Mervyn LeRoy — “Let’s Make it a Good Scene” (1937) 🇺🇸
These words sum up the personal philosophy of Mervyn LeRoy, Warner Bros.’ premier director, who has to his credit such pictures as Anthony Adverse, Five Star Final, Little Caesar, and who just finished directing Three Men on a Horse.
Let’s make it a good scene, now! Quiet, persuasive words falling upon the stillness, as Mervyn LeRoy crossed the set where he was directing “Three Men On A Horse,” When Warner Bros.’ best productions have been underway LeRoy’s encouraging “let’s make it a good scene” has ever been the key note.
Perhaps these words are responsible for his success for one gets the impression that they represent his personal philosophy, a practical daily creed to make life a “good scene.” The stimulating spirit is evident in his relations with those about him. Friendly and courteous, yet he has a noticeably acute power of observation that permits of no substitute for the finest work on the part of those he so ably “directs.” No movement in the rehearsal going forward escaped him and it did not take long to realize that he is in every way, an “ace” director.
His history is interesting enough to form the background for a novel in the most approved fictional manner. He is a native Californian, born in San Francisco where his first recollections were of the earthquake when he “fell out of the house three stories, in his bed!” This sufficiently spectacular achievement proved an appropriate harbinger of his future destiny.
Long before his earliest memory his parents lost their money, and their young son, at the tender age of one year, helped to re-build the family fortunes by appearing as a papoose in “The Squaw Man,” his mother receiving one dollar for each time he was carried on.
For a while then, his theatrical flight ceased and life flowed uneventfully for several years until the end of his first decade found him embarked in the business of selling newspapers outside the Alcazar Theater, earning “spending money.” But he did not stay outside very long. Through the grand old trouper. Theodore Roberts, whose kindly spirit responded to the candid blue eyes of the little boy, young Mervyn was ushered in to the inner holy of holies and emerged — an actor! — engaged to climb a tree and shout, “The Yankees are Coming,” in the play of “Barbara Fritchie.”
The promising youngster not only climbed the tree, in his excitement he fell out of it in so comical a manner that the audience thought it part of the show and applauded uproariously. Naturally, then, the fall became part of the show and had to be repeated at every performance. This proved to be a blessing in disguise for it raised him to
the rank of stunt man and brought his salary up to $5 per week. Any other boy might have felt rich but Mervyn LeRoy was not just “any” boy.
Once fairly launched in the show’ business he learned to sing and dance and while making somewhat of a name for himself as a boy tenor at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco he met a congenial soul in the person of Clyde Cooper who also sang, danced and — played the piano. Having had considerable success at the Exposition these enterprising young men teamed up and trouped around the country with their own act, “Two Boys and a Piano.” They were good all right but unfortunately an unappreciative world was slow to recognize the fact and in consequence bookings were few and often they literally were hungry. But always LeRoy kept looking for “the best,” for they surely were making it the best act they knew how.
This spirit of course, brought results; they were booked at a small town in Kansas. They thought they might possibly get $25 for the day’s work but the fair face of the goddess of luck had at last, it seemed, turned their way and the manager gave them $62.
LeRoy adopted sixty-two for his lucky number and while he is not superstitious the exception which proves this rule is that the number 62 is somehow brought into almost everything this extraordinary person does. His automobile licenses always have a 62 in them and the magic figures creep in to almost every picture he has directed. In “Five Star Final,” for example, one of his outstanding successes, Edward Robinson, starring in the production, made his contribution to the LeRoy luck by telephoning Cherry 62.
For some time following the Kansas engagement the two boys had continuous bookings but LeRoy felt a new and overpowering urge. “The movies are calling me,” he announced, and with about $200 he came to Hollywood and started making the rounds of the studios.
However, in their turn the studios failed to acknowledge this budding young genius and his money soon gave out, leaving him in pretty desperate circumstances, his gallant morale a prey to persistently overwhelming odds. Then, since he had to eat he took a job in the wardrobe department of the old Famous Players-Lasky Studios at $12.50 a week.
It was a far cry from the excitement and brilliance of the stage to the drab monotony of sorting costumes. Often, he stood on a box and gazed longingly through barred windows watching the fascinating operation of moving pictures in the making.
