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Hollywood's "Lion" with Ukrainian Roots

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Photo: Louis B. Mayer, Source: GettyImages
Photo: Louis B. Mayer, Source: GettyImages

On 4 July 1884, in the Ukrainian village of Dymer near Kyiv, a Jewish family welcomed the birth of Lazar Yakovych Mayer, better known as Louis B. Mayer. He was the head and co-founder of one of the largest Hollywood film studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century according to Time magazine, and a co-founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the same Academy that annually awards the Oscars.

The turn of the century, upcoming World Wars, social instability in Europe, and traditional rampant anti-Semitism in the Russian Empire (which then included parts of modern Ukraine) fostered people with tough characters and forced them to make harsh decisions. One such decision under intolerable external circumstances had to be made by Lazar Mayer's parents.

On 3 May 1882, Tsar Alexander III, the then Russian Emperor, signed a decree by the Committee of Ministers of the Russian Empire "On the Procedure for Enforcing Rules on Jews" (better known as the "May Laws"). This decree severely restricted the rights of Jewish communities living within the state, radically changing the course of imperial policy on this matter by nullifying the more humane reforms of the previous Tsar Alexander II, who was assassinated by the People's Will. The decree outlined territorial boundaries within which Jewish communities could reside (the Pale of Settlement), prohibited Jews from living in large cities, and forbade them from owning real estate and renting land outside these designated areas. It also restricted trade and partially prohibited moves from one settlement to another.

Jewish pogroms preceding the adoption of this decree, Tsar Alexander III's "zoological anti-Semitism"—believing that "if the fate of Jews is sad, then it is determined by the Gospel"—pushed the Mayer family to flee from the "prison of nations." They first went to Minsk, then to Europe, where ships departed for the United States. For several years, the Mayers saved for tickets, and in 1886, they finally moved to the USA, eventually settling in St. John, Canada. There, the head of the family founded a scrap metal recycling company, "Mayer and Sons," where Lazar, who adopted the Americanized name Louis, worked for some time.

In 1904, young Louis Mayer left Canada and moved to Boston, where he continued his father's metal business for a while but later abandoned it. He rented the dilapidated Gem Theater in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and converted it into the Orpheum Theater. This theater had a bad reputation in the Christian state, as it was previously used for burlesque shows. To improve the dubious establishment's image, Mayer started screening religious films, the first of which was From the Manger to the Cross.

A few years later, Mayer owned all five theaters in the city, and soon after, he and his partner, Lithuanian Jew Nathan Gordon, founded the Gordon-Mayer company, which controlled the largest theater network in New England.

In 1914, the partners established a distribution agency in Boston, and Mayer bought exclusive rights to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation for a substantial $25,000. The investment paid off handsomely, and by 1916, with the support of millionaire Richard Rowland, Mayer founded Metro Pictures in New York, complete with his own film studio. That same year, Mayer produced his first film, The Big Secret.

In 1918, Mayer moved to Los Angeles, parted ways with his old business partners, and founded Louis B. Mayer Pictures, attracting the popular Hollywood actress Anita Stewart. Mayer's conservatism and religiosity influenced the studio's film production. He wanted his films to embody "healthy entertainment," piety, patriotism, and family values, stating:

"I will only make pictures that I won't be ashamed to have my children see."

However, this producer's dictate did not affect the success of Mayer's studio's film releases. In 1924, film magnate Marcus Loew, owner of Loews Theatres, bought and merged three of the most successful film companies—Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Mayer Pictures—into the globally renowned Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). This giant of the film industry, celebrating its centenary this year, is associated with Hollywood's "Golden Age" and the emergence of the international term "movie star." Thanks to MGM, the "stars" of great Hollywood actors like Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Lon Chaney, and Katharine Hepburn began to shine. As vice president of the film company, Louis Mayer released his highest-grossing film, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in 1925.

Louis Mayer was depicted numerous times in American films, primarily in a satirical light, due to his reputation as a tough and straightforward businessman. His character appeared in films such as "Mommie Dearest," "RKO 281," "De-Lovely," "The Aviator," "The Last Tycoon," "Barton Fink," "The Death of Superman," and "The Holiday."


The potential benefit to Ukraine from Mayer's energy and business talents, had it not been for the misanthropic policies of the Russian Tsars, remains speculative. In the USA, Louis Mayer turned MGM into the world's most successful film studio and became the highest-paid salaried worker of his era. As a co-founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Louis Mayer (Lazar Mayer from the Ukrainian village of Dymer) was honored with an honorary Oscar for his contributions to the film industry and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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