by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The staggering growth of the motion picture industry during the early 1920s is embodied in a number of ways, including longer, more complex feature-length films with larger budgets, production companies becoming larger and more sophisticated, studios expanding with better facilities and sets, and “movie palaces” with larger capacity and more ornate and ostentations decoration, and so on.
In 1924, the creation of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or M.G.M., was also emblematic of the vigorous expansion of the industry as this combination of Metro Pictures, launched nearly a decade before on the east coast by Louis B. Mayer and Richard A. Rowland, Mayer’s own company which he formed in 1918 after leaving Metro, and Samuel Goldwyn’s studio, which was acquired by Marcus Loew, led to one of the giants, along with the likes of Paramount Pictures, in the business.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is something of a lead-up to the formation of M.G.M., being a panoramic photograph taken on 2 December 1922 by Miles F. Weaver of an elaborate banquet thrown by Mayer at the Ambassador Hotel for Loew and Rowland as the two visited Los Angeles to take stock of their film interests.
Rowland arrived in the Angel City on 20 November and, having sold Metro to Loew two years prior, was the manager of Associated First National Pictures, which began in 1917 as an independent theater owners circuit and, two years later, moved into distribution. Loew (1870-1927) began his career as a theater operator in New York, with Adolph Zukor, later the powerful head of Paramount Studios, an early partner. After building a major chain of movie houses under Loew’s, Inc., he moved into film production with his purchase of Metro from Rowland.
The Los Angeles Times of 20 November 1922 recorded that Rowland was “tired and dusty from train travel but smiling a greeting to numerous motion-picture celebrities and friends” as they tendered him “a royal welcome extended by former friends and powers in the motion-picture world.” Rowland told the paper,
It is the intention of distributors of America to establish a new era in the motion picture industry. An endeavor for bigger, better productions on even a larger scale than formerly and a greater variety wil be the aim of producers. . . Later on, when arrangements can be made, First National pictures will establish studios here and commence production on a large scale. For the present time their efforts will be confined to the release of productions from independent producers.
Among the independents with which First National were associated were Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett, B.P. Schulberg (father of screenwriter Budd), Sol Lesser, the general manager for Joseph Schenck Productions and Charles Chaplin, who inked an eight-picture million dollar production deal with the company in 1918, but joined Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith the following year to launch United Artists (prompting Rowland to pronounce that “the lunatics have taken over the asylum”), though First National insisted the comedian fulfill his contract, which lasted until 1923.
The next day’s Times reported on the arrival of Loew, in town for a four-day convention, stating that after the train stopped, “there descended a large ebony porter bearing a placard announcing to the world in general and the few thousand Angelenos who crowded the Santa Fe station in particular that this here was the ‘Paramount Special.’ Directly in the wake of the large, black person, descended Adolph Zukor . . . JesseL. Lasky . . . [and] Marcus Loew was another of the ‘big men’ of the industry on the special.”
While the throng cheered and photographers snapped pictures, “oodles of beautiful film stars threw smiles, oranges and kisses indiscriminately at the Paramount heads and their retinue, and everybody got all excited.” A reception included Mayor George Cryer, members of the Chamber of Commerce, and a great many film people, while Loew, who controlled over 200 theaters nationwide but just two in California including one in San Francisco and another in the Angel City, was reported to be in the city for a ten-day stay (extended later) as part of an annual visit “to look over his motion-picture and theatrical interests.”
Loew told the times that Charles Schwab, head of Bethlehem Steel, was joining the board of directors of Loew’s, Inc. and added that Metro director Rex Ingram would soon return to Los Angeles from location shooting in Florida and was to begin work on Scaramouche, a swashbuckler film starring Ramon Novarro. The director and actor had also worked with Barbara La Marr on The Prisoner of Zenda and Trifling Women, the latter then appearing at Loew’s State Theatre in Los Angeles. Rounding out theslat of pictures for the coming year was, obviously, a priority for Loew and Metro.
