In his time, which lasted from the '20s until the '60s, Mervyn LeRoy was one of the movie business's heavy hitters, a director/producer whose name evoked quality and entertainment in successful portions, and was associated with some of the more challenging and popular projects ever to come out of the old Hollywood.
His life might have made a good movie -- born in San Francisco at the opening of the 20th century to a well-to-do, totally assimilated Jewish family, he spent the first five years of his life in comfort -- then, at age five, his mother abandoned the marriage and her only child for the arms of another man; and not too much later, much of San Francisco (including his father's business) was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. His father never got over it, and long after their extended stay at the refugee camp set up by the army at the Presidio, they were not much better than homeless, and little more than impoverished. The younger LeRoy took to selling newspapers to help support the two of them, and became good at it -- he got his introduction to performing one day when a patron, Theodore Roberts, a stage actor and future screen star, buying a paper from him outside the theater where he had a play running, offered him the part of a newsboy in the play Barbara Frietchie. It was the beginning of a show business career that would last more than 50 years.
LeRoy entered vaudeville in 1915, and did well for a time, but after four years, he found his options dried up, and he was left impoverished once again. It was then that fate took a hand -- LeRoy had an older cousin, Jesse L. Lasky, who had gone into the movie business in the teens and enjoyed phenomenal success with what became known as Famous Players-Lasky, later much more familiar as Paramount Pictures. He co-scripted the successful 1926 film Ella Cinders, and graduated to the director's chair the following year with No Place to Go. His major breakthrough as a filmmaker took place in 1930 with Little Caesar, a gangster film starring Edward G. Robinson that started a decade-long cycle of crime pictures at Warner Bros. It was while preparing to shoot Little Caesar and searching for an actor to play the essential role of the second male lead (which went to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), that LeRoy attended a play called The Last Mile. The leading man, playing a convict on death row, had such a compelling stage presence that LeRoy approached him about doing a screen test, and the man agreed. Thus was Clark Gable's entrée to the film world that would make him a star and an icon, although LeRoy could not use Gable in the picture, because Warner production chief Darryl F. Zanuck was convinced that Gable's somewhat large ears would photograph poorly and mar his screen appearance. That was how Warner Bros. lost Clark Gable, though the actor was forever grateful to LeRoy for giving him his first shot at a movie career.
During the next seven years, LeRoy was responsible for several of the studio's most successful and celebrated movies, including the groundbreaking social-crime drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Gold Diggers of 1933, the comedy Three Men on a Horse, and the big budget adventure drama Anthony Adverse; additionally, on loan-out to MGM, he made the hit comedy Tugboat Annie, starring Marie Dressler. He began producing in 1937, but a dispute with the studio brought LeRoy to MGM in 1938, where he barely broke stride. Among the movies for which he was responsible was The Wizard of Oz (1939); it was LeRoy who convinced the studio to make the movie, although MGM's Louis B. Mayer talked him out of directing it, something he sorely wanted to do, having been a fan of the L. Frank Baum Oz stories since childhood. Instead, he produced it, and it became perhaps the most popular film with which LeRoy was associated of his entire career, although it was not to be considered a financial success for another quarter century, after television