Concluding BOSLEY CROWTHER’S story of The wonderland of Louis B. Mayer
The Thirties were a bonanza for this Canadian star-maker. He made Garbo talk, revived fading Marie Dressier, discovered Judy Garland, fathered Andy Hardy and shared a $50,000,000 prize with Clark Gable as the bait
The story of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which Bosley Crowther of the New York Times has chronicled with wit and perception, is really the story of Hollywood itself. It is as prodigal as a technicolor musical, as passionate as a Garbo film. Yet its central figure is neither glamorous beauty nor matinee idol, but a pudgy, plugshaped impresario named Louis B. Mayer, a junk dealer from Saint John, N.B., who rose to command the highest salary on this continent.
In its last issue Maclean’s published excerpts from an early section of Crowther’s story dealing with the days of the silent screen. The following excerpts tell the more modern story of the “talkies” and their effect on such old-timers as Gilbert and Garbo, and Marie Dressier, of Cobourg, Ont. — and newcomers with names like Gable, Taylor and Lamarr. Sound films, when they hit at the end of the Twenties, caused a near panic in Hollywood, but Mayer and his
right-hand man, young Irving Thalberg, husband of Montreal’s Norma Shearer, took it in their stride. One of their early sound pictures —and perhaps their most bizarre—was a jungle epic called Trader Horn.
Thalberg and Mayer agreed that Trader Horn should be filmed in Africa, where they could get shots of genuine wild animals and record genuine animal sounds. It was to be done primarily for the novelty of the locale. “Woody” Van Dyke was assigned to direct.
A transparent and flexible adventure tale was quickly slapped together. It gave suspicious indications of having been inspired by the early Tarzan films. Its cast was small: only three actors would be daken on the trip to Africa. Harry Carey, a veteran hand at westerns, would play Trader Horn and Duncan Renaldo, a minor romantic actor, would play his companion. But who was to be the White Goddess? Mayer and Thalberg were unwilling to assign one of their valuable females for such a precarious jaunt.
Then Howard Strickling, the new head of publicity, came up with a brilliant idea. Why not a “White Goddess Contest”?
As a result, on an appointed day, hundreds of blondes, all shapes and sizes—some of them not so blonde—assembled at the studio. Individual screen tests were out of the question, so a phony mass test was arranged. Van Dyke ordered a camera mounted on a truck and told the girls to line up. He was, he said, going to ride down the row of hopefuls and photograph them.
All went well until one blonde spitfire perceived that the whole thing was a fake, stepped out of line and gave Van Dyke a piece of her mind. He was impressed with her spirit. This was White Goddess character.
“Have that girl come to my office!” he bawled. She did, and she was signed.
Her name was Constance Woodruff, but she called herself Edwina Booth. She was no relation of the famous Shakespearean actor, though she liked to claim she was. Her only experience had been as an extra. She was put under contract at a hundred dollars a week.
A company of thirty continued on page 44
4 These four pictures brought Mayer fame and fortune, but two of them—Rasputin and Trader Horn—were headaches
Mayer raised a new generation of stars and gave old favorites fresh glory before a mass audience
The wonderland of Louis B. Mayer
Continued from page 28
departed for Africa with several tons of sound-recording apparatus, including a nine-ton generator and a couple of trucks. Everything from rifles to fly swatters, from iceless refrigerators to portable wireless sets, was sent on that roving expedition. Van Dyke took a quarter of a million feet of unexposed film. For his own private entertainment he also took a couple of trunks of bathtub gin.
The company entered the big-game country of East Africa through Nairobi, where a well-known white hunter was engaged to lead the way. A doctor whose qualifications were later challenged was also signed.
The story of that expedition, which was the first big journey into Africa made by a Hollywood company, is a record of mad happenings. One might get the impression from it that Van Dyke, who had been a gold miner, lumberjack, engine oiler and soldier of fortune, was on a pleasure trip all his own.
In the course of rounding up footage of wild animals in their habitat, native tribes in ceremonial regalia and the members of the cast clomping about in the bush, he enjoyed himself immensely, indulging in such coy practical jokes as dragging ropes over the beds of sleeping persons and getting a baboon drunk on gin.
The discomforts endured by the company were more distressing than Van Dyke’s pranks. Virtually every one came down with fever of some sort at some time. Among the mishaps and misfortunes later complained of by Edwina Booth were a case of sunstroke, a brain concussion from a fall out of a tree, recurring bouts of dysentry and a touch of malaria. The doctor treated everything with whisky. Van Dyke treated his own ailments with gin. The company was in Africa for seven months. It brought back two hundred thousand feet of exposed film.
Van Dyke realized he was probably in
the soup. His anxieties were justified. When Mayer and Thalberg got a look at the developed film Thalberg shook his head gravely, Mayer hooted in disgust. The animal scenes, while authentic, were lacking in movement and drama; the human adventure story was spotty and unresolved.
So Van Dyke collected a batch of animals on the back lot and tried to make them perform. When that didn’t prove satisfactory, he sent a unit off to Mexico, beyond the watch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, to get some exciting scenes.
A cage of lions was turned loose in a well-disguised outdoor pen. The animals were starved for a few days and then thrown a couple of chunks of dead meat. When they didn’t fight over it with sufficient ferocity, they were starved for a few more days and then a horse was sent into the pen among them. A lion leaped on the horse and tore its side. The horse was shot right away, but its fresh blood .spurting did the trick with those lions. They lashed and ripped at one another in a swirling snarling pack fight that was photographed by hidden cameras for the most exciting animal scene in the film.
Added scenes with the human actors were shot on indoor and outdoor sets. Fortunately Van Dyke had the foresight to bring back from Africa with the troupe the giant black native he had got to play Renchero, the loyal gunbearer of Trader Horn—a tribal farmer in Africa named Mutia Omooloo. He proved as capable and impressive as any of the white actors.
Trader Horn was one of the top moneymakers of 1931. And the leftover African footage was soon put to profitable use in a new series of Tarzan films, with Johnny Weissmuller as the star.
