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The lion and the lamb
MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, local talent Rel Dowdell

If people still remember Louis B. Mayer, studio head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer during Hollywood’s golden era, it’s as the ultimate studio mogul/philistine, the Jewish immigrant whose low-level populism and star worship connected MGM with the movie-loving public. In his well-researched 592-page biography, Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon & Schuster, $35), Scott Eyman strives to present a deeper, shrewder Mayer, a brilliant CEO, a genius at judging people and talent. He was the most rabid Republican of studio heads, and MGM was built around his obsession with family values: movies that were decent and non-violent, movies to which you could bring your kids and your mother. Here’s the studio of The Wizard of Oz, The Yearling, Meet Me in St. Louis, and, most beloved by both Mayer and the public, the endless Andy Hardy movies.

MGM under Mayer’s tutelage became the white-cloud residence of opulent movie stars, "More stars than there are in Heaven." You’d find, under lucrative contract, Garbo, the Barrymores, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Jean Harlow. A sublime place to be an actor, if Mayer liked you. He kept dapper, handsome, right-wing Robert Taylor under MGM contract for 25 years, even though Taylor was a marginal screen presence. The rule at MGM: performers were most important, then producers, then, down the chain and expendable, writers. Last and least were directors. If you were an "auteur," you could take your æsthetic pretensions to Paramount or RKO. A director’s job at MGM was to listen to the producers and make the actors look good. And glamorous! The ideal movies, according to Mayer? "Andy Hardy! Clean, wholesome, and with heart. Not one goddamn message in them!"

REL DOWDELL is a former Boston University graduate film student who commutes from Philadelphia (he says it’s cheaper there than here) to teach BU screenwriting classes. Boundlessly energetic and hypermotivated, this African-American filmmaker in his early 30s is an example of how to navigate in the film world. He’s taken his thesis short, "Train Ride," winner of BU’s Sumner Redstone Award for Best Student Film, and made it into a 90-minute feature. Train Ride, longer and better and much more professional, is now available on DVD through Sony Music. It’s one of the best American movies so far this year, on screen or on video.

Dowdell is a filmmaker with an urge to preach, to take on the big issues, in the way of John Singleton and Spike Lee. Train Ride is a potent sermon against the immoral behavior of today’s male college students, but Rowdell makes his story more pointed by setting it — like Spike Lee’s School Daze — at an unnamed all-black university. There, after an intimate party filled with flirting and sexual innuendo, a male student slips some Rohypnol into a female student’s drink and then rapes her. Two other male students, seeing this young woman asleep and vulnerable, join in the "fun." The victim is played against type by hip-hop superstar MC Lyte, utterly convincing as a fragile, sensitive undergraduate who, desperately confused about what happened to her, lies helplessly in her dorm room, unable to venture out to class.

Wood Harris, star of HBO’s The Wire, is sublimely villainous as the sexual predator who denies he’s done anything wrong. When the rape victim’s female friend confronts him, he presents himself as the victim and his accuser as a meddler, a bitch, a whore. Train Ride also features the last screen performance of the veteran African-American actress Esther Rolle (TV’s Maude and Good Times), in a cameo as the university dean, who’s irate about what’s happening on her campus. Rolle, mortally ill with acute diabetes, was so enamored of Dowdell’s script that she came from LA to do her part. She died soon after the shooting.

Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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