MGM stories

MGM Stories Part Fifteen: The End of Louis B. Mayer by Karina Longworth

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In the 1940s, Louis B. Mayer was the highest paid man in America, one of the first celebrity CEOs and the figurehead of what for most Americans was the most glamorous industry on Earth. In 1951, Mayer was fired from the studio that bore his name. What happened -- to Mayer, and to movies on the whole -- to hasten the end of the golden era of Hollywood?

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Special thanks to Craig Mazin, who throughout this series played Louis B. Mayer. Mazin will return in a supporting role as Mayer next season, which begins in late January. Thanks also to all of our special guests this season, including Wil Wheaton, Dana Carvey, Steve Zissis, Kelly Marcel, Adam Goldberg, Rian Johnson and Noah Segan. 

And extra super special thanks to Teddy Blanks, who created our new iTunes logo, and Henry Molofsky, who edited this episode and every episode this season.  

We will be on hiatus for the next four weeks. Happy holidays, happy New Year, and we'll speak to you in late January!

Sources:

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman

Picture by Lillian Ross

The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz

MGM Stories Part Thirteen: Gloria Grahame by Karina Longworth

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Gloria Grahame arrived in Hollywood in 1944, after Louis B. Mayer personally plucked her from the New York stage, and changed her name. But Grahame was the rare actress who Mayer didn’t know how to turn into a star. Finally in 1947, Mayer gave up on Grahame and sold her contract to RKO, where she flourished as a femme fatale in film noir. Grahame's career would be marred by her compulsive plastic surgery, her increasingly eccentric on-set behavior, and gossip about her love life, which included marriages to both director Nicholas Ray, and his son, Tony. 

Sources:

Suicide Blonde: The Life of Gloria Grahame by Vincent Curcio

Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director by Patrick McGilligan

Grahame on the cover of LIFE Magazine

"Gloria Grahame: In praise of the naughty mind" by Donald Chase, Film Comment

"Fatal Instincts: The dangerous pout of Gloria Grahame" by Dan Callahan, Bright Lights Film Journal

This episode was edited by Henry Molofsky and included a cameo by Noah Segan.

MGM Stories Part Nine: Spencer Tracy by Karina Longworth

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When Spencer Tracy signed with MGM, he was a character actor better known for his problem drinking (and very public extramarital affair with Loretta Young) than for his movie hits. But the studio made him a star, and by the time Katharine Hepburn was looking for a male star who could play a prototypical American male opposite her very idiosyncratic persona, Tracy was the obvious choice. Tracy and Hepburn became one of the most legendary Hollywood couples of the century, on-screen and off, and their partnership helped to canonize both as important stars. But their personal relationship was complicated by his drinking and his relationships with other women -- including his wife.

Sources: 

The "most recent biographies" of Tracy and Hepburn mentioned in this episode are William J. Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn and James Curtis' Spencer Tracy: A Biography. The latter disputes the former, at least where the sex lives of its subjects are concerned. I'm honestly not sure what to believe about Tracy and particularly Hepburn's sex life, and I'm honestly not sure it really matters; what's more interesting to me is the ways in which stories/rumors/ideas about famous people circulate in the culture and become a part of their history, whether they're true or not. 

Other sources: Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir by Garson Kanin; Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman; and City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich.

This episode was edited by Henry Molofsky. Our research intern is Allie Gemmill. 

Special thanks to our special guests: Steve Zissis played Spencer Tracy; Kelly Marcel played Katharine Hepburn; and Craig Mazin returned as Louis B. Mayer. 

This episode is sponsored by Audible.com Go to Audible.com/remember for a free audiobook and a 30-day trial.

This episode is also sponsored by Squarespace. Start your website with no credit card required by going to Squarespace.com and using the offer code REMEMEBER. 

MGM Stories Part Eight: Eddie Mannix by Karina Longworth

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In the new Hollywood satire from the Coen Brothers, Josh Brolin plays a studio "fixer" named Eddie Mannix. The real Eddie Mannix was a New Jersey-born reputed gangster who rose through the ranks at MGM to become the studio's general manager. His position required ensuring that the darker, more scandalous actions of MGM’s biggest names were kept hidden from the public and press at large. While devoting his career to protecting the personal lives of MGM’s employees, Mannix had his own colorful personal life: a chronic adulterer with a history of domestic violence, he married his mistress Toni, who went on to have a Mannix-endorsed affair with Superman star George Reeves, whose death under mysterious circumstances further complicated Mannix's legacy.