But the personal trials and tribulations that were endured in making the film continued to afflict some of its people. Two years after the film was released Edwina Booth filed a suit for a million
When Mayer sang to Jeannette MacDonald
When Jeannette MacDonald first came to M-G-M, Louis Mayer was eager to have her star in Naughty Marietta by Victor Herbert. But she was hard to please and the story didn’t overwhelm her. One day Mayer got her into his office and undertook to convince her that Naughty Marietta was the picture she should do. He praised her, he told her touching stories of the stars whose careers he had planned, then he offered courteous suggestions as to how she should strive for an emotional quality in her singing style. Suddenly, to her astonishment, he got down on his knees and began singing the Jewish lament, Eli, Eli, in a most serious and tremulous way. Miss MacDonald was genuinely affected by the uninhibited sentiment of the man. Tears came to
her eyes. He got up humbly. “That’s the way you should sing,” he said.
The experience disarmed her completely. Naughty Marietta it would be. Mayer took her hands and assured her, “You trust me and you’ll be a happy girl!”
dollars against M-G-M. She claimed her health had been ruined by hardships in Africa, that her marriage had been broken by her long absence and that she had been sued for alienation of affections by the wife of Duncan Rcnaldo, one of the actors. The studio finally settled the suit out of court for thirty-five thousand dollars. But three years later Miss Booth died in California of a mysterious and wasting blood disease. That completed the weird drama of Trader Horn.
* * *
Greta Garbo, who returned to Hollywood from Sweden in 1929, was the last of the studio’s big stars to be exposed to the challenge of sound. The reason generally given is that Thalberg and others were fearful of what she could do with her voice. She spoke in a deep throaty fashion and with a Swedish accent that you could cut with a knife. The question was whether she would maintain her illusion of supreme femininity.
As Garbo’s last silent picture came to its close an air of depression hung over the set. The usual concluding party was tacitly foregone. It was known that this was more than a critical turning point for the Swedish star. It was also the last silent picture at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
But the making of her first talkie— Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie—was a simple matter for the elegant star. She had memorized her lines to crisp perfection and approached the microphone with the same calm confidence and authority that she showed toward everything.
The film was even more propitious for the opportunity it gave another great star, Marie Dressier, whose magnificent performance not only helped Garbo look great but dramatically brought back into the limelight this aging and fading custard-pie comedy queen from Cobourg, Ont.
One day in 1927 Frances Marion, a top scenarist at M-G-M, received a letter from Elisabeth Marbury, an important literary agent in New York, asking if there wasn’t something she could do to “help Marie.” The old star was at the end of her resources. “Isn’t it possible for you to write a part for her in a movie and give her a little work? . . . You know Marie; if she were starving she wouldn’t accept a cent from anyone.”
Miss Marion ran through the stories that the studio had bought and came up with one called The Callahans and the Murphys, written by Kathleen Norris. The title at once suggested Marie Dressier and Polly Moran, the latter a clever Irish comedienne under contract to the
studio. It was a flimsy story but Miss Marion went to work on it, built it up with Miss Dressier in her mind's eye and then slipped the completed scenario on Thalberg’s desk.
A few days later, he told her he had' read it and liked it. “But whoever plays Mrs. Callahan must be a dramatic actress as well as a comedienne,” he said.
“Do you remember Marie Dressier?” Miss Marion asked.
“She’s the only actress who could do it justice,” Miss Marion said.
“But I haven’t heard of her in years,” said Thalberg.
“You haven’t!” Miss Marion’s tone was anguished. “Why, she’s one of the greatest comediennes on Broadway. That’s just it. If we want to get her back in pictures, we’ll have to give her a big salary—say, two thousand dollars a week.”
Miss Marion stopped short. Thalberg’s eyes were boring through her. He despised a lie.
“Irving,” Miss Marion finished lamely, “Marie’s a friend of mine. She needs a job.”
“I thought so,” he answered quietly. “I’ll talk it over with L.B.”
The next time Miss Marion saw Thalberg, he began to speak solemnly:
“My theory is that anybody who hits the bull’s-eye—it doesn’t matter in what profession—has the brains and the stamina to do it again. So 1 figure a woman who scored as often as Miss Dressier did should be able to repeat. She’s probably been the victim of bad writing—and bad advice.”
A twinkle came into his eye.
“Send for her. We’ll start the picture as soon as she gets here. And her salary will be—two thousand dollars a week.”
The Callahans and the Murphys did not hit the bull’s-eye. In spite of that, Thai berg did not lose hope for Miss Dressier. He let her do another picture. This one was no world beater either. Then Miss Marion, who was writing the screenplay for Anna Christie, suggested they let Miss Dressier play Marthy, the old sot. Thalberg was entirely for it. Mayer and others were opposed. But Thai berg and Miss Marion won them over. Miss Dressier was a hit in the film.
That’s when the sun broke through, in the late afternoon of her career.
Thalberg was driving, ever driving, through these productive years and inevitably, without his knowing it, the pressures were beginning to tell. He and his wife Norma Shearer had built themselves
How Pal became Lassie and Elizabeth started on
Lassie Come Home, a novel by Eric Knight about an old Scot and a sheep dog. was made as a low-budget picture, and the producer’s first job
was to find a collie to play the principal role. A “mass interview” of dogs was unsuccessful, so director Fred Wilcox got a professional trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, to scout the countryside.
Weatherwax showed up with a station wagon full of dogs. None looked exceptional. Then Wilcox noted one that hadn't been brought out. This collie, a year-old male called Pal, was a cull the trainer had accepted in lieu of a ten-dollar debt. He’d brought it along for company —didn’t think it worth testing. But Wilcox liked Pal’s looks and found he tested best of all. He was the
an imposing French provincial chalet on the ocean at Santa Monica after the birth of their first child, whom Norma carried while she was doing The Divorcée. (She had urged Thalberg to let her do that picture by having some elaborately sexy photographs made of herself by the studio photographer. Thus she proved to her husband that she could look a femme fatale. Toward the end of the shooting of the picture she had to make frequent use of large fans.)
