Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Book Review: All The Stars In Heaven, by Gary Carey (1981)

All The Stars In Heaven is a brisk, enjoyable romp through early movie-making history, as told through the story of Louis B. Mayer. From his humble beginnings as the son of Jewish immigrants to becoming the most powerful business executive in the United States of the 1930s and 1940s as the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, author Gary Carey paints an entertaining portrait of the man and his remarkable achievements.

Mayer navigated and often heavily influenced the establishment of the studio system, the transformation to the era of sound, early excursions to foreign lands for exotic location-filming, and corporate survival during major historical events such as the Great Depression and World War Two. He also had to make time to massage the egos of his star actors and directors, fight internal corporate battles in the back-rooms, and keep an eye on industry trends to stay in touch with what audiences craved.

Drawing on interviews of Mayer's contemporaries, Carey strikes an excellent balance between the movies, the movie stars, and the corporate politics that defined Mayer's life, and always keeps Mayer the man at the centre of the book: his habits, tricks, personality, and values are the themes that weave the book together.

The stories behind various film productions provide insight into the decision making process during the studio system, and by focusing as much on day-to-day productions as on the blockbusters, Carey provides a sense of the routine hard work that was required to build the most famous studio in the world.

Mayer's critical relationships with key allies and collaborators are given ample coverage, in particular his partnership with Irving Thalberg, the young genius who combined an uncanny ability to predict audience appetites with a passion for quality. As the chief of all movie productions, Thalberg received a lot of the credit as MGM rose to the top of the studio heap, while Mayer played a more political role in the shadowy corporate corridors. Carey gives Thalberg his due, but argues that Mayer's influence in MGM's success was deserving of more credit than it has historically received.

Other big personalities that make prominent appearances in the book as they share movie history with Mayer include media mogul Randolph Hearst, with whom Mayer sometimes cooperated and often sparred politically; Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy. Carey also profiles a large number of lesser MGM stars and starlets from the silent era and the golden years of the studio system that Mayer helped to create, whereby actors and directors were contracted to one studio that would mould them into specific screen personas to maximize their box-office potential.

The one persistent weakness in the book is Carey's unabashed defence of any accusation levelled at Mayer's reputation. From his dispute with stars to his battles with political foes and through to his alleged womanizing, Carey does present various viewpoints but invariably ends the discussion firmly entrenched in Mayer's corner, mounting a spirited defence and concluding with an affirmation of Mayer's choices as having been justified. And whenever the historical facts are vague, Carey is quick to fill in the story gaps with the assumptions most favourable to Mayer. The biographer as apologist bleeds away objectivity, and is counterproductive in glossing over the human faults that make every subject all the more fascinating.

As with many visionaries, Mayer gradually lost touch with the times. After the Second World War, the stars began to flex their power and demand more independence, the studio system started a gradual but inevitable decline, and the world that Mayer built evolved and left him behind. The less than illustrious final chapter of his career takes nothing away from his legacy: All The Stars In Heaven is an enjoyable chronicle of an exceptional man and the formative years of a momentous industry.

Subtitled "Louis B. Mayer's M-G-M".
306 pages, plus Bibliography and Index. Includes 18 pages of photos.
Published in hardcover by Robson Books. 

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