities.
He was not so much a creative production force as a boss with a sharp eye for talent, a roguish perfectionist streak and a heavy attitude for lighthearted filmfare. If he was a cutthroat with the personality to match, then it was part of the job to maintain his feared and respected status. Had he only gotten more back end stock options to compliment his lofty salary, he might have survived intact as a mover shaker beyond his lavish heyday. But by the time post war motion picture tastes had changed to film noir and home media competition came from television, his downfall spelled the end of an era.
If there was a reason for Mayer's demise beyond generation gap jaded audiences, it was that too many cooks spoiled the movie-making by committee stew with as many as 40 producers on payroll overhead. Add to that not enough theaters to insure profits of big budget films and old guard downsizing was inevitable. However, in the end what was most heartbreaking was the eventual liquidation of MGM property assets by later owner Kirk Kerkorian and the loss of its priceless movie catalog to Ted Turner which had marked the metaphorical decline of Hollywood itself.
This book is about a sentimental idealist showman at home as an entertainment mogul as long as he could sell positive myths and naive fairy tales of public fancy where most films were corny and had happy endings. Yet campy conservative optimism aside, real life is not so predetermined. And if it was, L.B. wouldn't have uttered the infamous epitaph "Nothing Matters" in his final hours. Still, as a salute to wholesome media Americana, this grand bio saga helps you live in the past when times were more simple and showbiz was run and ruled by sensitive old souls and not hipster juvenile delinquents.
on September 2, 2005
Scott Eyman's book tells the story of a man who helped build the American filmmaking industry which still dominates the world today. Louis B. Mayer was a true American success story - an imperfect man yet a true giant and innovator. A great read for those who are facinated by the old Hollywood dream machine.
To understand the history of Hollywood and the success of MGM, one needs to understand LB Mayer -- the man who stirred the pot and was instrumental in founding the greatest film studio in the history of movies. Eyman's Prologue sets the scene by describing what Mayer saw when he looked out of his third floor Thalberg Building window. Eyman describes the scene in such a way that we quickly see a monarch surveying his kingdom where ever "lord and lady" -- the stars -- and every humble servant (everyone else) are under his command. It's a Prologue that sets the juices flowing in anyone interested in the heyday of Hollywood. Mayer's story of his rise from poverty to at one point being the highest paid man in the United States is meticulously told. Mayer was a complex man who often has not been given the same credit for MGM's success as Irving Thalberg, the boy genius. But the truth is that both men contributed equally to the success of the studio -- Thalberg sought and demanded the great scripts, books, and production values while it was Mayer who kept the wheels turning by handling the everyday business of running what was ultimately -- for all it's glamour and art -- a business. That "business" included not only handling the money men in NY who controlled the purse strings but also handling the stars and all of their marriages, divorces, affairs, illnesses, scandals etc. and all the while making the studio run seamlessly as it turned out quality films year after year. This is the first book that looks closely at Thalberg and Mayer's relationship and includes letters the men exchanged. Aside from a business relationship, Mayer did view Thalberg as the son that he didn't have. One of the saddest things about Mayer is the fact that he had a brilliant daughter in Irene Mayer Selznick -- a woman with the brains and ability to have worked alongside him and possibly succeeded him at MGM but -- true to his background and his era -- Mayer saw her only as a "girl" whose role in life was to marry well and raise a family. It's heartbreaking to see him reject her request to go to college just as it is sad to see the acknowledgement that had she been a boy, he'd have taken her into the studio to work with him. Instead Irene entered into an ultimately unhappy marriage with David O. Selznick and finally had a chance to show her business and theatre accumen by becoming a successful Broadway producer.