But the troubles that began accumulating in 1932, mainly the insistent demands for studio economies that the Depression brought on, taxed the strength of Thalberg, who was not physically strong. The increasing momentum of his progress was multiplying the tension on his nerves. He was a chronic healthworrier who insisted that the rheumatic fever of his youth had left him with a heart condition that would cause his death before he was forty. There were other disturbing factors. Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s, the parent company of M-G-M in New York, had been on the studio’s neck ail year because pictures had not been coming through with absolute regularity. Thalberg was in a state where something was bound to pop.
It did, one day in September. Mayer signaled the situation by telephoning Schenck in New York.
Schenck sensed that this was no nonsense, and got on the train to the coast.
At Schenck’s hotel, Mayer put the situation bluntly: “Thalberg claims he isn't well. He is asking to be relieved of his contract.”
Schenck wanted a better reason for Thalberg’s beef than his health!
“I believe the boy is getting spoiled,” said Mayer. “People are telling him how good he is. I believe it is turning his head a little.”
When Thalberg was called in, he w'as blunt. He wanted to break his contract right away.
Schenck refused. Thalberg asked for a leave of absence. Schenck told him it couldn’t be arranged. The first meeting ended on that note—Thalberg stubborn, Schenck stern.
The talks continued for several days, becoming more acrimonious all the time. Finally the exchanges between the two became so violent and personally abusive, that Mayer was shaken and appalled.
“1 was watching Schenck,” he later reported. “His fingernails were purple as he held onto the side of his chair. Irving was riding him terribly hard and driving him. He told Schenck that he didn’t give
a fast climb to stardom
star of this and all future Lassie pictures the studio made. He is still alive and his son Laddie takes the present TV role.
In the same film a replacement was required for one little girl whose eyes were too weak to stand the lights. One M-G-M employee, Edgar Selwyn, knew an English actress named Sara Taylor who’d come to Hollywood to escape the blitz. She had a little ten-year-old daughter with huge lustrous eyes, raven hair and an exquisitely molded face. Wilcox started her immediately without a test. Her first name, of course, was Elizabeth.
Hearst backed Marion Davies but Norma Shearer got the role—and vanished from Hearst’s newspapers
to you my regret that our last conference had to end in a loss of temper, particularly on my part . . . When 1 went to see you, 1 was wearied down with the problems I have been carrying, which problems have been multiplied because of the fact that the partner who has borne the major portion of them on his shoulders was not here. Instead of appreciating the fact that I have cheerfully taken on your work, as well as my own, and have carried on to the best of my ability, you chose to bitingly and sarcastically accuse me of many things by innuendo, which I am supposed to have done to you and your friends. Being a man of temperament, I could not restrain myself . . .
And now, let me philosophize for a moment: anyone who has said that I have a feeling of wrong toward you will eventually have cause to regret their treachery, because that is exactly what it would be and what it would be on my part if I had any feeling other than what I have expressed in this letter toward you. I assure you I will go on loving you to the end . . .
When Thalberg returned from Europe he plunged once again into the making of films, several of which were to star Norma Shearer who had stayed at his side during his illness and absence and consequently hadn't appeared in a picture since the fall of 1932. Thalberg planned to begin production on a film that much intrigued him: The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He saw it as eminently suitable for his wife, even though she did not; she was doubtful of playing an invalid poetess and having to spend half the picture on a couch.
By a grotesque coincidence, however, Marion Davies had fallen in love with the play and was eager to do it as a picture. Her wish was backed by William Randolph Hearst. Mayer tried to discourage Hearst. That took considerable doing. The great publisher was angry and dismayed. He always entertained the hopeless notion that Miss Davies should play serious dramatic roles. Suddenly the name of Norma Shearer no longer appeared in the Hearst press. A very delicate situation prevailed in the studio. Then lyliss Shearer paid a call on Miss Davies; they had a between-us-girls talk, and Miss Davies came to the conclusion that Elizabeth Barrett was really not for her.
The cloud passed, but that disappointment was not forgotten by Hearst. He was beginning to get the idea that his protégée was not appreciated at MetroGoldwyn-Mayer.
Next Hearst decided that Miss Davies must do Marie Antoinette. Whether this urge was actually prompted by his weird fixation that his protégée should be a dramatic actress or whether it merely evolved from temperament aroused by the knowledge that it too was to be a Norma Shearer vehicle was open to some disagreement. In any event, Mayer knew he was faced with another emotional crisis with the petulant couple. This one he handled boldly.
“Tell you what I’ll do,” he said to Hearst, whom he wished to maintain not only as a promotional asset but as a personal friend. “Even though it would hurt you and Marion, I’ll let you have Marie Antoinette, if you'll pay full cost of the production. What's more, we'il distribute it free, until you've got back your money. Then you pay us double the usual distribution costs.”
This was a put-up-or-shut-up chal-
a damn; that he (Schenck) was cold as ice; that he wasn't even human just as long as we made lots of money for the company. Oh, it was just fierce! And Schenck kept yelling back, ‘Damn it, I've been decent and right with you! This is a corporation! I've got legal responsibilities!’ Oh it was hell! I got out of the room.”
Schenck, Mayer and their associates
finally decided that the only way to pacify Thalberg was to give him more money, and a favorable stock-option deal was arranged which Thalberg accepted.
Thalberg drove forward for the next two months. Then, one night in late December lie was seized with a piercing discomfort that sent him stumbling to his bed. His constant anxiety swarmed upon him. Norma and the doctors were quick-
ly called. Inevitably, it was imagined that he was suffering a heart attack. In February, it was agreed that the ill producer should take a long vacation in Europe.
Before he left he received a remarkable communication from Mayer. It said:
Dear Irving: I cannot permit you to go away to Europe without expressing
leitge, for all Miss Davies’ films had been financed by M-G-M, with Hearst simply sharing in their profits. It was a foolproof arrangement.
Mayer’s proposition stopped Hearst. He declined to bet on Marie Antoinette. He took a trip to Europe, and, soon after his return, he made a quick deal with Warner Brothers to move Miss Davies to them. Before the end of the year her fabulous bungalow was dismantled and rolled away. No one, not even Mayer, was heartbroken to see it go.
The year 1934 saw the conclusion of a chain of events that was an outrageous comedy of errors, as viewed from the sidelines seat, but far from funny to M-G-M. This was the culmination of the famous “Rasputin case”—one of the studio’s prize fiascos and a precedential issue in the legal history of films.
