I’ve heard the phrase before, star making machinery, Joni Mitchell sings about it, but Louie B. Mayer preaches it. During his long reign at MGM, Mayer acquired many enemies as well as admirers. Some stars were disturbed by his attempts to control their private lives, while others describe him as a solicitous father figure. He believed in wholesome entertainment and went to great lengths to discover new actors and develop them into major stars.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, MGM was known for adult themes with strong female stars. But following Irving Thalberg’s early death in 1936, Mr. Mayer changed emphasis to male leads, family themes, and child stars.
A quote from Mr. Mayer;
I am going to make pictures that you can take your mother and children to see. I am not going to make pictures for the sake of awards or for the critics. I’m going to make pictures for Americans and for all people to enjoy. When I send pictures abroad, I want to show America in the right light-and not that we are a nation chiefly of drunks, gangsters, and prostitutes.
-Louie B. Mayer
Mayer promoted themes and child stars, such as Andy Hardy, starring Mickey Rooney. The lavish- Biltmore Hotel hosted the 11th annual Academy Awards, best actor would fall to Father Flannigan, or Spencer Tracy. Mickey Rooney won a special Academy Award for juveniles in 1939, also for Boystown. He was 19.
A big part of this machinery in the day was a printing press and the post office. Movie fans everywhere wanted to meet these glistening movie stars, that this factory in Culver City seem to produce with a swash from a giant hand and the resulting strong breeze that follows.
An example is this fan mail I found in an old drawer while exploring the backlot.
These autographs were given to me by these two MGM icons.
As if the world turns in a different stratosphere or different speed here in Culver City. People around the world are captivated by the stars Mr. Louie B. Mayer swears he can manufacture, practically in the same ways automobiles are being manufactured at the very same time in Detroit by Henry Ford.
Pick a style or model, some make-up or fresh paint, fancy clothes or upholstery, make sure it purrs, make sure he or she says the right things, like a car radio and walla, charge admission or just drive it off the lot. Yes, this is a star making factory tooled specifically for actors who have “IT.”
Oh, and yes…have them drive one of those fancy cars that Detroit builds!
Get the picture? You can create a Rembrandt masterpiece if you have some paint and the talents of all these wonderful and highly skilled employees and artists. I believe more than ever Mr. Mayer is correct.
Sometimes what looks like a fancy car turns into no more than a Edsel…the star or the car needs to be received with fanfare to push it upwards to stardom. Publicists and photographers take over now, it’s let’s sell this thing time… now lets add some polish and final details before we roll it into the showroom. The photographers will meet you there.
Yes, MGM has a stable of legendary photographers, I will shed light on these gentlemen that did not receive film credits, but their work is absolutely priceless…
The Fabulous 3;
We start with Frank ‘Shug’ Shugrue. His career spanned from the 1940’s to the 1970’s. His job consisted mostly of taking on the set photos, but also to do promotional pictures for fan magazines. The movie making machinery never sleeps, trust me!
Frank worked exclusively for MGM as a “Still Man” for 15 years. But in the mid-sixties, his employers became more varied. In 1955 he worked on MGM’s “Forbidden Planet,” and in 1959 “The Time Machine”.
He worked at MGM from 1933 to the 1960’s. Elevated from an office boy, he succeeded Virgil Apger. Eric’s first solo assignment, which was a make or break opportunity, was to photograph Norma Shearer. She was trying out new photographers and she wanted someone talented and loyal. His final test was an outdoor session at her beach house. Will his style work? Well the answer is yes.
He finally became a portrait photographer at precisely the moment MGM was cultivating a new crop of stars to squeeze through all this movie making machinery. Esther Williams, Lana Turner and popular duo Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. a decade later, Carpenter photographed Marilyn Monroe when she made ‘Asphalt Jungle’ in 1950. He used the same pose he successfully used with Lana Turner and that was dreamed up for Gene Harlow.
A quote from Eric;
“The stars were the only ones who appreciated what we were trying to do. As far as producers and executives were concerned, it was just publicity, they couldn’t have cared less!”
Chalk up another check under star making machinery mentality…
He began at Paramount in the 1920’s, as did Arnold Gillespie, the MGM Special Effects Wizard. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Dyar developed his own, highly dramatic style that deviated from the neoclassical glamour of the 1920’s. Edgy and expressionistic, Dyar’s photographs pushed the iconic features of movie stars like Cary Grant and Joan Crawford to a grittier place that was more in aesthetics of films made in those decades. Of particular note are Dyar’s photos taken outside the studio, an unusual and daring step at the time.
Hollywood stills photographers like Dyar were not mirroring the life, but illusion. There subjects were not humans-but gods- of love, of allure, of luxury, perfection incarnate from the golden age of Hollywood glamour…
His work can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan museum of Art.
MGM had more photographers and we will have more on each as we go forward.
Art Director/ Cedrick Gibbons;
The man who designed The Oscar that Mickey is holding. He was nominated 39 times for the Academy Award for Best Production Design and won 11 Oscar’s, both records if you’re counting. He is to film what Tom Brady is to football is my “Donnie” comparison. His numbers are scarily similar …these people only come along once in a life time.
Mr. Gibbons, who designed the Academy Awards Trophy, would win his last for Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). He retired in 1956 with over 1,500 hundred films to his credit.
He joined the MGM team when it was picking out it’s future talent when the studio became MGM in 1924. The same year, they ‘drafted a player‘ named Arnold Gillespie. I use football terms having found out Arnold was part owner of the Rams.
MGM becomes MGM for real in 1924. The nucleus for success was a collaboration of several men with various talents. All these men were necessary in there own capacities to launch this studio. At this same time, ships would sail back and forth to places like Italy for the filming of Ben-Hur. Even in it’s infancy, the studio thinks BIG!
Nothing ventured, nothing gained becomes a working motto. That said, keep it in a budget that works…Read the Wizard of MGM for some of this studio’s best stories no one knows…
Once again, Mr. Mayer speaks;
The idea of a star being born is bushwa. A star is created, carefully and cold-bloodily, built up from nothing. from nobody. Age, beauty and talent, least of all talent, has nothing to do with it. We can make silk purses out of sows’ ears every day of the week. Louie B. Mayer
This is the same thought process used by the Marines!
To add to his point, throw in some smoke, and fire and crazy but well planned special effects from Mr. Arnold Gillespie and this machine can put out products only rivaled by showroom automobiles of the day. The two biggest industries were going on simultaneously, and if need be, Arnold was the guy who could push an auto, a ship, a plane or even a rocket ship to elevated status.
All these special talents and more came together on a daily basis, many more than I mentioned here. I look forward to shedding light on these folks behind the camera that withstand the grind that actually exists in making movies, for the reward of a finished product that is enjoyed forever. I look forward to trying to plug that studio back in, one department at a time.
You might not want to hear this, but I do believe much of what Louie B. Mayer is true. If you throw money at something it should shine, but will it work?
It sure did for MGM… that’s because no one was bigger than the team.
I want to express a special thanks to Todd Spiegelberg and David Barnes in matching up these legendary photographers to the photos I have- and will continue to share. We just touched on this facet of the star making process, we will do a lot more based off these pictures moving forward. The more we know about the men behind the lenses’, the better this gets!
I did my part to keep pictures developing after these legends of photography disappeared. Luckily for me, I was able to carry the torch. Or more precise, run with it, through the star making machinery that once was…
Written and lived by Donnie Norden…