The creation of MGM was orchestrated by Marcus Loew (1870–1927), who began building a chain of vaudeville and nickelodeon theaters in 1904 and 1905; by 1919, when it became Loew's, Incorporated, it was the leading chain of first-class theaters in the United States, concentrated in the New York area. Loew began to expand beyond film exhibition with the 1920 purchase of Metro Pictures, a nationwide distribution company with modest production facilities in Los Angeles. Two major acquisitions in 1924 completed Loew's expansion into full-scale, vertically integrated operation. The first was Goldwyn Pictures, an integrated company whose major component was its sizable production plant in Culver City. Built in 1915 by studio pioneer Thomas Ince (1882–1924) as the home of Triangle Pictures, the forty-acre expanse featured glass-enclosed stages, a three-story office building, and a full complement of labs, workshops, dressing rooms, storage facilities, and staff bungalows. Cofounder Sam Goldwyn (1882–1974) had been forced out in an earlier power struggle, so Loew was in need of top executives to manage the studio. Thus the second acquisition involved Louis B. Mayer Productions, a small company that focused on A-class pictures and was capably run by Mayer and his young production supervisor, Irving Thalberg (then age twenty-five), who had already supervised production at Universal.
Metro-Goldwyn, as it was initially termed, was run out of New York by Nicholas Schenck (pronounced "skenk"), the chief executive of Loew's, while all production operations were managed by the "Mayer Group"—Mayer, Thalberg, and attorney Robert Rubin—whose value was underscored by an exceptional merger agreement giving them 20 percent of the studio's profits, and also by the addition of "Mayer" to the official studio title in 1925. MGM made an immediate impression with two major hits that year, Ben-Hur and The Big Parade , andit began a rapid rise to industry dominance in the late 1920s alongside Paramount, Fox, and the equally fastrising Warner Bros. Key to that rise were its astute management and efficient production operations, its well-stocked star stable and savvy exploitation of the star system, and its effective coordination of production and marketing strategies.
Mayer was dubbed "Hollywood Rajah" by his biographer, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, and indeed he was the consummate power not only at MGM but throughout Hollywood during its vaunted Golden Age. Perhaps less creative than the other studio moguls and lacking their passion for movies, Mayer was never the less a shrewd administrator with a knack for surrounding himself with top talent—including production executives like Irving Thalberg and his son-in-law David Selznick—and also for maintaining a factory operation that consistently produced quality pictures. He rarely read a script (for that he relied on Kate Corbaley, his personal reader and "storyteller"), nor did he bother with MGM's filmmaking operations. And yet Mayer's taste for high-gloss, wholesome, escapist entertainment, his conservative values, and his naive sentimentality permeated MGM's pictures. He regarded the studio as one big family and himself as its beneficent patriarch, and although he could be a ruthless, quick-tempered tyrant, those within the MGM fold were rewarded with the highest salaries and the best filmmaking resources in Hollywood.
Born in Russia, Mayer migrated to the United States via Canada as a boy, and he broke into the film business with the 1907 purchase of a nickelodeon. He later moved into distribution and eventually went west to start his own production company. Louis B. Mayer Productions was a minor ingredient in the 1924 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer merger, and it was Mayer's management skills and his capacity to turn out first-class pictures that secured him the role of vice president and general manager. While Mayer ran the studio and managed its legions of contract talent, his protégé Thalberg supervised filmmaking. Together they engineered MGM's rapid rise, with Mayer's administrative acumen, fiscal and ideological conservatism, and predilection for star-studded glamour effectively countered by Thalberg's creative instincts, penchant for risk-taking, cynical romanticism, and confident rapport with writers and directors.
By the 1930s MGM ruled the industry and Mayer was, without question, Hollywood's most powerful figure. MGM's dominance began to slip after Thalberg's death, however, particularly in the 1940s as Mayer relied on an ever-expanding staff of producers and refused to modify the studio's entrenched but increasingly untenable factory operation. The postwar arrival of Dore Schary to oversee production signaled the beginning of the end for Mayer. The two quarreled bitterly, and in 1951, twenty-seven years after presiding over its inauguration, Mayer left the MGM lot without a trace of fanfare. He tried his hand at independent production, without success, and also tried to regain control of a struggling MGM in 1957, but the effort failed and he died a few months later.
Crowther, Bosley. Hollywood Rajah: The Life and Times of Louis B. Mayer . New York: Holt, 1960.
Eyman, Scott. Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Marx, Samuel. Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints . New York: Random House, 1975.
The entire MGM operation was designed to deliver a steady output of A-class star vehicles to the first-run (major metropolitan) market, and particularly to Loew's theaters. The merger brought a few established stars like Lon Chaney (1883–1930), Lillian Gish (1893–1993),
Ramon Novarro (1899–1968), and Marion Davies (1897–1961) to MGM, which quickly developed a crop of new stars including John Gilbert (1899–1936), Joan Crawford (1904–1977), Norma Shearer (1902–1983) (who wed Thalberg in 1927), and Greta Garbo (1905–1990). MGM also signed New York stage stars Marie Dressler (1868–1934) and brothers John (1882–1942) and Lionel Barrymore (1878–1954), enhancing the prestige value of its films while also appealing to Loew's predominantly New York–based clientele. During the 1920s, Mayer and Thalberg developed a dual strategy of lavish spectacles and more modest star vehicles, with the latter frequently centered on romantic costarring teams. After Gilbert burst to stardom in the downbeat war drama The Big Parade and rapidly developed into a romantic lead, for instance, MGM successfully teamed him with Swedish import Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926), Love (1927), and A Woman of Affairs (1928).
MGM was among a group of leading studios that resisted the move to sound—Thalberg in particular deemed it a passing fad—but it had the resources and capital to convert rapidly once the talkie boom exploded. By mid-1928 sound effects and musical scores were added to its films (along with three roars from trademark Leo the Lion before the opening credits), and a year later MGM's full conversion was punctuated with its "All Talking! All Singing! All Singing!" musical, Broadway Melody , a huge hit that won the 1928–1929 Academy Award ® for best picture—the first of many top Oscars ® for the studio during the classical era. Other early sound hits included Anna Christie ("Garbo Talks!"), Greta Garbo's 1930 sound debut opposite sixty-year-old Marie Dressler playing a hard-drinking waterfront floozy, and Min and Bill (1930), a waterfront fable costarring the unlikely team of Dressler and Wallace Beery (1885–1949), which carried them both to top stardom.
By 1929 MGM was on a par with Paramount, Fox, and Warner Bros. in terms of revenues and resources, but with one notable exception: Loew's theater chain, which was crucial to MGM's domination of the industry during the Depression. In the early 1920s, Loew and Schenck had decided against wholesale theater expansion, holding the number to about 150 first-class downtown theaters while Warner and Fox pushed their totals above 500 and Paramount to well over 1,000. The decision to maintain a relatively small theater chain meant that the cost of sound conversion was considerably lower and, even more importantly, Loew's/MGM was not saddled with the enormous mortgage debt that devastated its chief competitors when the Depression hit.