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Thalberg, Irving G.

THALBERG, Irving G.



Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Irving Grant Thalberg in Brooklyn, New York, 30 May 1899. Family: Married the actress Norma Shearer, 1927. Career: Secretary; 1918—worked as Carl Laemmle's assistant in New York office of Universal, and sent to Hollywood as troubleshooter; 1923—Vice president and head of production for Louis B. Mayer: with merger into MGM, became vice president and supervisor of production: over the next decade helped make MGM the leading film studio; mid-1930s—ill health reduced his control; 1937—Motion Picture Academy instituted the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. Awards: Academy Awards for Grand Hotel, 1931–32; Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935. Died: Of pneumonia in Hollywood, 14 September 1936.


Films as Producer:

1921

Foolish Wives (von Stroheim)

1923

Merry-Go-Round (Julian); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Worsley)

1924

He Who Gets Slapped (Sjöström)

1925

The Merry Widow (von Stroheim); The Big Parade (K. Vidor); The Great Divide (Barker)

1926

Ben-Hur (Niblo)

1927

Flesh and the Devil (Brown)

1928

The Crowd (K. Vidor)

1929

Hallelujah (K. Vidor)

1930

Anna Christie (Brown); The Big House (Hill)

1931

Private Lives (Franklin); Grand Hotel (Goulding)

1932

Freaks (Browning); Strange Interlude (Leonard)

1933

The Merry Widow (Lubitsch); The Barretts of Wimpole Street (Franklin)

1935

Mutiny on the Bounty (Lloyd); China Seas (Garnett); A Night at the Opera (Wood); Biography of a Bachelor Girl (R. Griffith)

1936

Romeo and Juliet (Cukor)

1937

Camille (Cukor); The Good Earth (Franklin)

Publications

By THALBERG: articles—

Film Weekly (London), 14 July 1933.

"The Modern Photoplay," in Journal of the Producers Guild of America (Beverly Hills, California), June 1971.


On THALBERG: books—

Thomas, Bob, Thalberg: Life and Legend, New York, 1969.

Marx, Samuel, Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints, London, 1976.

Flamini, Roland, Thalberg: The Last Tycoon and the World of M-G-M, New York, 1994.


On THALBERG: articles—

Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1976.

Télérama (Paris), 15–21 March 1980.

Cinématographe (Paris), May 1984.

Films in Review (New York), June-July 1987.

Sight & Sound (London), no. 4, 1989.

Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1990.

Sight & Sound (London), November 1994.

Film History (London), vol. 7, no. 4, Winter 1995.


* * *

Irving Thalberg was the head of film production at MGM during that studio's glory years of the late 1920s and early 1930s. While Louis B. Mayer ran the studio, it was Thalberg who by-and-large saw to it that the required feature films were regularly turned out. In his day Thalberg was hailed as boy-wonder, a genius. His years at the studio were certainly its best in terms of making money. And after his death in 1936 (at age 37) MGM slid, albeit gradually at first, down and downhill.

Despite severe health problems from birth and the lack of any significant industry connections, Thalberg took power at a remarkably early age. It was Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, who served as Thalberg's patron. In 1918 the nineteen year old Thalberg so impressed Laemmle that he hired him as his private secretary. A year later Laemmle appointed Thalberg studio manager at Universal City. Laemmle remained in charge in New York while his young protege supervised what was Hollywood's biggest back lot.

At Universal Thalberg quickly showed why the elder Laemmle had placed him in charge. Despite a slight build he was ruthless in terms of cutting costs. Unafraid he took on the once mighty. For example, he battled with director Erich von Stroheim on a daily basis during the making of Foolish Wives; during von Stroheim's next Universal project, Merry-Go-Round, Thalberg fired him.

Thalberg left Universal in 1923, wooed by yet another patron, Louis B. Mayer of the then forming Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Thalberg worked under Mayer, supervising all the great and profitable films which came out of MGM film factory from 1924 through 1936. Notably Thalberg built up a loyal staff of associate producers including Hunt Stromberg and Albert Lewin. Yet only the slick films produced near the end of his career does any one now associate with Thalberg himself: The Barretts of Wimpole Street, starring Thalberg's wife Norma Shearer, The Merry Widow, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald, Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, The Good Earth, starring Louise Rainer, and Camille, starring Greta Garbo in what may have been her finest role.

In the end the long term impact of Irving Thalberg is difficult to appraise. Since he is the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Last Tycoon, Thalberg is surely the most famous movie mogul of Hollywood's Golden Age, and because of his early death one of the most nostalgically remembered. He surely ranked in the Hollywood elite as best seen in his creation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, and its celebrated Oscars. (Thalberg provided the name for the award given to "creative producers whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production.")

But as the head of production for MGM for a dozen years he reported to studio chief, Louis B. Mayer, and to corporate head, Nicholas M. Schenck. Mayer and Schenck protected Thalberg and enabled him to "simply produce." Thalberg did his best work mentoring fabled stars, line producers, mediocre directors, and talented writers. Perhaps he is so fondly remembered because he alone seemed to take talent seriously, and thus represented the lone sensitive, mannered head of production in a Hollywood filled with ruthless, cut throat executives.

—Douglas Gomery

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