The “comedy” actually started in the summer of 1932 when the studio—still under Thalberg—announced with justifiable pride that it was going to make a picture starring Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore. The three had never acted together, either in films or on the stage, and the sideliners immediately began chuckling about the battles they imagined would occur when these three celebrated star performers and scene stealers got together in the same film.
Anticipation was heightened by the word that the picture would be the story of the Russian monk, Rasputin, and his wicked influence upon the family of the czar. Lionel would be the mad Rasputin; Ethel would be the pitiful czarina who fell beneath his spell and John would be the czarist prince who murdered the monstrous monk.
Somewhat disappointingly, the turmoil did not develop among the stars but in the office of Bernie Hyman, the supervisor, and in the struggle to get the film made. The picture was started before the script was ready. The production was a rat race all the way. One writer after another was set to work on the unruly script. Finally, Charles MacArthur was elected to put it into shape. He barely stayed one day ahead of the actors, so frequently were changes and rewriting required.
Rather than fight with each other, the stars fought with the director and with the script. Ethel, particularly, was outraged at the treatment of the Russian nobility. She fumed at the perversion of the czarina, at the way she was asked to speak her lines. “You forget,” she said to Brabin, “1 knew Her Majesty personally!”
Another time, she reminded the assembled company that the Russian czar was a cousin of England’s reigning King George V. Some of the people were suspicious. How could the Russian czar be related to the English king? The tendency was to treat the whole subject as though it were something that had happened in medieval times. Eventually, a discreet reminder from a local British official caused them to tame the characters of the czar and the czarina. “They became Mr. and Mrs. Hoover,” MacArthur said.
However, other liberties were taken. Hyman wanted “shock progression,” he averred. So he called for a scene in which the Mad Monk would violate one of the beautiful young ladies of the court. At first, she was just a lady-inwaiting. Then she was made a princess and was engaged to be married to John Barrymore’s “Prince Chegodieff,” as they called him, the heroic assassin of Rasputin in the film.
The jokers finally claimed a better title for the film would be Disputin’, so
extensive were the quarrels in getting It made. Thalberg was in on the battles, but he let Hyman have a free hand. Tn the end, for all the problems of production, the film came out rather handsomely. So proud, indeed, was Hyman, that he took his pen in hand and dashed off a bit of composition that was put as a preface to the film. It read:
“This concerns the destruction of an empire, brought about by the mad ambition of one man. A few of the characters are still alive. The rest met death by violence.”
How the legal department ever let that preface get by is a mystery.
Titled Rasputin and the Empress, the picture was presented in New York two days before Christmas 1932. It was greeted enthusiastically, but some of the pundits observed that, within its rather awesome melodrama, there were many historical inaccuracies. Indeed, someone made the suggestion that MacArthur should get the Academy Award for “the best original story” of the year. One ominous note was sounded by Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune.
“It achieves one feat which is not inconsiderable: it manages to libel even the despised Rasputin,” he wrote.
Through the winter, spring and summer of 1933 the picture was shown with much success and admiration in this country and abroad. In Great Britain they called it Rasputin, the Mad Monk, because of a national hesitation about using the terms of royalty.
Then one day a New York woman lawyer, Fanny Holtzmann. turned up in Hollywood with the word that she represented Prince Felix and Princess
Irina YussupofF, exiled survivors of the Russian royal family. She said her clients were caused great pain and humiliation by the aspersions they felt the picture cast upon them. It seems that the prince was the man who was generally accepted as the assassin of the Mad Monk, and, since he was married to the princess, it was implied that she must be the “Natasha” who was represented as having been violated by the brute. This besmirching of the princess’ virtue was a libel, Miss Holtzmann said.
The people at the studio were not too troubled. Claims of libel against picture companies were becoming common. The general practice was to defend libel actions, particularly when the studio felt it had an airtight case, as it did with Rasputin and the Empress. Miss Holtzmann was told she could sue.
Actions were filed simultaneously in New York and London. In New York the firm of Buckley and Buckley was hired by Miss Holtzmann to represent the Yussupoffs. In London she got Sir Patrick Hastings, a famous trial lawyer, to be their advocate. Damages of two million dollars were claimed in each separate suit.
The acumen of filing in London became apparent when the case was first called there, and it was evident that the Yussupoffs would be favored by some strong royalist sentiment. The princess, indeed, was a cousin of King George V. It was at his personal request, Miss Holtzmann avowed privately, that she had undertaken “to do something for the poor Yussupoffs.” The Russian couple were living at the time on one of the royal family’s small estates near Windsor.
How was Rasputin killed?
The trial proved a public sensation when it went on in the winter of 1934. The courtroom was packed daily with titled people and London’s social elite. Sir Patrick made his case for the plaintiff by setting out to show that the characters of Prince Chegodieff and Princess Natasha in the film could have been drawn from no other models than the Yussupoffs. And, to establish the identity of Prince Felix, he called on him to tell how he slaughtered Rasputin in a St. Petersburg cellar eighteen years before. Spectators in the court were chilled with horror as the prince calmly recounted the grisly tale, which corresponded in many details with the story as told in the film.
Sir William Jowitt, another famous lawyer, who was retained as defense counsel for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, attempted to discredit the prince’s story and to show that the characters in the film could have been based on other people. But that one line in the preface Hyman wrote—“a few of the characters are still alive”—was repeatedly cited by Sir Patrick to claim they could only mean the Yussupoffs.
In charging the jury, Sir Horace Avory, the eighty-two-year-old judge, left no doubt that he thought the verdict should be guilty, and he quoted from Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece to convey how the film’s “vile libel” of the princess’ virtue had deprived her of “a thing dearer than life.” He later acknowledged he had never viewed the film.
The jury, which had twice seen the picture, deliberated for two and a quarter hours, then upheld the claim of the princess and set the extent of damages at a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. While the figure seemed small in comparison with the amount of damages asked, it set a precedent for other suits pending against all theatres that had
shown the film throughout Great Britain.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer appealed the decision. In doing so, Sir William tried to hold that the offense was, at most, one of slander, in that the film did not maintain that the princess voluntarily submitted to Rasputin, but was unquestionably raped. (In a case of slander, it would have been necessary for the plaintiff to prove the precise extent of damages and not leave that to the jury to decide.) But the appeals-court judge was as chivalrous as was old Sir Horace. “When this woman is defamed in her sexual purity,” he said, “I do not think the precise manner in which she has been despoiled of her innocence and virginity is a matter which a jury can properly be asked to consider.”