Sources:

There is a book on Eddie Mannix; it's called The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine. It includes quite a lot of conjecture and speculation, so I tried to only include in the episode information that could be found in at least one other source. In attempting to confirm details, I came upon archival articles which complicate matters by mixing apparent truth with clear inaccuracies or spin, such as this one about Mary Nolan's lawsuit against Mannix in which he is referred to as a "Hollywood director." In the episode, I did the best I could to sort out the most likely versions of the truth. 

Other sources:

Mary Nolan: Tragic Star by Eve Golden

David Stenn's original Vanity Fair article on Patricia Douglas (sadly not on Vanity Fair's actual site)

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman

Hollywood Kryptonite: The Bulldog, The Lady and the Death of Superman by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger

MGM Stories Part Six: Jean Harlow by Karina Longworth

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As part of the publicity campaign for his film Hell's Angels, Howard Hughes made Jean Harlow a star, branding her “The Platinum Blonde.” But after Hell's Angels, Hughes couldn’t figure out what to do with Harlow, so she ended up signing a contract with MGM, at the urging of Paul Bern, who became Harlow’s new impresario and husband. Despite the fact that Louis B. Mayer had dismissed her as just a “floozy,” Harlow had five years of super stardom at MGM. But during that time, Bern died under mysterious circumstances — as did Harlow herself, in 1937, at the age of 26

Sources:

Eyman, Scott. Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer. Simon & Schuster, 2008 Kindle Edition.

Fleming, E.J. The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine McFarland & Co Inc, 2004. Kindle Edition.

Stenn, David. Bombshell: The Life and Death of Jean Harlow Lightning Bug Press, 2000

MGM Stories Part Four: John Gilbert and Greta Garbo by Karina Longworth

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Rising romantic lead John Gilbert signed with MGM in 1924 and the next year he starred in King Vidor’s The Big Parade, the studio’s biggest hit of the silent era. That same year, Louis B. Mayer brought his new discovery to Hollywood: an enigmatic Swedish actress named Greta Garbo. Garbo and Gilbert starred together in the romantic melodrama Flesh and the Devil, and began a relationship in real-life, which was eagerly exploited by the still-fledgling Hollywood publicity machine. Gilbert’s career suffered from his contentious relationship with Mayer, and his increasing alcoholism, while Garbo’s star continued to rise. In 1933, Garbo made it a condition of her MGM contract extension that the studio cast Gilbert as her love interest in Queen Christina. Within three years, Gilbert was dead. Within ten years, Garbo’s career had taken a turn, too

Special thanks to special guest star Craig Mazin, reprising his role as Louis B. Mayer.

This episode was edited by Henry Molofsky.

This episode included a clip from the John Gilbert film His Glorious Night, pulled from Kevin Brownlow's incredible silent era documentary Hollywood. Hollywood is watchable in several installments on YouTube.

We are proud to welcome our new sponsor, Audible.com! Get a free audiobook and a 30-day trial at Audible.com/remember

Sources:

Basinger, Jeanine. Silent Stars. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 2012

Bret, David. Greta Garbo: The Divine Star. London: Robson Press, 2012. 

Conway, Michael; McGregor, Dion & Ricci, Mark. The Complete Films of Greta Garbo. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.

Eyman, Scott Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer . Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. 2008

Eyman, Scott The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution 1926-1930 Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. 1998

Golden, Eve John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars (Screen Classics) The University Press of Kentucky. Kindle Edition. 2013

Krützen, Michaela. The Most Beautiful Woman on the Screen: The Fabrication of the Star Greta Garbo. Berlin: Peter Lang, 1992.

"Garbo's Last Days" by Michael Gross. New York Magazine, May 21, 1990

MGM Stories Part Three: Buster Keaton's Biggest Mistake by Karina Longworth

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In 1928, silent comedy star Buster Keaton made what he would later call “the worst mistake of my career”: against the advice of fellow silent comedy auteurs like Charlie Chaplin, he gave up his independent production shingle and signed a contract with MGM. A vaudevillian who got his start working with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, by the late 1920s Keaton had established himself as a solo writer, director and star who was known for doing his own spectacular but reckless stunts. Keaton joined MGM with a promise from his friend Joe Schenck that nothing would change, only to find himself in his new situation demoted from artistic boss to employee of a corporation interested in protecting its investment above all. The lack of agency and ability to personally control the quality of his own work within the confines of Mayer’s studio drove Keaton to alcoholism, which further doomed his tenure at MGM. Keaton’s experience is perhaps the first major example of an indie filmmaker “selling out” to a big studio, only to be swallowed up by the system.

