Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mayer May Not Be The Guy

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

There's a new biography of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman. While Mayer's often struck me as the most boring of the studio era Hollywood potentates, I'm sure there's still an interesting story behind his rise (and fall).

The trouble with Mayer is that so many other moguls, such as Darryl Zanuck or David O. Selznick or MGM's own Irving Thalberg, were storytellers first. But Mayer? I always got the impression (from what little I know) that while Mayer knew how to run a studio, and how to build up stars, his type of movie featured cheap sentiment and stultifyingly good taste.

The New York Times has a review by Manohla Dargis. She writes:

When Mayer died, the Hollywood he helped build -- the Hollywood of A Night at the Opera, The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain and The Shop Around the Corner -- died alongside him.

But that's the trouble--these films, while put out by MGM, were not really classic MGM product, but creations of idiosyncratic entertainers. For example, Mayer didn't like the Marx Brothers, and it was Irving Thalberg who brought them to MGM (and, alas, tamed them) to make A Night at The Opera; Singin' in the Rain, from the Freed unit, owed a lot to the vision of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; The Shop Around The Corner is an example of the exquisite talents of Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson, who had developed elsewhere, and owed little to the MGM house style.

The MGM of Mayer is something else. At its best, it's a respectable adaptation of a semi-classic like Captains Courageous, filled with solid production value and a handful of MGM names such as Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Lionel Barrymore and Melvyn Douglas. But mostly it's hundreds of little-remembered films, with glamorous stars, nice sets and costumes, and a story with the edges smoothed off. The epitome of what Mayer believed in, I'd say, are not those films Dargis lists, but the Andy Hardy series--crowd-pleasing in their day, but enjoyable now mostly in an old-fashioned sense.


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