Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Republican National Convention and the Legacy of Louis B. Mayer

(L.B. Mayer Slept Here)

It’s that time in our national political life when delegates assemble to nominate their party’s candidate for President of the United States. I wonder if, amid all the hoopla, anyone stops to remember the contributions of Louis B. Mayer, the MGM honcho who put his own indelible stamp on the Republican Political Convention of 1932, thereby changing American politics forever.

I get my information from an excellent book published last year by USC professor Steven J. Ross. Its title is Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. Taking exception to the common wisdom that Hollywood types are all a bunch of lefties, Ross carefully lays out the lives and careers of ten major show biz figures -- ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Arnold Schwarzenegger -- who tried to publicly act on their political beliefs. Ross (with whom I chatted at this year’s Biographers International Organization conference) is hardly a man who lacks his own political convictions. But he’s successfully kept them out of sight in this book, the better to weigh the achievements of everyone from Ronald Reagan to Jane Fonda, from Charlton Heston to Warren Beatty.

For me perhaps the most eye-opening part of Ross’s book is its chapter on Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, “the man who brought Hollywood into the Republican Party.” Mayer, who began life as a poor Russian Jewish immigrant before rising to fame and fortune as MGM’s powerful studio chief, naturally gravitated toward the pro-business, anti-communist views of the Republican Party. A friend and an early political supporter of Herbert Hoover, he surprised his detractors with a well-received speech at the Republican Convention of 1928, in which he promised to bring the entire movie industry into the Republican fold. Immediately following Hoover’s inauguration as President, Mayer and family were the first guests invited to a White House sleepover.

With Hoover in the White House, Mayer offered the Republican Party what Ross calls “a new element of glamour.” Visiting Republican politicos were given tours of the grandiose MGM lot –- “the Versailles of the movies” –- and offered plenty of photo ops with Hollywood’s brightest stars. (In exchange, MGM found it easy to borrow battleships and fleets of Navy planes, and won permission to photograph the White House interior in order to re-create it for an upcoming film.) Soon Mayer was named vice-chairman of the California GOP: his biggest contribution was teaching Republicans how to use Hollywood-style showmanship as a way of wooing voters.

The Republican National Convention of 1932, in which the incumbent Hoover was re-nominated by his party, was marked by Mayer’s savvy awareness of the pizzazz needed to get the public interested. The convention was to be broadcast on national radio, and Mayer made sure his listeners heard more than windy orations. He introduced live music during delegate demonstrations, as well as a talking film of President Hoover. For the newsreel cameras, he provided a colorful balloon-drop once Hoover’s nomination was secured. With the campaign launched, Mayer sent such luminaries as Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, Al Jolson, Wallace Beery, and young Jackie Cooper (who said he’d vote for Hoover if he were old enough) to political rallies near and far. Unhappily for Mayer, Hoover was defeated in 1932 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Mayer’s methods weren’t always strictly kosher. In 1934, when he worked toward the election of a Republican governor in California, he faked newsreel footage and forced MGM employees to contribute financially to the campaign. Such dirty tricks, too, have become part of our political heritage.


  1. Wow - fascinating stuff - but Mr. Mayer has always been the stuff of great stories told - but I never knew about his political leanings. Professor Ross's book sounds like an excellent read - heading over to Amazon now! Thanks, Ms. G!

  2. I really think you'll find Steve's book right up your alley, Mr. Craig.