This episode was edited by Henry Molofsky.

Sources for this episode: 

My Wonderful World of Slapstick by Buster Keaton and Charles Samuels

Buster Keaton Oral History, Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman

The Fall of Buster Keaton by James L. Neibaur

"Movie Classic" article about Keaton's "kidnapping" scandal

This episode includes clips of Keaton speaking, found at the following two sources:

So Funny it Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM, a documentary by Kevin Brownlow and Christopher Bird.

Keaton in conversation with Studs Turkel, September 1960. 

We also borrowed this clip from Sunset Boulevard:

MGM Stories Part Two: Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst and Citizen Kane by Karina Longworth

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Marion Davies is enshrined in memory as the gorgeous but questionably talented mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst -- thanks in part to the depiction of a Davies-esque character in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. But Davies’ involvement with the much older Hearst both ensured she would have a movie career, and perhaps doomed Davies to ridicule and limited stardom. This episode will explore how Davies and Hearst hooked up, the mutually beneficial working relationship between Hearst and Louis B. Mayer, the souring of that relationship over MGM’s (mis)use of Davies and Mayer’s effort to block the release of Kaneon Hearst’s behalf

Special thanks to Larry Herold, who reprised his role as Orson Welles. This episode was edited by Henry Molofsky. Our research intern is Allison Gemmill. 

Sources for this episode:

Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer by Scott Eyman

The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution by Scott Eyman

The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst by Marion Davies

Marion Davies by Fred Guilles

Hearst Over Hollywood: Power, Passion and Propaganda in the Movies by Louis Pizzitola

Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger

This is Orson Welles by Peter Bogdanovich

MGM Stories Part One - Louis B. Mayer vs. Irving Thalberg (YMRT #56) by Karina Longworth

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Welcome to the fifth season of You Must Remember This! This season, called MGM Stories, is going to tell 15 tales about people who worked at the same movie studio over the course of five decades and counter-culture-hastened decline.

Established in 1924, MGM was the product of a merger of three early Hollywood entities, but the only person working there who got to have his name in the title was studio chief Louis B. Mayer. For the first dozen years of its existence, Mayer’s influence over the company would be at least matched by that of producer Irving Thalberg, who was perceived as the creative genius to Mayer’s bureaucrat. This episode will trace the rise of MGM through the 1920s and early-mid 30s, covering Mayer’s long-evolving working relationship with Thalberg, the creation of the MGM “star factory” identity and unique power within the community of Hollywood, and the in-fighting which would end with Mayer poised to seize his crown as the most powerful man in Hollywood.

Special thanks to Dan Saraceni and Liz Lui, who contributed ideas that inspired this episode in our forum, and Craig Mazin (screenwriter and co-host of the Scriptnotes podcast), who guest stars as Louis B. Mayer. This episode was edited by Henry Molofsky, and our research intern is Allison Gemmill. The outro music to this ep is "We're a Happy Family" by The Ramones.

As you may have noticed, the podcast has a new distribution partner, Panoply. You can find the whole family of Panoply podcasts at itunes.com/panoply. If you subscribe to the show on iTunes, it should feel like nothing has changed, but if you have any problem finding or listening to episodes, please contact me using the link at the top of the page. 

This season, as promised, was inspired by suggestions made by our listeners on our Forum. As the season continues, we'll be contacting listeners whose ideas influenced specific episodes. This season, which will last until the end of 2015, is fully scheduled, but you can continue to use the Forum to suggest ideas for future seasons, and also to discuss this current season or past episodes with other listeners. 

The primary sources for this episode were Lion of Hollywood by Scott Eyman, The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger, and a number of oral histories accessed at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript archive, including the recollections of Dore Schary, Anita Loos, and Sheilah Graham.

If you're new to our show, check out our four previous seasons -- including the series Star Wars and Charles Manson's Hollywood - on iTunes.