I am going to make pictures you can take your mother and your children to see. I am not going to make pictures for the sake of awards or for the critics. I want to make pictures for Americans and for all people to enjoy.- Louie B Mayer
For much of his tenure at MGM that basic philosophy adhered to almost fanatically served Lazar Meir aka Louis Burt Mayer and the American motion picture industry extremely well.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer by any standard of measurement was the Rolls Royce of movie studios. Mayer’s approach was pretty straightforward: Get the best talent, surround that talent with top of the line production then export it to the rest of the world. In doing so MGM was able to create more stars than there are in the heavens”.
And the key word here is create. Mayer is credited with creating the star system that in some form or another remains a major part of the movie industry to this day.
If there were folks who were born to be cinematic icons apparently Mayer did not get the memo:
The idea of a star being born is bush-wah. A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody.
If that sounds likes a heartless approach it is. In essence the actor or actress doesn’t sound like they’re getting credit for having actual talent. It’s like whatever they did before arriving at MGM counts for nothing in Mayer’s eyes.
Yes someone like Lana Turner or Ava Gardner may have been created from scratch but an actor such as Robert Montgomery by the time he arrived at the studio was an established stage actor. Greta Garbo was a star in Europe before being coaxed to America.
The philosophy of wholesome entertainment combined with escapism made MGM the most profitable movie studio for decades. A most remarkable run which saw Mayer become the highest paid man in America. Not bad for a scrap metal dealer who dropped out of school before his thirteenth birthday…
But by the end of World War II Mayer’s doctrine of only making pictures you could take your mother and your children to see was on shaky ground. It’s conventional wisdom to say audience taste had changed and that the country was hungry for something more sophisticated.
Yet silent films made quite a few sophisticated movies. Powerful anti-war dramas like Four Horseman of The Apocalypse and The Big Parade while also showing the seedy side of life in Underworld and Docks of New York.
Chaplin could have you rolling in the aisles but his Little Tramp inhabited a world that was harsh. One where he was barely surviving. The happy ending didn’t necessarily mean that Chaplin got the girl but that life goes on.
Pre-Code delved head long into the domain of drunks, gangsters and prostitutes. Some movies only did it for shock value but others did it to tell a different kind of story that was strong in every aspect.
Audiences responded to these movies by making them successful. For them, going to see a hard boiled gangster drama was the same as watching a sparkling musical that showed everyone in a positive light. A well told story was a well told story regardless of genre or the studio’s agenda.
The problem after WWII was MGM’s agenda was not making any money while other studios were experiencing a post war boom.
The highest grossing U.S film in 1947 was Cecil B. DeMille‘s Unconquered followed by The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, The Egg and I, Mother Wore Tights and Life With Father movies which pretty much adhere to Mayer’s definition of wholesome American entertainment.
Looking at the films the studio released in 1946 and 1947 you can see why they were struggling. In a word most of it’s bland.
The watchword became cut as in cut expenses in whatever way possible but do it and in the process find someone who could be MGM’s head of production other that Mayer himself who had worn that hat along with running the studio since Irving Thalberg’s death over a decade ago.
On July 14, 1948 Mayer gave Schenck what he wanted and named Dory Schary head of production.
Nobody liked Mr. Schary. In respect to his family…he had a very nice family. But he was a cold potato. – Debbie Reynolds
“in terms of life styles, I really had nothing in common with the other studio heads . . . I never was a big gambler. I didn’t go to the race track, and I didn’t have the energy or interest to keep two or three women on the side.” – Dory Schary
That stint didn’t last long thanks to the acrimonious relationship between the two men. Schary left and for the next several years did freelance writing for movie studios like Paramount and 20th Century Fox.
In 1938 Schary was back at MGM. He had sold a story that managed to combine Mayer’s belief in wholesome American entertainment with his own bent for social commentary (referred to as message movies).
He would continue to freelance which included providing Metro with two more box office hits both dealing with inventor Thomas Edison.
In 1942 Mayer offered Schary the job as head of Metro’s B movie department. Schary did not disappoint as his unit turned out five very good money making films.
This included Journey For Margaret which in one breath introduced and made a star of Margaret O’Brien. The rousing Robert Taylor vehicle Bataan and one of the biggest and unlikely blockbusters of WWII Lassie Come Home.
His future looked bright for at MGM but it was not meant to be. After a disagreement with Mayer on one of his pet projects Schary quit Metro. It wasn’t long before he was scarfed up by David O. Selznick and Schary proved once again why he was such a hot commodity.
However Selznick always needed money for whatever big gamble he was working on. In this case it was Duel In The Sun. Production costs were running wild so by 1945 Selznick sold a few of his various movies projects outright to RKO. He also loaned them Dore Schary.
This was a remarkable period for Schary as one hit after another followed. In the meantime RKO was looking for someone to name as head of production following Charles Koerner’s death in 1946.
Koerner had gotten RKO back into profit after several high profile debacles including Orson Welles’ ill fated tenure at the studio. Execs wanted to continue on the path Koerner had laid out (“showmanship instead of genius” Koerner’s deliberate swipe at Welles) and in 1947 Schary was named vice President of RKO in charge of production.
But again in the world of Dory Schary storm clouds were brewing with hurricane force. Howard Hughes gained control of RKO and the in the process started the timer to the studios demise.
Needless to say he and Schary were not on the same page. There were many reasons for this but one in particular was a project Schary wanted to do about infantry soldiers during the Battle of The Bulge.
So Dore Schary was back at MGM and if he had any notion that Louis B Mayer would be more sympathetic to his idea, Mayer quickly dispelled him of that. The two men went to war. This was not about just one film but a whole way of doing business.
Mayer feared Schary was going to turn MGM into message central with it’s emphasis on social realism. That didn’t fly with Mayer’s idealized characters and the world around them.
The problem was Mayer was unable to stop the hemorrhaging at the box office. Maybe it was just a matter of patience but audiences were continuously rendering the same verdict. MGM by and large was a flop.
Mayer’s approach which had worked so well for so long needed a serious overhaul but the last person to do the maintenance was Louis B Mayer and the last person to do the job as far as he was concerned was Dore Schary.
Battleground was at the eye of the storm. Mayer like Hughes felt the public was tired of war dramas.
Schary felt this was a great story with a lot of potential. Things escalated until finally Nicholas Schenck was forced to get involved….
Released in November of 1949 Battleground was a box office smash.
Winner of two Academy Awards (Pirosh for screenplay and Paul Vogel’s cinematography) and nominated for 4 others it became MGM’s highest grossing film in five years and elevated Schary’s stature in the eyes of Schenek.
It was also the beginning of the end for Louis B. Mayer.
Mayer had done so much for Hollywood and the motion picture industry. He along with Irving Thalberg had turned MGM into a global juggernaut. Even after Thalberg’s death Metro under Mayer’s guidance, brilliance and force of will continued their ascendancy.
But the crash landing had been slow and painful. Mayer’s force of will which had served him so well for so long was now the exact reason for his demise. He could never bring himself to abandon the philosophy that had made MGM the movie studio.
Mayer would stay at Metro for another two years before resigning but the handwriting was on the wall after Battleground. The old order was finished. A new way of doing had arrived at MGM and it’s name was Dore Schary.