Q4 2019

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 55 of 103

56 C I N E M O N T A G E F E A T U R E The Muse Behind Louis B. Mayer Louis B. Mayer was crying. The boss at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — a man both admired and feared all over Hollywood in the 1930s — listened as a female studio employee read him a story. As the most powerful man in the movie business, Mayer was on the receiving end of stories all day long. He heard everything, and the ones he liked best found their way onto the soundstages of his fabled studio and, eventually, onto screens in movie houses across America during the Great Depression, where they spurred the dreams and fantasies of mil- lions of people. But this was no ordinary story, and the teller was no ordinary woman. She was the head of the story department at MGM, and she had her hands on material that would eventually become a beloved Oscar-winning film. The story that made Mayer weep was an early outline of William Saroyan's screenplay that would eventually evolve into "The Human Comedy." Eventually released in 1943, the heart-tugging com- ing-of-age story starred MGM stalwart Mickey Rooney as a telegram messenger who often was the bearer of death notices and other bad news. The script won an Oscar, and the film became an audience favorite. That day, though, Mayer was the first audience member to tear up at "The Human Comedy." It wasn't just the words that affected Mayer. There was some- thing about the way the tale sprang to life as told by the woman who was reading it. Who needed Mickey Rooney? Mayer had Kate Corbaley. Today Corbaley's name is unknown except to a small cadre of film scholars, mainly those who write about the life and legend of Mayer, but in her day she was considered a major player—a gate- keeper, in fact, who helped decide what movies got made and who appeared in them. During those days, at the summit of the Studio Era, Clark Gable and Greta Garbo ruled the screen, but Corbaley had something to say about what they did and when. She had won the ear of the boss at the top studio in Hollywood at a time when women were often forced into domestic roles at home or, when they did enter the workplace, were relegated to perfuncto- ry administrative tasks. With a literate background and a talent for cutting to the heart of the matter, her opinions on source material — novels, magazine articles, plays — could provide that first puff of wind that could make a project set sail — or the wisp of disapproval that would keep it anchored in harbor. Her command of projects was legend- ary: In a 1937 Los Angeles Times column, movie critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote that Nelson Eddy knew 400 songs by heart, Eleanor Powell had 1,000 dance-step combinations down pat, and Corbaley had managed to memorize the plots to over 5,000 novels and plays. Equally important to Guild members, Corbaley functioned as one of the in- dustry's first studio story analysts (see related story on page 63). Early female picture editors, like Margaret Booth, could save a f ilm af ter the fact, but Corbaley was one of the very few given the responsibility of deciding whether a project should even be shot at all. Like By Peter Tonguette KATE CORBALEY WAS THE FORCE BEHIND MGM'S STORY DEPARTMENT IN THE 1930S - AND A FORERUNNER OF TODAY'S STORY ANALYSTS Kate Corbaley

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of CineMontage - Q4 2019