As might have been anticipated, the appeal was categorically denied, and M-G-M hastened to make an out-of-court settlement with Fanny Holtzmann as quickly as it could.
Already Hyman’s prosy preface and the scene of Natasha’s violation had been cut. Now it was a matter of bargaining to buy off the pending suits. It was agreed that the film company would apologize to the princess and publicly proclaim that the character of Natasha in the picture was “purely fictional.” This it did. It also paid to the plaintiff a sum of money, for which it was agreed that all claims would be dropped by the princess, including the suit still pending in New York.
The exact amount of this settlement has never been publicly revealed. It is carried on the books of the company as $185,000—$125,000 to the princess and $60,000 to Miss Holtzmann. However, it was generally reported at the time that $750,000 was paid to the princess and that the company absorbed some $380,000 in “costs.” Miss Holtzmann remains cryptic on the subject.
“The settlement,” she says, “was for a lot more money than they’ll admit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.” It is quite possible that the company could have paid more than the books officially specified out of an unaudited contingency fund of around a million dollars that it regularly noted on its annual report.
In any event, the project of Rasputin and the Empress cost a lot, not only in human energy and legal expenses, but in the purchase of future protection for films. Eor it was after this sobering experience that all studios carefully stated in more or less these words on their every release: “The events and characters in this »film are fictional and any resemblance to characters living or dead is purely coincidental.”
That is what came of Bernie Hyman taking his pen in hand.
Thalberg died in 1936, suddenly and tragically of pneumonia. He was just thirty-seven. For all Mayer’s imperiousness and discord with him before his death, it was noticeable that Mayer seemed to endeavor, in the months that followed, to take on some of Thalberg’s qualities.
Mayer had always been a man of violent reactions. His mind was stubborn, his patience short, and his emotional reflexes unpredictable to a bewildering and terrifying degree. Once, at an employee dinner dance the winter before Thalberg died, Mayer made a shocking scene when Ted Healy put on an innocent parody of singer Charles Igor Gorin hitting a high note, after which Healy launched into a current “mammy” song. Mayer, exploding with anger, shoved the comedian off the stage. “You’re supposed to use your judgment,” he thundered, “you’re not supposed to make fun of such a great singer as Igor Gorin—or
Allan Jones!” The startled guests laid the ugly outburst to the sentimentality and pugnacity of their boss.
Another time, Mayer leaped out of his desk chair and socked one of his producers on the nose because of a minor disagreement. This was typical.
But after the death of Thalberg a brief change came over him and he evidently tried to administer the studio with solicitude for individuals and with self-restraint. This change was not unconnected with the increased requirement to maintain a flow of high-class pictures being
demanded by the New York office.
In 1937 M-G-M decided to open its own studios in London and this resulted in the first Metro picture made in England, A Yank at Oxford. Mayer himself went to England to start the venture in which Robert Taylor had the lead.
Unknown to his multiplying fans, Taylor came to stardom with agony and dread. The task of facing the public and reporters was terrifying for him. Being primly handsome, with a predominant widow’s peak in his hair, he was naturally the butt of some sarcasm and occa-
sional journalistic ridicule that hurt.
Shortly before he left for England he was in Arizona, when a girl plopped herself into his lap and then reported that sitting on the lap of her boy friend was more fun. This caused Taylor such great chagrin that, when passing through Chicago on his way east, he was afraid to get out of the train. In New York a reporter asked him whether he had hair on his chest. He was literally so shaken by the experience that he could hardly face the mobs of clamoring fans, and on the ship going over to England, he flatly
balked at having to meet the British press.
Howard Strickling, head of studio publicity, was in Europe with Mayer when he got a wireless from his man aboard the ship, asking if they might sneak Taylor into England, the actor was that terrified. Strickling wirelessed back “nothing doing,” and hopped to London, where he joined the press going down to Plymouth to meet the liner. He put it up to the reporters candidly. Taylor was a decent guy, he told them, but he was frightened. What would they do? They agreed to play fair with Taylor. Strickling was given a few minutes alone with him and in that time convinced the actor that this was a critical moment in his career. Then he brought Taylor forth to face the news hawks. The interview went off swimmingly. It marked a turning point in the relations of Taylor with the press. A Yank at Oxford was a happy production. There was one ugly clash, however. Michael Balcon, in charge of the British studio, had hired an English girl at a more than moderate salary to play the second feminine lead. Mayer was outraged; he thought Balcon should have hired a cheaper girl, and he loudly berated him for his extravagance in front of the whole company. Balcon, a calm and courteous gentleman, took that as his cue to resign, which he did a short while later. Victor Saville was put in charge of the studio. The actress to whom Mayer objected was an oncoming star named Vivien Leigh. But Mayer's trip to England in 1937 resulted in his signing two other women of some later consequence. He was in his London hotel room one evening with Howard Strickling and Ben Goetz of the London office. Suddenly he flung down the paper he was reading and let out an anguished cry, “What’s the matter with you fellows?” he hollered. "Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” Strickling and Goetz were bewildered. This could be anything. “Here's a show at the St. James called Old Music, and you didn’t tell me it’s in town!” There was no use trying to stop him. To Mayer, Old Music could mean only one thing. He had been buying old music all over Europe that trip. So now he insisted, without question, that they go to the St. James that night. When they got to their seats they discovered Old Music wasn't a musical show at all and, to Mayer’s further annoyance, they discovered it wasn’t very good. But along in the first act, a beautifjul redheaded actress came out on the stage and Mayer jumped as though someone had hit him. A fast reference to the program showed the name of the actress was Greer Garson. Mayer insisted he must meet her right away. Goetz set up an appointment for supper at the Savoy after the play, and Miss Garson showed up, a radiant figure in a strikingly becoming gown. She had hastened home from the theatre and put on the best thing she had. Mayer was overwhelmed and arranged a screen test within the next few days. He ordered a special gown and saw that the test was made with the greatest care. A contract was signed and Miss Garson was instructed to come to Culver City as soon as her play closed. She was soon a top star. During this same stay in London, Mayer met another handsome girl—a dark-haired actress named Hedy Kessler, who had been in a Hungarian film called Ecstasy. An agent brought her to see him, and Mayer was favorably impressed, but he hadn’t made up his mind to sign her when he was ready to leave London for home. He had boarded the
Andy Hardy turned down mom's cooking. “You've insulted the American home and mother!" cried Mayer
Normandie at Southampton and was standing at the rail looking down at other passengers, coming aboard from the tender, when, lo, he beheld Hedy Kessler moving demurely in the crowd! She was playing the part of a sort of guardian to a fourteen-year-old violin prodigy, Grisha Goluboff, returning to America from engagements in Europe. Mayer had put them both under contract by the time they reached New York. He had also changed the name of the Hedy from Kessler to Lamarr.
