As we all know Louis B. Mayer was head of MGM studies from 1925—when the company was founded—until 1951 when he was forced out by the Nick Schneck, President of Loews Inc. MGM’s parent company. Mayer was not a picture maker. He knew how to run a studio which meant that he managed the physical plant, knew talent when he saw it, paid top dollar for that talent and gave it the best resources then available to make movies. Nevertheless, Mr. Mayer was quite a character. It was often said of him that he was the best actor on the lot. I do not doubt it. Histroy paints him as a bad guy because he was a mogul. But, the truth was Major loved movies but a specific kind of movie. He wasn’t interested in art. He was interested in creating moves that were not only escapism but created an image of life not as it was but how most of the American movie going public wanted it to be. In other words, fantasy and escapism.
John Huston, son of Walter Huston had begun in the film business as a writer eventually he became one of the few writer directors when he made THE MALTESE FALCON. OT was an enormous hit and writer-director Huston was on his was on his way. His films were successes and after coming back from the war He wrote directed and even did a bit part in THE TREASURE OF THE DUERRA MADRE winning both himself an Oscar; his for directing and one for his father as best supporting actor playing the films old prospector.
Although he had great success at Warners he was dissatisfied with the studio and when his contract was up, he signed shifted over to MGM for a multiple picture deal rather than a term contract. The first picture that he made there was the ASPHALT JUNGLE. Although it was the first of what would be called “heist movies” and set the bench mark for all the others that followed, it didn’t make very much money and worse, LB Mayer hated it. He always called it “John Huston’s Pavement.” He believed the film was essentially nihilistic with a thug for a hero whom audiences could not warm up. In short, the film had everything he hated in a movie; crooks for heroes and a hard boiled look at life topped with a downbeat ending. In a sense he was right as the Film’s Star Sterling Hayden played one of the first anti-heroes. Mayer believed that the film had no heart—meaning it didn’t touch audiences on an emotional level to which they could relate.
Sitting in Italy MGM had millions in blocked funds from all the MGM films released there after the war and which they weren’t allowed to take out of the country. So it was decided to use this money to make an epic remake of QUO VADIS. Huston was suggested for director so he and LB had a meeting. LB was very frank with Huston about his—LB’s—feelings about “Pavement.” He also told Huston that he was the man with the talent to make QUO VADIS into a great film. All Huston needed to do was to put “heart” into it. Mayer kept telling Huston that if could just put heart into QUO VADIS it would be the greatest film ever made. Mayer got so caught up in this “heart’ business that he told Huston that if he put heart into QUO VADIS, why he, Mayer would fall to the floor and on his hands and knees crawl to Huston and kiss his feet.
And, as he was telling Huston this, the head of the most powerful studio in Hollywood and the highest paid man in America, got up from behind his massive desk, fell to the floor and in a dog fashion actually crawled his way to Huston while saying over and lover, “If you could put heart into QUO VADIS this is what I would do to show you my thanks.” While John Huston was watching Mayer crawling on the floor up to him, he—Huston—was actually questioning his own sanity because in the 20 years that he had been working in Hollywood he had never seen anything like this. He simply couldn’t believe it. When Mayer reached Huston he took hold of Huston’s foot and kissed it repeating over and over, “I would do this if you could just put heart into Quo Vadis. That’s how important this it is to me for you to make a great film.” A moment later Mayer was on his feet, brushing off his suit and, walking Huston to the door, telling the director that he knew that he would make a great picture with plenty of heart.
To make a long story short, Huston went out and had a couple of drinks to regain his mental equilibrium. He did not make QUO VADIS. Instead Melvin LeRoy directed it and put so much heart into it that it became the highest grossing film MGM released since GONE WITH THE WIND.
Instead of QUO VADIS, Huston MADE THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE another film Mayer hated even before it was made. By this time Huston had, if not an affection for LB, then a genuine respect. So, before he started Red Badge he told him: “Look, LB, if you don’t want me to make the movie I won’t make it.” LB’s retorted: “John I’m ashamed of you. I expected more from you. If you believe in this film than fight for it. I don’t believe in it and I will oppose it. I may win, you may win but whatever the outcome we will be fighting for something that we believe in and that is picture making. Good or Bad, that’s was Louis B. Mayer.
So, Houston made THE RED BADGE COURAGE and the first preview was a disaster. I actually spoke with someone who was there. He told me that in Huston’s cut it was the greatest film he’d ever seen about war. He had been a GI in WWII and told me that watching that film was like reliving those years. It was that good. The phrase he used was “I was Blown Away.” Anyway, the audience didn’t hate it as much as they were bored which is even worse. The preview cards were terrible and LB walked out of the theatre without saying a word to either Huston or Gottfried Reinhardt, the son of Theater Icon Max Reinhardt and the film’s producer. When LB did walked out of a preview like that, everyone at MGM knew what he thought and those involved with the film knew that they were in for trouble at the studio. Huston was scheduled to leave for Africa to direct THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and the next day he was gone. Thus, Reinhardt was left to deal with the film and LB Mayer. The night of the preview Reinhardt told his wife: “It’s going to be terrible at the studio tomorrow. Everyone is going to hate me.” At MGM if you made a hit, everyone loved you. You made a flop even the guard at the front gate gave you the cold shoulder. Anyway next day as Reinhardt was walking on the lot, he turned a corner and bumped into LB. LB Started right in, jabbing his finger at him
“MR. REEEEINHARRRRDT! You want to be an artist but you don’t want to starve for your art. You want the studio to starve. What is so wrong with making money for the studio? When did that suddenly become a crime? You make a good salary, you live well but you don’t want to help the studio that gives you all that. What you want to do is be an artist…..”
He went on like this for a good 20 minutes with L.B laying a guilt trip on Reinhardt that would have made Freud earn his fees for a year. It should be noted that people were walking past, seeing and hearing everything. Within five minutes it would be the talk of the studio and lower Reinhardt’s stock even more. That night Gottfried Reinhardt told his sympathetic wife that it had been one of the worst days of his life. LB often could have that affect. That’s how it was working as a producer at MGM during Hollywood’s Golden age. In the mid-50s when MGM had massive firings (Gable was even let go) Reinhardt moved to Europe where he both produced and directed movies starring Kirk Douglas and Robert Redford. Mayer would be fired in 1951 and in 1957 while attempting to wrench back control of the studio died of cancer. Many who knew Mayer at his prime found it hard to believe that such a human power house was gone. Truth was, when he went an era of film history went with him. He was truly one of a kind.
Side note. THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE would eventually be cut by nearly 20 minutes, a narration added and become one of the great tragedies in Hollywood History. Twenty years later MGM came to Huston and asked him if he had a copy of his cut. Apparently they wanted to re-release Huston’s version. Unfortunately he and no one else had ever bothered to keep a copy of the original cut. This was almost 30 years before DVD’s and the “director’s cut”. In its original cut—until the end of his life—Huston always believed that RED BAGE was one of the two or three best films he ever made which would also make it one of the two or three greatest films ever made. As I mentioned, one of the great film tragedies right there with GREED and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Fortunately for his vilified reputation LB wasn’t the man who cut RED BAGE. That fell to Dore Schary head of production at MGM who, as TV finally rung the death of Hollywood’s Golden Age, was also ceremoniously fired a year or so before L.E died. Schary was many things but he was no L.B. Mayer. In fact no one was.