At last he could stand the wardrobe duties no longer so he went to his boss and with a torrent of eager words finally got attention and finished his peroration with the biting comment, “This job will never get me anywhere!”
“Can you do anything besides sort costumes?”
“I can sing and dance, and” as a bright idea struck him, “I can run a camera.”
With only the foggiest notion of the workings of that intricate piece of motion picture machinery he got a chance and within a year he was first assistant cameraman for the pioneer producer, William B. DeMille.
This raise however, did not provide either the shekels or the scope that LeRoy desired so he returned to vaudeville and big money and for a while his destiny rested there until again the lure of the film world proved too strong for him. He got back into the game and this time he decided to stick.
In Hollywood, that land of fabulous stories he again went through the grim struggle for existence and on historic Vine Street he shared a room and some quite hard times with George O’Brien. Being resourceful, these two boys both with a vision of what the future held for them, cooked their own meals and pressed their own clothes and cheered and jollied each other along. They found work, it is true, but not of the sort each felt to be his particular vocation and Mervyn LeRoy was finally almost lost to the unappreciative movies, for he reluctantly decided to return to the stage and stay there.
But Fate stepped in. By the merest chance Director Alfred E. Green happened to be short of a couple of actors.
“Can you birds play ghosts?” he asked.
“Ibsen’s?” Mervyn’s face was the picture of innocence and Green chuckled. Here was someone with “snap.”
So they were taken on and attired in white sheets they did their spectral bits in a Wallace Reid film called “The Ghost Breaker.”
As the days went by LeRoy’s ready wit attracted the serious attention of the Director and he appointed his new recruit “gag man,” a title that was immediately changed by its irrepressible recipient to the original and dignified cognomen, “comedy instructor.”
Something new in Hollywood! What was a “comedy instructor?”
“I am!” was Mervyn LeRoy’s assured reply. From then on his responsibility was to make people laugh and upon easily accomplishing this most elusive and difficult feat, his success was rapid.
But even yet he was not satisfied — with himself. There must be a better best for him to attain to, and he made an appointment with John McCormick, then a First National producer, in order to discuss the matter where discussion would do him the most good. Again he explained that he was getting nowhere, he wanted to be a director, which was comparable to the earlier episode anent the camera. And, as before, he made his point.
He looked absurdly young but his attractive, straight-gazing blue eyes carried conviction to McCormick who smiled indulgently and said,
“All right. I’ll give you a try at the megaphone. But whom do you want to direct first?”
“But she is a star — and a first class player,” Mr. McCormick expostulated.
“Well, I’m a good director, if I weren’t I wouldn’t want the job!”
He got the assignment but it happened that there were executive changes at First National and before the coveted directorship materialized Miss Moore was no longer with the organization.
However, he directed Mary Astor and Lloyd Hughes in “No Place to Go,” which was soon followed by “Harold Teen.” Both these pictures made money. Then with real experience behind him, he finally did direct Colleen Moore in the hit picture Oh, Kay. Since his connection with Warner Brothers, he has directed a number of remarkable productions, among which are I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, “Tugboat Annie,” (produced for M-G-M while on a loan) Oil for the Lamps of China” and “Page Miss Glory.”
He has made the best and he has never looked back.
“I made up my mind that I would be a director in five years,” Mr. LeRoy told us. “And in exactly five years I was a director.”
“And what do you think was your hardest picture?”
His answer was a foregone conclusion!
The breath-taking adventure, the thrilling risks and the glamorous romance so superlatively well done in screening the classic work, all had for their inspiration and consummation, the stimulating, encouraging admonition “make it a good scene.”
LeRoy personifies this philosophy for one receives in speaking with him. a charming impression of unaffected sincerity and a lively interest.
Since the question is being widely discussed we asked him if he thought a story or the screening of it. the more important. We are glad to add to an ever increasing score in favor of the story. “Good actors cannot make a success of an indifferent play,” pronounced Mr. LeRoy. “But a good play through its fine emotional influence will go a long way towards developing indifferent actors into greater ones. In other words, the further we progress in improving the quality of motion picture productions, the more we are convinced that before everything else, as ever, ‘the play’s the thing.’ ”
Jocularly he finished, “Evidently. Shakespeare agreed with me!”
Source: Motion Picture Studio Insider, January 1937