#173 Louis B. Mayer MGM Studios



In Hollywood's golden era, Louis B. Mayer emerged as a pivotal figure, his life reflecting the ambitions and foibles of America's industrial magnates. Despite his public persona of strength, Mayer grappled with private insecurities and a tyrannical nature that alienated many, including his own daughter. His rise from poverty to become the highest-paid U.S. executive was marked by both inspirational determination and cautionary excess. Bosley Crowther's "Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer" illuminates Mayer's complex legacy, paralleling David Geffen's career, as both men were driven by deep-seated fears and a relentless pursuit of power and validation in the film industry. Their stories, steeped in ambition and internal conflict, offer a broader reflection on the relentless American drive for success and the personal costs that often accompany it.

Summary Notes

Louis B. Mayer's Funeral and Legacy

  • Louis B. Mayer, a significant figure in Hollywood, passed away after a challenging disease and a tough final conflict in his career.
  • His funeral was attended by many who may not have fully understood the complexities of his character.
  • Mayer often experienced anxiety, self-doubt, and fears, which contrasted with his public tantrums used to make a point.
  • He suffered privately with intense struggles, highlighting a complex personality beyond his powerful industry persona.
  • Samuel Goldwyn, who had a strained relationship with Mayer, cynically remarked on the large attendance at Mayer's funeral.
  • Mayer's influence in Hollywood was substantial, with his favor or disfavor greatly affecting careers and businesses.
  • David Selznick regarded Mayer as the greatest individual in the motion picture industry's history.
  • The discussion of Mayer's life aims to shed light on a broader class of industrial magnates and tycoons in America.

"Mayer was dead now, his body wasted by the violent disease that had come upon him and the last bruising clash of his career." "Samuel Goldwin, who never loved Mayer, remarked at the end the reason so many people showed up at his funeral was because they wanted to make sure he was dead." "David Selznick proclaimed that Louis B. Mayer was the greatest single figure in the history of the motion picture industry."

These quotes from the transcript highlight the end of Mayer's life, the mixed feelings from his peers, and the recognition of his significant role in Hollywood. They set the stage for a discussion of his impact and the duality of his public and private life.

Hollywood Raja: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer

  • The book "Hollywood Raja" by Bosley Crowther, published in 1960, provides an in-depth look at Mayer's life.
  • The speaker discovered the book through highlights from a podcast episode on David Geffen's biography "The Operator," which mentioned "Hollywood Raja" twice.
  • Geffen found inspiration in Mayer's biography, shaping his own ambitions and career in Hollywood.
  • The book's portrayal of Mayer influenced Geffen's desire to become a power broker in the movie industry.
  • Mayer's story is seen as both inspirational and cautionary, with parallels to David Geffen's life and career.
  • The discussion of Mayer's life is intended to reflect on human nature and the early movie industry's unpredictability.

"It is my hope that this observation of the life and times of Louis B. Mayer will help serve to illuminate more than a Hollywood type more than the monolithic figure of Mayer." "I want this job, he thought to himself." "He was driven by a devil that constantly told him he needed to be bigger, more, and something else." "Old terrors battled with ambition inside the vigorous young man. Ambition won, of course."

These quotes provide context for the significance of Mayer's biography and its impact on individuals like David Geffen. They illustrate how Mayer's life story resonated with others and served as a source of motivation and a mirror to their own ambitions and internal struggles.

Mayer's Early Life and Struggles

  • Mayer's family was impoverished, having emigrated from Russia to America.
  • He grew up with memories of hunger and the need to work from a young age to support his family.
  • Mayer faced anti-Semitism and often engaged in street fights, channeling his aggression and ambition.
  • A merchant named Wilson became a mentor to Mayer, teaching him valuable life lessons and encouraging his ambition.
  • Mayer's decision to move to Boston was driven by his ambition, despite internal struggles and fears.

"His own recollection of his early childhood was mercifully meager and dim. There were mainly recollections of being hungry." "When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on."

These quotes reflect Mayer's difficult early life, marked by poverty and the drive to overcome adversity. They show the formative experiences that shaped his aggressive and ambitious nature.

Mayer's Entry into the Movie Industry

  • Mayer started working part-time at a Nickelodeon, seeing it as a more profitable venture than the junk business.
  • He took a significant risk by investing in a rundown theater, which he transformed into a successful Nickelodeon.
  • Mayer's early career in the movie industry was marked by persistence, learning from others, and seizing opportunities.
  • His life was a metaphor for the broader trends of the early 20th-century industrial America and the movie industry's infancy.

"He saw it as something much more likely to return quick profits than buying and selling junk." "This was probably the toughest and most critical decision he ever made."

These quotes illustrate Mayer's calculated risk-taking and his transition from a struggling junk dealer to a budding entrepreneur in the burgeoning movie industry. They underscore the pivotal moments that led to his eventual success in Hollywood.

Early Success and Business Strategy of Louis B. Mayer

  • Louis B. Mayer identified the potential in the Passion Play and capitalized on its previous success in other cities.
  • He took a calculated risk in acquiring the rights to the play during the Christmas season.
  • Mayer's success with the Passion Play provided the financial foundation to purchase and expand his theater business.
  • He demonstrated an early understanding of the entertainment market and audience demand.

