Much has been made in recent years about Massachusetts' foray into the film industry. Just this year, some 30 major TV and movie projects were made in the Bay State — with stars like Johnny Depp, Vince Vaughn, Naomi Watts and Matthew McConaughey. But in a way, Hollywood is simply coming home.
His name is synonymous with Hollywood. He was born in Minsk, Russia and grew up in New Brunswick, Canada. But it was in Massachusetts that Louis B. Mayer transformed himself from struggling scrap metal dealer to budding film mogul.
"There are stories of Louis B. as a kid carrying around his wagon and going from house to house selling junk and sort of hustling," said Thomas Doherty, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University. "By the time he comes to Massachusetts they were in the scrap metal business, but it was with ships, so it’s not exactly like rough-and-tumble, pushcart kind of experience."
Maybe those years in reclamation is why he saw a diamond in the rough in Haverhill’s Gem Theatre, a dilapidated burlesque house he bought in 1909 and — with his own hands — transformed into The Orpheum, an ornate, “high-class” movie house.
"This is still the Nickelodeon Era," Doherty said. "Film hadn’t quite become film yet. It was mostly just a novelty diversion. And what Mayer does is he realizes that film can become an attraction on its own."
Boy was Mayer right. Mayer quickly invested in a handful of other area theaters. In 1911, he built his grandest one yet — from scratch: the 1,500-seat Colonial. He showed pictures, brought in operas, and stars of the era, like Fred Astaire and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He told audiences at the Colonial’s opening that it was the "zenith of [his] ambition." It was anything but.
"He establishes himself as one of these guys in the New England area," Doherty said. "And he develops a reputation very quickly for also picking the right film. That he knows within a percentile what the gross of given film will be if he sees a preview or even if he just reads about it."
In 1915, he risked everything he’d built — even pawned his wife’s wedding ring — to purchase the exclusive New England distribution rights to D.W. Griffith’s "The Birth of a Nation."
"Everybody thinks he’s nuts, and of course it’s a huge hit," Doherty said. "And this launches him into more of an interest in production. Because if you are an exhibitor and you have a chain of theaters your big problem is getting something to show in the theaters."
On Dec. 29, 1918, Mayer traveled from his office in Brookline to New York City for the premiere of his first personal production, "The Virtuous Wives."
"It’s a lost film — 90 percent of silent films are allegedly lost, so we don’t know what L.B. Mayer’s first production is, but by all accounts it sort of leads the way for what MGM will become in the 1920s," Doherty said.
Haverhill could no longer contain Mayer. He was off to Hollywood, to work for, and eventually run, Metro Goldwyn studios — soon rechristened Metro Goldwyn Mayer – or MGM.
"Mayer is one of the first people to realize that people will go to movies not just to see the content of the film, but to see certain personalities, and he becomes famous early on for developing the star system," Doherty said.
Gretta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and Judy Garland to name a few. As for movies made under his watch?
"Well, 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone with the Wind' are pretty good to begin, both from 1939," Doherty said.
And there was 'The Philadelphia Story,' 'Gaslight,' 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' and hundreds more. As if that weren’t enough, Mayer also created the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and with it the Oscars. As Doherty points out, Mayer may be the single most influential figure of Hollywood’s Golden Era. And it’s not a stretch to say without him Hollywood might have never become Hollywood.
"It was the system that made these films, as much as the individual directors writers or stars," Doherty said. "And Mayer was responsible for orchestrating that system, for creating the system that he built a production machine for making great movies the same way Henry Ford made a production machine for making reliable automobiles."
Louis B. Mayer's path from Haverhill movie-house man to Hollywood impresario was set when his first film, "Virtuous Wives," premiered 96 years ago this week.
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