On the 24th, Rowland gave another interview to the Times, in which he stated during his tour of studios that
The trend of the times makes it not only necessary, but imperative, that the public be given better screen entertainment. The picture fans are today “shopping” for their screen pleasure, just as the housewife shops for the best buy in dress goods material. The organizations that will survive in the motion-picture business will be those which can offer the most alluring entertainment at the best figure.
Notably, he told the paper that lower box office prices meant that productions would have to be mounted with less money to make sure that the films were profitable. Three days later, the paper reported that First National planned on spending $7 million more in 1923 than it did for the current year, though it was stated that the company “has no intention of going into the producing field on an elaborate scale.”
The emphasis was on working with independents, but it was added by president Robert Rieber that “we feel free to predict the ever growing centralization of motion-picture production in this city.” Moreover, he continued, “the outlook for the entie industry and for First National in particular was never brighter. It will be a great year for the films nd their capital city, Los Angeles.” The 9 December edition of the Los Angeles Express revealed that a core reason for the First National excursion was “that there might be a shortage of pictures of the highest grade for the coming year,” but this fear subsided as projects were discussed and confirmed for 1923.
On 1 December, the Los Angeles Record recorded that Loew was hosting a special screening of Trifling Women at his State Theatre, which opened in November 1921, on Sunday the 3rd, with guests including star Barbara La Marr, Rowland, and actor Mae Busch. The same day, the Times reported that
Concluding one of the biggest deals this year, negotiated betwen an independent producer and an international distributing organization, Louis B. Mayer this week arranged with Marcus Loew for the presentation of his Reginald Barker [a prominent director] all-star specials through the extensive Metro releasing channels.
The first film released under the new partnership was Barker’s Hearts Aflame, which premiered on New Year’s Day 1923, while famed director Fred Niblo and his production company were at work on The Famous Mrs. Fair, released in mid-February. The Mayer-Loew concord appears to have been the reason why the former threw the clearly lavish dinner for the latter and for Rowland, who was, of course, a partner of Mayer from the early days of Metro.
The image by Weaver, who was known for his panoramic views of many kinds, including those related to the film industry and large gatherings generally, shows a U-shaped arrangement of many tables seating at least 60 persons with the head table featuring the sponsor and his honorees. Loew appears to be the gent at the center with the crease in the photo pasing right through him and Mayer looks to be on his left and Rowland to the left of of that.
Continuous centerpieces on the table look to include sunflowers and other floral varieties, while a massive display of flowers and greenery surround what looks like a working water fountain. Lining the walls is a dense profusion of potted trees and plants and it appears that these are held pressed against the wall by wire. By virtually any standard, this is an exuberant expression of film industry largesse and certainly indicative of the state of the business as some of its titans sat down to celebrate a pact of significance.
As noted above, it was less than two years later when M.G.M. was formed and a new era of centralization, as Rowland forecast, was at hand. That studio, along with Paramount, which released a dominant number of the period’s films, United Artists and Fox, were at the forefront of that consolidation.
With respect to the photographer, Weaver (1879-1932) was an oil prospector from Pennsylvania, where that industry began two decades before his birth, and was at Santa Maria, home of Union Oil, in Ventura County when he married a photographer’s daughter and they took over the business. In 1916, the studio moved to the Angel City and World War I provided needed business for the enterprise, which also took views of beauty pageants, religious services, schools, film publicity stills and early Academy Awards presentations. His wife, Hazle, and two sons operated the studio for some three decades after Miles died, but the negatives were lost after it closed in the Sixties.
This photo, then, is an interesting artifact regarding the evolution of the motion picture industry with Mayer, Loew and Rowland being among the major figures guiding filmdom as it transitioned further into larger and more complicated productions, some of which, like Ben-Hur, have been highlighted on this blog. Keep an eye out for more early film-related artifacts from the Homestaad’s holdings in the “That’s a Wrap” series.