Unfortunately, on their arrival reporters recalled that Hedy had made something of a sensation by appearing in Ecstasy in the nude. It caused her extreme humiliation when they mentioned this delicate fact to her. The next day the story was in the papers and Miss Lamarr was in tears. Howard Dietz, head of Loew’s publicity, was called to her hotel by Mayer to straighten out this terrible situation.
"Did you appear in the nude?” Dietz asked.
"Yes,” Miss Lamarr answered shyly.
"Did you look good?”
“Of course!” she snapped.
"Then it’s all right,” Dietz assured her. “No damage has been done.”
Miss Lamarr very soon became familiar with the peculiarities of American
❖ * ❖
When the Hardy family series—starring Lewis Stone and Mickey Rooney— began to gain popularity, Mayer gave emphatic instructions that it should not be “improved.”
“Please don’t try to make them any better,” he said. “Just keep them the way they are. The only thing you’ve got to worry about is not insulting the
friends you have made.”
This became a Mayer fixation. Here was the sort of thing about which he felt himself most knowing — the Average American Family. In one picture they
had a cute sequence in which Andy, forlorn and distressed because his football team had lost that afternoon and Polly Benedict was having a date with a handsome naval lieutenant, sat at the dinner table without eating anything. His mother asked what was the matter and he answered, “I’m not feeling so good.” “I think it must be his liver,” Mrs. Hardy said anxiously to the Judge, who replied, “If what’s ailing Andrew is his liver, a lot of boys are suffering liver trouble.”
When they came to that sequence at the preview, Mayer yanked Carey Wilson’s arm violently. Wilson knew by this that he was furious. Later, going home in the car, Mayer blasted the producer’s ear off. “I thought you told me you were brought up in your mother’s kitchen! You lied to me!” he screamed. “So you’ve insulted the American home and mother!” Wilson was confused. "Anybody who has been brought up in the kitchen knows that the average American boy at sixteen is hungry all the time!” Mayer said.
He insisted they make a retake in which Andy thanked his mother for her concern and assured her that her cooking was excellent, but — et cetera, et cetera.
Another time, Mrs. Hardy was ill and they feared she would die. Wilson, flowing with tenderness, had written a long prayer for Andy to say. But, having learned his lesson, he showed it to Mayer before they shot the scene.
“Who the hell wrote this prayer?” Mayer bellowed. Wilson confessed he did.
“You see, you're a Hollywood character. You don’t remember how a boy would pray. All right, shoot it,” Mayer said. “We’ll go to the preview and see if it makes people cry. If it does, you can keep it in the picture. But if it doesn't, you will shoot this prayer—!” He fell upon his knees, lifted his eyes to heaven, clasped his hands and murmured with choking sobs, "Dear God, please don’t
let my mom die, because she’s the best mom in the world. Thank you, God.”
Wilson, being a smart man, abandoned his prayer forthwith and shot Mayer's. Mayer took great pride in the Hardy series. He considered it his own masterpiece.
The Hardy films were immensely valuable for another reason. They were an excellent showcase and testing area for
young talent that came to the studio, especially the promising young actresses. Lana Turner, Virginia Weidler. Kathryn Grayson. Marsha Hunt, Donna Reed, Esther Williams and Ruth Hussey all started in the Hardy films. But the first and most notable graduate was Judy Garland. After her performance in Love Finds Andy Hardy she was cast in The Wizard of Oz, and thus came to fulfill-
ment one of the classics of the musical screen.
The horrible thought is that Judy Garland would not have been in this film if Mervyn LeRoy, the producer, had been able to get his way. LeRoy wanted Shirley Temple to play Dorothy, but she was tied up by Twentieth Century-Fox. So he settled for Judy, who was touted by Mayer.
* * *
Of all the motion pictures produced since the screen began, the one that has reached the most people and may fairly be judged most popular is the epic production of Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel, Gone With the Wind.
That Loew’s should have been the main participant in the profits of this vast film, which was actually produced by David Selznick through his Selznick-lnternational company, was a stroke of good luck as fortuitous as its inheritance of Ben Hur. Í he break came mainly because Clark Gable was under contract to Metro-Gold wyn-Mayer.
Selznick had left M-G-M in 1935 to form his own independent company and produce films the way he wanted to. Early in the summer of 1936 a wire reached him from Kay Brown, his New York story editor, urging him to buy film rights to a new Civil War novel entitled Gone With the Wind. The author of the novel was unknown in the literary world.
The circumstances of the publication were intriguing. The novel had been picked up by a representative of the publisher, Macmillan, while scouting through the
south. It was first intended for spring publication, but then a late acceptance of it by the Book-of-the-Month Club as its July selection set back the date until late June. Thus Miss Mitchell’s -agent, Annie Laurie Williams, was able to send advance copies of the novel to all the film companies simultaneously.