"And he winds up taking the money that this one hit play, hit show is going to do and is going to give him the finances and he's going to leverage that and start buying a bunch of other theaters."

The quote highlights Mayer's strategic use of the profits from the Passion Play to invest in and grow his theater business.

The Nascent Movie Industry and Mayer's Role

  • Mayer was part of the early movie industry, which was similar to the early automobile industry in terms of patenting and monopolies.
  • He was one of the smart entrepreneurs who helped shape the industry, eventually becoming a major player in MGM.
  • Mayer's strategy was counterintuitive at the time, focusing on distribution as a more profitable venture before moving into production.

"Louis B. Mayer being one of those early smart entrepreneurs that wound up doing this, and he's going to join up."

The quote emphasizes Mayer's position as a pioneering entrepreneur in the movie industry, who would later become influential in MGM.

The Shift to Film Distribution and Mayer's Business Acumen

  • Mayer realized that distribution was a lucrative aspect of the film industry.
  • Distributors would buy film rights on a geographic basis and profit from theater sales.
  • Mayer's success in distribution, particularly with the film "The Birth of a Nation," led to significant profits.

"So Louis, right now, he owns going to the first jump he wants to do. He's like, well, there's more money in distribution because he's buying."

This quote indicates Mayer's strategic decision to focus on film distribution due to its profitability, setting the stage for his future success.

Mayer's Salesmanship and Expansion into Film Production

  • Mayer's aggressive sales tactics with "The Birth of a Nation" greatly increased his wealth.
  • He used the profits from distribution to transition into film production.
  • Despite his success, Mayer's early film production ventures were not overwhelmingly financially successful.

"Success with the birth of a nation was all it took to embolden Mayer to pursue a still further inclination that had long been enticing him."

The quote reflects Mayer's ambition to expand into film production after the financial success of distributing "The Birth of a Nation."

Inner Scorecard vs. Outer Scorecard: The Philosophy of Success

  • Warren Buffett's concept of inner scorecard versus outer scorecard is discussed.
  • Inner scorecard refers to making decisions based on personal values and beliefs, whereas outer scorecard is influenced by others' opinions.
  • Mayer and David Geffen are cited as having an outer scorecard, seeking approval and adulation through their achievements.

"Having an inner scorecard means that you're living a life authentic to yourself. Outer scorecard. You're driven by the adulation and seeking the approval of other people."

The quote explains the difference between living authentically for oneself (inner scorecard) and seeking external validation (outer scorecard), which was a trait seen in Mayer and Geffen.

Mayer's Focus on Quality and Comparison to Walt Disney

  • Mayer aimed to distinguish himself through the quality of his productions.
  • Unlike Walt Disney, who pursued quality for its own sake, Mayer focused on quality for market appeal and personal adulation.
  • Mayer's insistence on quality involved investing in stars, directors, and casts, despite financial constraints.

"The measure of his determination to make himself distinctive was evidenced by his systematic efforts to ensure that his production have quality."

This quote underscores Mayer's commitment to quality in his productions, which was a key aspect of his business strategy, albeit driven by different motivations than Disney's.

The Downside of Mayer's Approach to Business

  • Mayer's life is presented as a cautionary tale due to his internal torment and poor personal relationships.
  • His lack of loyalty and abandonment of early supporters upon moving to LA is criticized.
  • Mayer's pursuit of success and adulation led to a financially successful but personally troubled life.

"Indeed, his old friends in Boston were considerably shocked and provoked at the way he apparently dropped them once he was on his new road."

The quote reflects the negative personal consequences of Mayer's ruthless approach to business and his pursuit of success, which cost him relationships with long-time friends and associates.

Financial Betrayal and Personal Relationships

  • Louis B. Mayer had financial supporters who felt betrayed when they were not included in his future deals.
  • Mayer left a loyal employee, Tom, in Boston to manage his businesses while he tried to establish a new company in LA.
  • Mayer was known to discard people, including family members, friends, and past employees, once they no longer served his purposes or disagreed with him politically.

"These two guys had furnished his chief financial aid. They became disillusioned and resentful because he did not cut them in on future deals."

This quote highlights the sense of betrayal felt by Mayer's initial financial backers when he excluded them from subsequent opportunities.

Early Film Industry Dynamics

  • The early film industry in Los Angeles was burgeoning around the time of Mayer's move from the East Coast.
  • There was no indication that Mayer would become the most successful studio head during the early days in LA.
  • Los Angeles was a provincial city on the verge of a major boom, attributed to the motion picture and oil industries.
  • Mayer was a self-promoting, ambitious figure who also experienced bouts of depression and emotional instability.

"Mayer was but one small producer in the large migration that immediately followed the first world War."

This quote contextualizes Mayer's position in the film industry as one of many producers who moved to Los Angeles after WWI, without any clear indication of his future success.

Mayer's Personality and Professional Tactics

  • Mayer's aggressive and confident demeanor often masked his inner emotional struggles.
  • He was known for getting into physical altercations, including with prominent figures like Charlie Chaplin.
  • Mayer's early studio was not a top producer and he faced many struggles, but he was persistent and did not quit easily.

