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Film Studies: Louis B Mayer: reborn on the fourth of July

This is a Fourth of July story, and it takes a long journey. A man named Lazar Meir was born in the summer of 1885, somewhere in Ukraine. Lazar never knew the precise date. In later years, though, he did what he could to bury the real place. Why? Because he had been born very poor, in ignominious circumstances; and because by the late 1930s he was Louis B Mayer, the West Coast executive in charge of Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer. He was by then not just "American", but the friend of President Herbert Hoover, of Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst; and in 1937 he was paid $1.3m, which made him the highest-salaried person in the land. He held that title for nine years, and he had long since decided that his birthday was 4 July. So on that public holiday he threw a swaggering picnic on the studio's Culver City lot, to which his stars brought flags, and gifts for Mr Mayer.

There are two verdicts on LB - that he was a terrible man, or worse. I knew one of his daughters and two of his grandsons, and I could tell how, 30 years after his death, they were still afraid that a portion of his melodrama had gone into them. I say that because LB was known as the greatest actor on the Metro lot.

Not that he could have been in films - he was ugly and squat, with an inner monstrosity that no training in table manners could quell. But he dramatised everything. In any argument with a contract star, he'd act out all the roles - his mother, the star's mother, some little old lady in Duluth ready to die if the star didn't follow LB's orders - moving himself to tears until the professional felt intimidated and appalled at the terrible hypocrisy to which a life of acting could lead.

The daughter I knew, Irene Mayer, who married David Selznick, was aware that her father had been an evil tyrant, but she couldn't get him out of her system, and under pressure she could become him, no matter that she was - as he said - the most intelligent woman Hollywood had ever fashioned. So she was a wreck. His wreck. And it wasn't pretty, or easy, for Irene, as David her husband made Gone With the Wind but in its crisis had to go to LB for Clark Gable and the money to finish the picture. It was a family business in those days - and family was the root of Hollywood madness.

LB's 4 July picnics were part of his self-dramatisation. I'm sure, long before the end, he'd forgotten his 4 July lie. I have a picture of the l936 picnic, with LB dancing with Judy Garland. She's 14 and nearly as tall as he is. She wears a print frock. He wears a panama hat, white shirt and slacks, a silk tie and co- respondent shoes. And he looks like the frog that got into the party by promising to turn into a prince.

Judy was the apple of his wicked eye: a child from the Midwest, a natural performer, gold in the bank. He worked her stupid. By the time she was 28, she had made 3l pictures, most of them for Mr Mayer. She had two failed marriages. She had Liza, and a lot of affairs with older, wiser men who could have been kinder. She was also herself, Frances Gumm, a chronic performer, unstable, overemotional, self-destructive. And Mr Mayer's "family" studio had its way of looking after Judy that involved the medication to bring her up or down as required for shooting schedules or 4 July picnics.

Judy did all the Mickey Rooney pictures, as well as the Vincente Minnelli movies (he was her second husband) - Meet Me in St Louis, The Clock, The Pirate. And crack-up was coming just as sure as the lion's roar at the start of her pictures. LB had engineered it, yet he cared for her, too. There was a dire day when Judy went to see him in his cream-coloured office and said she needed hospital help, but she was broke. So LB called Nick Schenck on the East Coast - Nick was the man who really ran MGM, and Loew's, its parent company. He explained the situation to Nick, listened, and put down the phone.

"He said you should go to a charity hospital," he told her.

And Judy probably grinned, because she had learnt irony over the years. But LB was stunned. What's up, Pop? she asked him.

"If they can do this to you," he realised, "they can do it to me."

And they did. Metro fired Judy. She made five more pictures in the rest of her life. A year later they fired LB. He was dead six years later, in 1957. And he left money to Irene (he cut the other daughter, Edith, out of his will, because she had supported Adlai Stevenson in 1952). The years passed, turned into decades, and last week Daniel Mayer Selznick, aged 63, took the last legacy he had - the Best Picture Oscar for Gone With the Wind - and sold it at auction. Michael Jackson bought it for $1.5m. The Metro lot is now owned by Sony. MGM barely survives. The stars no longer work under seven-year contracts; they get money upfront, plus a portion of the profits. The great families have gone back to being unknown. But the self-dramatisation, and the ease of transformation: those are the gifts of Lazar Meir.