He is generally cited as the creator of the "star system" within Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in its golden years. Known always as Louis B. Mayer and often simply as "L.B.", he believed in "wholesome entertainment" and went to great lengths so that MGM had "more stars than there are in the heavens".
In 1914, the partners organized their own film distribution agency in Boston. Mayer paid D.W. Griffith $25,000 for the exclusive rights to show The Birth of a Nation (1915) in New England. Although Mayer made the bid on a film that one of his scouts had seen, but he had not, his decision netted him over $100,000. Mayer partnered with Richard A. Rowland in 1916 to create Metro Pictures Corporation, a talent booking agency, in New York City.
Two years later, Mayer moved to Los Angeles and formed his own production company, Louis B. Mayer Pictures Corporation. The first production was 1918's Virtuous Wives. A partnership was set up with B. P. Schulberg to make the Mayer-Schulberg Studio. Mayer's big breakthrough, however, was in April 1924 when Marcus Loew, owner of the Loews Theatres chain, merged Metro Pictures, Samuel Goldwyn's Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, and Mayer Pictures into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under the supervision of Nicholas Schenck in New York City. As "Vice-President in Charge of Production" based in Los Angeles, Mayer effectively controlled MGM for the next 27 years.
In 1927, Loew died, leaving control of MGM to Schenck. In 1929, the head of rival studio Fox Film Corporation, William Fox, arranged to buy controlling interest from Schenck. Mayer and Thalberg were outraged -- they were in charge of MGM but had no say in the deal -- and this only served to worsen an already tense relationship between Schenck and Mayer (reportedly, Mayer called Schenck "Mr. Skunk" in private). Mayer went to the Justice Department and, through his political connections, got the department to file antitrust charges against Fox. The fact that Fox was seriously injured in the summer of 1929 in a car accident -- and the stock market crash took place in the fall of 1929 -- meant the Loews-Fox deal was doomed, even if the Justice Department had given its blessing. Nonetheless, Schenck blamed Mayer for the deal's collapse and never forgave him.
Although Mayer had a reputation for ruthless expediency and allegedly narrow views about what subjects were suitable topics for motion pictures, Katharine Hepburn referred to him as a "nice man" (and claimed she personally negotiated many of her contracts with Mayer), while young actresses such as Debbie Reynolds, June Allyson, and Leslie Caron who matured as MGM contract players viewed him as a father figure.
The MGM corporate office in New York decided that Dore Schary, a writer and producer recently hired from RKO Radio Pictures, might be able to turn the tide. In 1951, MGM had gone three years without a major Academy Award, which provoked further conflict between Mayer and Schenck. Under orders to control costs and hire "a new Thalberg," Mayer hired writer and producer Schary as production chief. Schary, who was 20 years Mayer's junior, preferred message pictures in contrast with Mayer's taste for "wholesome" films.
In 1951, Schenck fired Mayer from the post he'd held for 27 years. The firing reportedly came after Mayer called New York and issued an ultimatum--"It's either him, or me." Mayer tried to stage a boardroom coup but failed and largely retired from public life.
Active in Republican Party politics, Mayer served as the vice chairman of the Republican Party of California from 1931 to 1932 and as its state chairman between 1932 and 1933. He and Thalberg played a role in attacking reformist Upton Sinclair's EPIC Movement in the 1934 California gubernatorial bid, in an early use of modern-day public relations and propaganda strategy, complete with specially-made short films disguised as newsreels, attacking Sinclair.
In the 2005 biography, Lion of Hollywood, author Scott Eyman wrote that: "Mayer built one of the finest racing stables in the United States" and that he "almost single-handedly raised the standards of the California racing business to a point where the Eastern thoroughbred establishment had to pay attention." Among his horses was Your Host, sire of Kelso, the 1945 U.S. Horse of the Year, Busher, and the 1959 Preakness Stakes winner, Royal Orbit. Eventually Mayer sold off the stable, partly to finance his divorce in 1947. His 248 horses brought more than $4.4 million.
In 1976, Thoroughbred of California magazine named him "California Breeder of the Century".
In 1990, Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen wrote Deadly Illusions, published by Random House. Marx was a story editor at MGM and a friend of both Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, husband of MGM star Jean Harlow, at the time of Bern's death. On September 5, 1932, Marx had gone to Bern's house -- before the police were informed of the discovery of Bern's body -- and saw Thalberg tampering with the evidence. The next day, Marx was among the studio executives who were told by Louis B. Mayer what the headlines would be to avoid scandal -- "Suicide Because of Impotence!"
In the 1980s, Marx investigated the case, and for the first time scrutinized the remaining available evidence. Marx concluded that Bern was murdered by his former common law wife, Dorothy Millette, who then committed suicide. Two days after Bern's death she jumped from the ferryboat Delta King, traveling from San Francisco to Sacramento. Her body was found a few days later by men fishing on the Sacramento River. Millette's shoes and jacket were found on the boat -- she had taken them off before jumping into the water. The "suicide note" had in fact been written by Bern, but some weeks prior to his death, to apologize for a minor quarrel with Harlow about the secluded location of their home -- Harlow wanted to live in a livelier place. Bern had bought a bunch of roses and presented them to Jean with the note that became a "suicide note" in the eyes of Los Angeles district attorney Buron Fitts who was bribed by MGM to keep the lid on the case.
His sister, Ida Mayer Cummings, and brothers, Jerry and Rudolph are also interred at the Home of Peace Cemetery. His mother Sarah and father are buried in the Shaarei Zedek Cemetery in Saint John, New Brunswick, in the small Jewish section of the Fernhill Cemetery on Westmorland Road.
Mayer has been portrayed numerous times in film and television including:
Mayer has a star on Canada's Walk of Fame
In Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead there is a satirical depicition of a fictional film company named "Cosmo-Slotnik", whose director "Mr. Slotnik" is mentioned as being forty-three in 1927 - Louis B. Mayer's age on that year. In Kim Newman and Eugene Byrd's alternate history novel Back in the USSA, Meyer is the Secretary of State under President Al Capone, as an apparent analogue of Vyacheslav Molotov.