Although two or three of the editors got excited, there was a surprising lack of interest in the novel among the major studios. The general feeling was that Civil War stories had been played out with The Birth of a Nation. And besides, Miss Williams’ asking price for screen rights— a hundred thousand dollars—was considered exorbitant. The only major bid came from Darryl Zanuck. He offered thirtyfive thousand, which Miss Williams promptly declined. The author, who had come to New York from Atlanta for the book’s publication, was shocked. She thought that a princely sum. Meanwhile, Selznick had strong misgivings about the problems of producing a novel of such length. However, John Hay Whitney, Selznick’s chief financial backer, had taken a look at the book and told Selznick that he himself would buy it and let Selznick take his time making up his mind. That was enough for Selznick. He told Miss Brown to buy. She found she* could now get it for fifty thousand dollars. They closed for that figure in July.
As we look back on it, that price was an absolute steal. But, under the circumstances, it was considered pretty good. This was just after publication, before the novel had begun to sweep that land—
They were just young hopefuls when considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, but their tests opened a way to stardom
Brothers. They offered to finance production in full and let him have Bette Davis to play Scarlett, Errol Flynn for Rhett and Olivia de Havilland for Melanie.
Throughout this period of indecision as to Gable and the releasing deal, Selznick was ardently conducting the screen's most celebrated “talent hunt” for the proper actress to play the Scarlett role.
There was nothing calculated about this. He truly could not decide on the suitable actress. Tallulah Bankhead had been pretty well scratched. So had Miriam Hopkins. Katharine Hepburn wanted the role. She begged Selznick for it. But Selznick couldn’t see her in it. He allowed he was looking for an “unknown.”
He and his staff interviewed a hundred hopefuls and screen-tested a score or more. Among the latter were several young women who were then comparatively unknown: Susan Hayward, a New York model; Paulette Goddard, Evelyn Keyes, Joan Fontaine (w-hom he used in his later film Rebecca) and a saucy blonde named Judy Turner. They screen-tested her in a bathing suit, for some peculiar reason. She wouldn’t quite do for Scarlett. But Mervyn LeRoy later saw the test and decided to use her in a Warner Brothers film. She had a small but sensational role in the film, for which she changed her first name to Lana. That started her on the road to fame.
The Selznick scouts also spotted another prospect. When they asked her if she would like to test for Scarlett, she cracked, “Are you kidding?” She was then the very minor Lucille Ball.
The quest for a Scarlett was so famous that many freakish and pathetic things occurred. One Sunday morning a huge box was delivered at Selznick’s home. It was wrapped in fancy ribbons and had a sign on it: “Open at once.” When Selznick yanked the top off, out stepped a young girl in a green dress who said, with a pitiful simper, “My name is Scarlett O’Hara, and I am here to play the role." ,This rather made Selznick wonder whether things hadn't gone a bit too far.
The decision to close the deal for Gable was reached in 1938. At the same time it was reported that Norma Shearer would get the role of Scarlett and the long “talent hunt” appeared ended. But actually Norma never was signed, and a month later there came an official announcement that she had “withdrawn” from the role. What happened was that Selznick offered it to her and she accepted it tentatively, pending the reaction of her public. But she said she got so many letters from her fans urging her not to play the “bad woman” that she decided to pass it up. She was also strongly advised against it by the newspaper columnist, Ed Sullivan. Later Miss Shearer acknowledged it was one of the bad decisions of her career.
So strong was public interest, fed by the popularity of the book and the publicity, that the New York Times regretted, editorially, when Miss Shearer declined Scarlett. A few months later Mrs. Ogden Reid, vice-president of the New York Herald Tribune, told a gathering of three thousand clubwomen that Katharine Hepburn was her choice and she understood Miss Hepburn was the choice of Margaret Mitchell too. Miss Mitchell replied that she was neutral. “I don't know anyone in the movies who looks like Scarlett,” she said.
As winter came on it was acknowledged by Selznick that he was going to start production on the film in January, even though he didn’t have a Scarlett. "1 still hope to give the American people a new girl,” he said. As late as Dec. 18, it was rumored that unless someone was found the picture would be started with Gable
and before its heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, had become the most-talked-about woman of the year. It was only then the film community realized Selznick had a tremendous property on his hands.
No one realized it better than he did. As winter came and the sales of the novel soared, the reading public began some positive thinking as to who would play the leading roles—especially the roles of Scarlett and Rhett Butler. Selznick fed this talk, dropping frequent rumors on his plans for casting the film.
There was early talk of Tallulah Bank-
head. There was also talk of Norma Shearer, then in retirement. There was talk of Miriam Hopkins.
On the casting of Rhctt, there was no question. The overwhelming sentiment was that Gable must play the role. It was made to order for him. Selznick soon perceived he would have to try to get the popular actor who was, of course, under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
His tentative feelers discovered that the studio would loan him a star only on condition that Loew’s, Inc., the parent company, be permitted to release the
film. Selznick was committed to United Artists until 1939. If he wanted Gable he would have to hold back the production for a couple of years.
This was a difficult dilemma. Selznick was anxious to start the film and he felt that the public’s eagerness for it was building up to a peak. M-G-M’s terms were tough: it would lend Gable and put up half the production costs, then estimated at two and a half million dollars, on condition that it would release the film and share equally in the profits.
Selznick had a better bid from Warner
and Carole Lombard in the leading roles. Gable and Miss Lombard were then beginning a much-publicized romance.
But that eventually was forfended because Scarlett had already been found even though the public announcement did not come until Jan. 13, 1939.
It happened in a quite dramatic fashion. Selznick’s studio was the old Pathé lot in Culver City, and it was there that Gone With the Wind was to be made, in order to clear the back lot for the building of Tara, the O’Hara plantation home, and the outdoor sets of Atlanta, a jungle of old standing sets had to be removed. Among them were sets used in C. B. DeMille’s great Biblical drama, King of Kings.
William Cameron Menzies, head of Selznick’s production staff, had an idea. Rather than tear down those old sets, why not burn them in a mammoth conflagration and use the fire to represent the burning of Atlanta, which was to be one of the great dramatic highlights of the film? Then the lot would be clear for the new buildings and they would have one of their most important scenes completed.
Selznick jumped for the idea. The old sets were doctored with false fronts and the co-operation of the Culver City fire department was obtained. Since a part of the action in this sequence was the frantic flight of Scarlett and Rhett from the burning city in an old wagon which Rhett commandeered, they wanted some long shots of the couple in the wagon against the roaring fire. Two stunt men were got to play the couple. The burning was scheduled for the night of Dec. 10.
