The great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 was a tragedy for Mervyn LeRoy. While he and his father managed to survive, they lost everything they had. To make money, LeRoy sold newspapers and entered talent contests as a singer. When he entered vaudeville, his act was “LeRoy and Cooper–Two Kids and a Piano”. After the act broke up he contacted his cousin, Jesse L. Lasky, and went to work in Hollywood. He worked in the costume department, the film lab and as a camera assistant before becoming a comedy gag writer and part-time actor in silent films. His next step was as a director, and his first effort was No Place to Go (1927). He scored an unqualified hit with Harold Teen (1928). Earning $1,000 per week by the end of that year, he was nicknamed “The Boy Wonder” of Warner Bros., where his pictures were profitable lightweights. His motto, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, was “Good stories make good movies.” LeRoy rounded out the decade assigned to more lightweights, such as Naughty Baby (1928) (his first talkie), Hot Stuff (1929), Little Johnny Jones (1929) and a primitive but rather inventive musical talkie, Broadway Babies (1929), all of which proved that he was equally adept at constructing a musical as any other genre he worked in.
In the depths of the Depression there was considerable disagreement within the studio on whether audiences wanted escapism or stories addressing issues pertaining to the stark realities of the day. LeRoy sided with studio exec Darryl F. Zanuck’s tilt toward realism and threw himself into his next assignment–Little Caesar (1931). This smash hit started the gangster craze and LeRoy gained a reputation as a top dramatic director (although his follow-up assignment was Show Girl in Hollywood (1930)). During the 1930s several of his films dealt with social issues, usually through the eyes of the underdog, the best example of that being I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). However, as one of Warner’s war horses in its stable of contract directors, he was also assigned more digestible fare. He followed his landmark gangster picture with Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), although it could be argued that it also contained a remarkable degree of social consciousness. Upon the death of Irving Thalberg LeRoy was picked as head of production at MGM. He produced (and partly directed, without credit) that studio’s classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), although it was not a classic at the box office when first released. Its poor reception convinced LeRoy to quit producing pictures and go back to directing them. He always had a good relationship with actors and had discovered a number of people who would go on to become major stars, such as Clark Gable (who was rejected for a role in “Little Caesar” by Jack L. Warner over LeRoy’s objections), Loretta Young, Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner.
LeRoy turned out numerous hits for MGM in the 1940s, such as Johnny Eager (1941), Random Harvest (1942) and one of the best patriotic films of the period, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). He spent a year at RKO at the end of the war as a producer and director, but quickly returned to MGM, where he remained until 1954. The collapse of the studio system in the 1950s required him to re-assume a producer’s role; along with other Hollywood players of the day, he formed his own production company, which set up camp at Warner Bros., and he produced and directed a number of films for that studio based on successful stage plays. LeRoy had a reputation for taking on different types of films, and he seldom did the same type of picture twice, turning out comedies, dramas, fantasies and musicals. His output declined in the 1960s and he took a working retirement in 1965, disgruntled at the direction the film industry had taken. He was sorely tempted to tackle Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes (1968), but declined, deciding that the requirement to put up his own money was too risky for a man in his mid-60s. His last directorial effort was assisting old friend John Wayne for certain scenes in The Green Berets (1968). He took a figurehead position at Mego International in the 1970s and talked of producing westerns, but nothing came of it. However, as talented and successful as LeRoy was as a director over his long career, and considering the number of classic films he was responsible for, the one thing he never managed to successfully get was an Oscar for Best Director. The man who joked he never made a total flop died in 1987.