This is a terrificly interesting book, written in a highly readable style.
on January 19, 2015
For all of its length I found the book surprisingly lacking in certain details, nor did I feel I ever got a vivid sense of what Louis B. Mayer was like; he isn't brought to life the way Bob Thomas does with Harry Cohn in King Cohn. Though it is half the volume or more, I think Gary Carey's out of print All the Stars in Heaven: Louis B. Meyer's MGM does a much better job of this (especially with the "Trocadero Louis" period) and contains more of the details I was looking for, specifically about Margaret Meyer. This book is quite vague about it and never actually states it plainly. It mentions her health problems, and the next thing LB is travelling to Paris and somebody is visiting Margaret and "Louis never forgave him" for it. I was baffled- was Margaret institutionalized in Paris or what? I thought I must have missed something so spent time going back to the previous section where Margaret's health is referred to, but there's nothing. Carey's book explains it clearly. I don't have the shelf room for two reference works on Meyer so will probably not chose this one over the other. I thought Eyman's Speed of Sound was excellent and have just ordered his DeMille bio; this one just fell rather flat for me.
on September 24, 2009
Very few people have the great good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to influence an industry in the direction they want it to go. Henry Ford was one such man. Howard Hughes was another. So were Henry Kaiser and David Sarnoff. And so was Louis B. Mayer.
Scott Eyman's biography of Mayer traces him from his birth in an obscure Russian viallge, through his hard childhood in Saint John, Newfoundland, to his entry into the film business as a theater owner and exhibitor, to the establishment of his own production company in Hollywood, and how, following the merger of his Louis Mayer Productions with Metro and the Goldwyn company, he became first the studio boss of MGM and ultimately the emperor of Hollywood for a quarter of a century until he was ousted in a palace coup engineered by Dore Schary and Nicholas Schenck. But for that quarter of a century, Mayer's vision of what America was, what it was all about, and what it could be, directly influenced the motion picture industry and through the movies, the mores, culture and ethics of the United States.
Eyman spent five years interviewing those who had known Mayer, from his surviving family members, to the actors, actresses, directors and back-office personnel who had helped him make MGM the greatest of the Hollywood studios, the class of the world. He interviewed people who loved Mayer and loathed him. He went though archives in several states, searching out the papers of Mayer that survive, as well as those of Schenck, Schary, MGM, Goldwyn, Mayer's daughter Irene (herself a notable Broadway actress and producer), and many others. He delved into Mayer's past, seeking the motivations not only for what Mayer became, but how and why he made the movies as he did; and he does a brilliant job of it.
Unlike earlier biographies of the Lion of Hollywood, Eyeman's is even-handed. He shows Mayer not as an emperor or a demi-god, but as a human being. Part of the reason those who knew L.B. either loved him or loathed him had to do with Mayer's perception of his role as the studio: not a benign despot, though he was that too, but rather as a father figure who gave those who worked for him what they needed in a father figure, whatever that happened to be. He further points out that alone among the big studio heads, Mayer was a showman. He understood in his bones what it was the audience wanted, and his bones seldom steered him wrong. He also points out that what finally cost Mayer command of the studio that bore his name was the fact that times had changed, and American tastes had changed, influenced by our exposure to the world in a world war and the rise of television that brought the outside world into our living rooms, warts and all. Mayer's vision of the world and America was idealized; he simply could not cope with a world that suddenly demanded realism, more realism and nothing but realism. His time had passed him by.
The Epilogue of the book, which traces the fall of MGM from Schary's takeover to the late 1960s, will tear the heart out of anyone who loves Old Hollywood, with its recollection of the breaking up of the MGM collection, the scam run by Ted Turner that stripped MGM of its film library and thereby launched TCM, and the selling off of the MGM back lot to be turned into strip malls and an industrial park. More than anything else in the book, the Epilogue symbolizes what Louis B. Mayer game to America - and what we lost when he lost his studio and ceased producing movies.
Lion of Hollywood is a remarkable work of research in addition to being Mayer's most accurate biography to date. It shows the inner workings and machinations of the Dream Factory at its peak; and how each of the several units at MGM did their thing differently from each other. If you love movies made in the days when the end title of an MGM film read simply,: "Made in Hollywood, USA by Metro-Goldwn-Mayer" and said without another word that movies got no better, this book belongs in your collection. It's a long, rich read. You will savor every page of it and begrudge not one second you spend reading it.