“Meet Scarlett O’Hara”
The occasion was reminiscent of the shooting of the chariot race in Ben Hur. Many of Hollywood’s famous people were invited by Selznick to watch. Among them were his brother, Myron, whose talent agency was one of the best.
As the moment approached for starting the conflagration Myron had not arrived. Selznick, himself burning furiously, waited a few minutes then told them to touch off the fire. The flames were just rising into the night sky, dozens of cameras were beginning to turn, and Selznick was in a lather, when he felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked around and there was brother Myron, accompanied by a beautiful girl.
“I want you to meet Scarlett O’Hara,” said Myron dramatically.
Selznick shot a quick glance at the young woman. And sure enough, in the wild and fiery glow of the simulated burning of Atlanta, he saw the girl who was to play the famous role. She was a hazeleyed. brown-haired beauty with a face that was impudent and alive beneath a large hat such as might have been worn by Scarlett. She was the English actress, Vivien Leigh.
It may have been the drama of that moment—the start of the picture, the reality of the fire, the awesome sense that the Yankees were approaching and old Atlanta was going up in flames—that prepared Selznick for a revelation, but he suddenly felt this was the girl.
Within a matter of six minutes the old sets burned and collapsed. The last of DeMille’s Biblical spectacle went up in the smoke of the Civil War. In that time they got two takes of the wagon with Scarlett and Rhett passing across the fiery scene. Then Selznick took Miss Leigh to his office and asked hei if she would test for the role.
She didn’t need urging. Later it was realized by her friends that she had been secretly hoping and angling to cop the job for more than a year. In at least two
previous pictures she had played naughty flirtatious women. And her trip to America to see her good friend, Laurence Olivier, who was busy in Samuel Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights, was suspiciously timed. It turned out that Myron had already made arrangements for her to be tested.
Only four actresses were put through full-color tests for the role. They were Joan Bennett. Jean Arthur, Paulette Goddard and finally Miss Leigh. Later, when the selection of Miss Leigh was announced, one of the disappointed actresses
asked if she could run her screen test at her home. Selznick's office sent it round and she burned it. But Selznick still has the negatives.
The finished picture ran three hours and forty-two minutes in its final cut and there was much discussion as to whether there should be an intermission during its showing. Selznick insisted that human bladders could not hold out for the length of the film. He carried his point by making a check on the number of people who went to the conveniences during an experimental intermission at a preview.
The success of Gone With the Wind thereafter exceeded the expectations of anyone. In the first four months of its showing it grossed over four million dollars at the theatres. On its second release, a year later, it took in another five million. To the end of 1955 it had brought in close to fifty million dollars.
During the negotiations between M-G-M and Selznick over this film. Mayer had done his best to get Selznick to return to the Metro fold. Selznick refused. preferring independence. But as the costs soared and the number of pic-
During the filming of Claire Boothe’s stinging play The Women, a real-life situation developed on the set that might have been written by Miss Boothe herself. It occurred when Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer were preparing for the only scene they shared in the movie — in which the wife (Miss Shearer) confronts her husband’s mistress (Miss Crawford). During rehearsals of a scene that is played by two people, it is courteous for each to “feed” the other lines when the director is having them practice for the shots that will be made individually. They were running through Miss Shearer’s “singles,” with Miss Crawford sitting in a chair to one side, feeding her lines — but also devoting her attention to knitting furiously with large needles that clicked. Miss Shearer took it for a few runs-through. Then she asked
Miss Crawford to stop. The latter paid no attention. She continued to knit and click. It was a highly suspicious show of rudeness. This was the first time the two actresses, who had been stars in the same studio for a decade, had been together in a scene.
Miss Shearer finally turned to the director. “Mr. Cukor,” she said, “I think Miss Crawford can go home now and you can give me her lines.”
Cukor was as outraged as Miss Shearer. He asked Miss Crawford to leave the set. Later, he handed her a lecture the likes of which she had probably never heard. Several stagehands congratulated Miss Shearer. But that night she received a telegram from Miss Crawford that made her hair curl. The two actresses never spoke to each other again—except, of course, to finish that particularly venomous scene.
tures released decreased each year a crying need became apparent—a need for someone who could put new life into production, develop fresh ideas, cut out the dead wood. What was wanted was someone like Thalberg in the old days. Mayer again went to Selznick and besought him to return. He told him to write his own ticket. But Selznick was not so inclined. Mayer spoke to several others. Then his eye lighted on Hollywood’s latest “boy wonder.” He was Dore Schary, who, at forty-three, was considered “young.”
This was the start of a long and tense conflict which slowly developed between the two men and led, finally, to Mayer’s departure from the studio that he had headed since the early days of the silent films.
An example of the way these disagreements developed can be discerned in this situation: Schary wanted to make a
couple of pictures starring Larry Parks and Edward G. Robinson. Both men were in the bad graces of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee at the time. Mayer opposed the projects. Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s, first upheld Schary on Parks, and Mayer accepted the decision. But when he heard that Schenck had okayed Robinson he called and asked if he was not to be supported.
“What do you mean?” Schenck said.
“Maybe it would pay to call the head of the studio!” replied Mayer.
Here was the rub of the tension. Mayer felt that he was the man to make the final decisions and that Schary shouldn’t be going over his head to Schenck.
Finally the time came when Mayer called Schenck and said, “It’s either me or Schary. Which?”
Schenck said he would answer him by letter.
Previous to this, Schenck had made a careful analysis of the achievements of all the producers, before and after Schary came. Now he wrote to Mayer and informed him the analysis clearly showed that there had been an appreciable improvement in the product since Schary was there. As a consequence, Schenck advised him that he was going along with Schary.
The implication was obvious. Mayer would have to resign.
Mayer announced his resignation on June 22, 1951, the same to be effective on Aug. 31. But he left the studio before that, without saying any formal good-bys.
In November, after some negotiations, it was agreed that Loew’s Inc. would pay Mayer two and three quarter million dollars for his residual rights to all the films that were made in the studio under his tenure. No one could say that this old warden of the lion did not get his share. ★