"Many times, when he had an appointment to see someone he regarded as 'big in the industry', his secretary would go into his office before the person arrived and find him sitting in frozen terror, tears pouring from his eyes."

This quote reveals Mayer's vulnerability and emotional challenges, which contrasted sharply with his public persona of confidence.

The Formation of MGM

  • The formation of MGM was a result of a merger during a recession, which was seen as a risky and possibly desperate move.
  • Marcus Loew, founder of Loew's Theater, decided to expand by merging Metro studio with Goldwyn, which was being sold by another executive.
  • Mayer was hired to run the new studio, insisting that his name be prominently featured in all advertising and publicity.
  • Mayer negotiated a share of the profits from the films rather than equity in the company, which proved to be financially beneficial as MGM became successful.

"Mayer undoubtedly remembered how Louis Selznick's name had been lost when he formed the select company with Adolf Zucker. He would not let that happen to him."

This quote demonstrates Mayer's strategic thinking and determination to maintain his personal brand and recognition within the industry.

Impact of New Technology on the Film Industry

  • The transition to sound films was a gradual process that met with resistance within the industry.
  • Warner Brothers was an early adopter of sound technology, which eventually propelled the company to success.
  • The industry's resistance to sound technology presented opportunities for new companies to emerge and succeed.

"Compulsion, more than planning, impelled it against resistance within the industry."

This quote speaks to the organic nature of industry evolution, where new technologies often face resistance from established players, leading to opportunities for innovative companies.

Emergence of Sound in Films

  • The transition from silent films to sound films was not immediately embraced by the industry.
  • Thomas Edison had originally planned to combine moving pictures with his phonograph.
  • Many inventors attempted to synchronize sound with film but lacked efficient amplifying devices.
  • Western Electric researchers developed the essential amplifying device in the early 1920s.
  • The innovation was initially dismissed by large film production companies as an unnecessary expense.
  • Warner Brothers capitalized on the opportunity by producing short musicals with sound.
  • The public's enthusiastic response to sound films indicated a market shift.

"So it says, sound as an adjunct for the flickers was actually an old idea." The quote highlights the historical context of sound in film as a concept that existed long before it was successfully implemented.

"None of the large producing companies was remotely interested." This quote illustrates the resistance to change within the established film industry, which saw sound as an unnecessary cost rather than an opportunity.

"The public goes crazy. They love these little musicals." This reaction demonstrates the market's readiness for sound in films and foreshadows the industry's impending transformation.

Consumer Response and Industry Resistance

  • The public's emotional reaction to sound films was a clear indicator of the technology's potential.
  • Industry leaders failed to recognize the shift in consumer demand and continued to focus on cost-cutting.
  • The rise of radio entertainment at home was training consumers to expect audiovisual experiences.
  • Silent film producers underestimated the impact of radio and sound films on their industry.
  • The resistance of established companies to new technologies is a recurring theme in the history of innovation.

"The effect was galvanizing. Suddenly, the character was brought alive and made capable of giving vocal expression to the already tearful sentiments of the plot." This quote captures the profound impact of sound on the film-watching experience, which elicited strong emotional responses from audiences.

"They regarded this new medium as merely a competitor for the customer's time." The industry's misinterpretation of radio as a simple competitor rather than a transformative force is evident in this quote.

"Bet on private customers. That is the most important lesson in the book." The advice underscores the importance of paying attention to consumer behavior over industry norms when evaluating the potential of new technologies.

Louis B. Mayer's Leadership and Downfall

  • Mayer's need for recognition and control was a significant aspect of his management style.
  • Mayer was a manipulative leader who demanded loyalty and gratitude from those around him.
  • MGM's decline was partly due to Mayer's ego and inability to foster a creative and efficient work environment.
  • Mayer's downfall serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked ego in leadership.

"Mayer was plainly a person who needed his share of praise, who demanded some positive recognition of what a great man he was." This quote reveals Mayer's character flaw of requiring constant adulation, which affected his leadership and decision-making.

"Mayor was being requested to resign after 27 years as a head of the studio." The culmination of Mayer's leadership issues led to his forced resignation, as detailed in this quote.

"Mayer had a psychopathic need of power." This blunt assessment of Mayer's personality underscores the destructive impact of his need for control on his career and life.

The Importance of Adaptability and Consumer Focus

  • Embracing change and innovation is crucial for success in any industry.
  • Companies that focus on consumer needs and adapt to market changes can create new opportunities.
  • Resistance to change and innovation can lead to missed opportunities and eventual decline.

"The opportunity for the person that bets on private consumers, especially when the existing industries are ignoring them." This quote emphasizes the strategic advantage of focusing on consumer needs to identify and exploit market gaps left by established industries.

"He's brought down by ego and demanding credit." Mayer's downfall is attributed to his ego and the need for personal recognition, which overshadowed the company's success.

"The smarter move is, I don't care who gets the credit. I just want this company, this project, whatever, to succeed." This quote suggests that a successful leader prioritizes the success of their organization over personal accolades.

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