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.
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 Kane on Hearst’s behalf.
This season we're going to tell 15 stories about different people who worked at the same movie studio over the course of five decades, as the movie industry transitioned from silents to sound, into its Golden Era and finally into its television 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.