The death over the weekend of Mervyn LeRoy at the age of 86 is a reminder of just how young, on the scale of history, the movies still are.
The dream of making pictures move is centuries old; but motion pictures projected onto a screen are--if you clock them from their famous debut at Koster and Bial's Emporium in Manhattan in 1896--only a little beyond 90.
Mervyn LeRoy was one of that fast-diminishing band of men and women who not only grew up with the movies but who, by the most remarkable series of accidents, became part of the movies and helped them find their eyes, their voices, their strength.
When LeRoy, the young San Franciscan who had gone into vaudeville because it beat hustling newspapers on the street, started out in the costume department at Lasky-Famous Artists, the movies were still too new to have traditions. They were making them up as they went along.
Things were happening too fast for inhibiting considerations of "the way we always did it." D. W. Griffith was, in effect, writing the book on the basic film grammar of shots, moves and cuts (not profoundly altered in the years since).
There were borrowings from the stage (performers, writers, stories, structures) and from vaudeville (performers, gags and constructions). That was where LeRoy came in, as an inventor of gags as a way out of the costume department.
But what was more generally true of LeRoy--as it was of so many of the pioneers who shaped Hollywood--was that he came out of the crowd and knew how to address the crowd. He had the showman's instinct for the kind of populist storytelling that caught the eye and seized the emotions.
He was not a profound thinker, but he knew a great yarn and a simple emotional truth when he saw one. The movies had played cops and robbers almost from the moment the first camera was cranked, but LeRoy's "Little Caesar" (written by Francis Faragoh and Robert E. Lee from the W. R. Burnett novel) in 1930 took the robber to another dimension and invented a genre.
It is still wonderful melodrama--with a villain who is an individual, not just a killing machine, and who has shaped gangster characterizations ever since. Edward G. Robinson grunting "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?" is one of those unforgettable lines of movie dialogue.
Just as "Little Caesar" put Warners, and the industry, in the gangster business, so "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (an original script by Sheridan Gibney, Brown Holmes and Robert E. Burns) two years later proclaimed the power films could have as documentary-like social dramas. "Fugitive" was said to have influenced legislation although, as "Cool Hand Luke" demonstrated years later, it did not abolish the chain gang.
The link among all of LeRoy's films, films as various as "Tugboat Annie," "Waterloo Bridge," "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and "Home Before Dark," is that they were meant to move audiences strongly: to tears, laughter, pride, fear, satisfaction. And most of them did.
A few years ago, LeRoy was being honored at a retrospective by the USA Film Festival in Dallas. "Random Harvest" was being shown late one morning, and its star, Greer Garson, who lives in Dallas, had come by to watch the film and honor the director.
When the lights went up, her makeup was smeary with tears. "I've seen it 50 times at least," she said in some exasperation at herself, "and I still cry." But many of the young people in a large audience were wet-eyed as well.
Television, which has changed so much in American life, has somehow managed to increase the audience's sophistication without increasing its sensitivity. We as viewers have been inured to violence and armored by cynicism, so that it is no longer so easy to respond openly to what, emotionally speaking, are the primary colors.
Frank Capra, LeRoy's great contemporary, sensed that the industry, if not the audience, had moved away from the kind of films he cared to make, and he opted out. (He was probably premature; "Capraesque" is now a sell-word on any script with a happy ending.)
LeRoy's last film, "Moment to Moment" in 1965 (not to be confused with the John Travolta "Moment by Moment" a few years later), measured, sadly, how tastes had changed. But LeRoy kept reading scripts and hoped to find one that might speak again to mass audiences, as so many of his films have.
He told me once about one specific dream, to make the ultimate Western, working title "Cowboys and Indians." He had had some conversations with Jack Warner about it, I think, but then Warner sold the store; the studio was somebody else's.
LeRoy had more than earned his retirement, yet I've been sorry he didn't get a crack at his "Cowboys and Indians." It would have needed a careful script, probably a different title, and the whole westering movement has been subject to a lot of reconsiderations. Yet there are narratives to be told, there is adventure to be shown and courage to be celebrated, and Mervyn LeRoy knew how to do that uncommonly well.